Today was the first day in full pads for the team, which in itself led to a bit more enthusiasm amongst the players. There was a competitive spirit in the air. This could be observed throughout practice as a number of cheers from both the offense and defense (obviously the instigators) was at a premium compared to the other practices. Besides the obvious characters (Kentrell Lockett and DT Shackleford), the other vocal leaders of the defense appear to be Wayne Dorsey, Damien Jackson, and an occasional outburst from Wesley Pendleton.
On the offensive side, Terrell Grant is by far the loudest cheerleader, but he has been recently overtaken by currently injured E.J. Epperson amongst others. Along with E.J., H.R. was out again today, with his foot still in a walking boot. As for a good bit of injury news, Kentrell Lockett was back on the field and appeared to be participating fully in all drills.
Luckily, with the stretching lineups today, I don't have to go into much detail because they didn't change much. The only noticeable change today was the presence of Lockett, who I mentioned yesterday took a day off. Gerald Rivers moved back to second team and it seems as thought all is well in the world. Further, Justin Smith and Uriah Grant stayed with the first team.
Brunetti still stretched with the first team while Randall Mackey was with the second team and Zack Stoudt stayed with the third team.
The defense continued to stretch in the 4-2-5 designation, ensuring Brishen Matthews stretched with the first team and Denzel Nkemdiche stretched with the second team.
Jeff Scott again stretched in the very back of the offense, though it seems as though this is not a punishment of any sort.
Nick Parker, at least to this point, appears to be strictly a halfback. Most of this probably deals with the fact that he was busy this summer with a full-time job and was not in town. Otherwise, his 5'11" 243lb. frame would be perfect for the job that, at least currently, is rather injured. Instead, we are dealing with Earnest Harmon as the first string fullback and Justin Bigham (Don't ask. Seriously.) as the second string guy.
Today there was a lot of contact. There were a ton of tackling/blocking/ positioning drills that were unavailable to the coaches prior to the presence of full pads. This made for a very intense practice full of hits. It also made for the first look at the offense under the duress of a full steam ahead defense. As a result of my observations, I'm here to warn you: our offense is going to be ridiculously primitive and simple. There are a number of reasons (of which I'll try to lay out), but we just don't have the talent, especially at the quarterback position, to be a juggernaut unless we are phenomenal running the ball.
Let's break it down:
First, it's important to state that I don't think any of the three quarterbacks will be able to complete more than 55% of their passes this year. With such a low precentage, that means it is critical to 1) take advantage of the completed passes and 2) not to throw the incomplete passes to the other team.
Barry Brunetti is clearly in charge when he is under center. He has control of the situation, he sees the defense, and he knows what position to place the offense in. Unfortunately, he can't throw the damn ball. If it's a quick dump to the running back, he either throws it over the running back's head or down at the knees where the back's momentum is stopped and there's an immediate tackle. If it's a short curl route or a drag to the tight end, the ball is either just behind the receiver or at the feet so that a run after the catch is almost impossible. It's tough to watch because you see good decisions and yet the results are minimal at best.
Zack Stoudt came out with confidence today. I saw him take some snaps and sling the ball around the field like he knew what he was doing. At times he would hit the tight end in stride. He threw a beautiful fade to Vincent Sanders for a deep completion. Even more impressive was his back end zone touchdown to Nick Brassell with the second team during the scrimmage. Unfortunately, there was also the play during skeletons where he rolled out right and threw over the middle...to Frank Crawford's chest . You know you've thrown a bad ball when Frank Crawford not only gets to it, but CATCHES THE INTERCEPTION! It wasn't the only interception Stoudt threw on the day.
Then there's the enigmatic Randall Mackey. When it comes to simply throwing the ball, well, he's the best. If we need a ball dumped to a running back, a curl route to Ja-Mes, or whatever, he seems the most likely option to complete the pass. Unfortunately, when we get to the scrimmages he changes character. There are less completions, more dump offs, and a great deal less confidence at the huddle. While Brunetti and Stoudt are constantly changing the plays at the line of scrimmage, that almost never occurs with Mackey.
Early on in practice there was a focus on field goals and field goal defense. I don't know whether he was supposed to fake block or try his best, but Charles Sawyer was diving in front of the kicker on three consecutive attempts. At least one of those three attempts ended up wide, though I couldn't tell if Charles got a piece of them or not.
During hitting drills, Uriah Grant had to leave the field for a bit because of a bloody nose. He returned pretty swiftly without much commotion. Brishen Matthews left the field with apparent cramps in his hamstrings, though he participated fully in the second half of practice.
There was a big focus throughout the practice on the hurry-up offense. Each quarterback was given some reps, often with or without a defense. At one point there was a nifty play design where Enrique Davis was lined up next to the quarterback in the shotgun. On the snap, the quarterback faked an immediate toss out left to Davis while the slot receiver (Philander Moore in this instance) came inside for an end around. It was quite effective at shifting the defense in one direction and getting the ball going the other.
Forget everything I said yesterday about Justin Bell. Yesterday, I claimed he would never play tackle and would only be a guard for us. Today, of course, he lined up almost exclusively as the third team left tackle. Apparently the coaches see something I do not see.
Today was not a good day for the offensive line. While matching up in 2v1 matchups against the defensive line (2 offensive linemen versus 1 defensive), a number of our heralded guards had their rear ends exposed. The biggest disappointment was Patrick Junen who, at least temporarily, was replaced by Tank Washington in the front line. Do not be surprised to see true freshman Aaron Morris get snaps this year at guard. He has a fight in him and adequate size that could allow him to overtake both Junen and Jared Duke if necessary. Junen showed poor leverage and an unwillingness to fight on during drills today. Furthermore, Matt Hall's hight seems to be a hindrance at times with his leverage, though his size will likely maintain his starting spot.
On the other hand, during these same drills the defensive line showed a great deal of fight and spark. I was particularly impressed with Carton Martin, Corey Gaines, Carlos Thompson, Uriah Grant, and Woodrow Hamilton (gonna be a stud one day). Also of note was Kentrell Lockett's lack of hesitation to dig in on that injured knee and fight two starting offensive linemen. Needless to say, Mike Markuson was not too happy throughout this drill. Later during the scrimmage, the offensive line had a busted play, to which Markuson ran up to the O-Line and screamed "We feel so damn sorry for ourselves!" before encouraging them to stop whining.
The receivers showed a bit of feistiness in their blocking drills, which I got to observe up close. Part of me feels bad for Melvin Harris with blocking, because his extreme lankiness doesn't benefit his blocking. It almost always looks like he's holding the defensive back because his elbows are everywhere. Then again, he probably shouldn't choose to go against Korvic Neat every time (at one comedic moment Gunter Brewer told the receivers to match up with someone their size, to which Neat immediately yelled for Melvin to get his ass over there). The freshmen's enthusiasm with blocking was refreshing. Most impressive was a moment when Collins Moore went to "shed a block" from Matt Tarpley (short, white, walk-on wide receiver - you know the type) and decided instead to simply run over the guy. Moore's strength was evident and the blow was crushing. If these freshmen can get ready mentally, they'll be on the field this year. Whether that's a compliment (it is) towards them or an indictment towards our veterans (it is as well) is up for you to decide.
I watched CJ Johnson for just a bit today, and I want to temper everyone's enthusiasm. The kid will be really good, but probably not immediately. He overruns the ball carrier at times. Sometimes he hesitates with reading the play. The good news is that when he gets his hand on the ball carrier, they aren't getting away. He can tackle like crazy. But it will take some time to make sure he's in a position to make those tackles.
Senquez Golson might be able to help us immediately. He has as much, if not more, athleticism as Tony Grimes who played for us last year. He also seems to have better instincts. He came on a blitz today and was able to leap and block the pass from the quarterback during the scrimmage. While I haven't always noticed him, whenever I do it's because of an incomplete pass thrown in his direction. I could see him turning into a shutdown corner over the course of a year or two.
The most important thing to understand after today is that the defense is still way ahead of the offense. First, the defense should be ahead, as it's still early in camp. If our defense were losing the battle, we'd almost assuredly have a bad defense again this year. I like the intensity our defense brings, starting with the defensive line and stretching back all the way to the sideline cheers throughout the practices. Corey Gaines and others stayed in the backfield today, disrupting and deflecting passes over and over. I think part of this is a lack of fulfillment from our Offensive Line, but also from a determination of the defense to improve.
More importantly, I want you all to know that you must be patient with our offense. I have no clue what it will look like on September 3, but it won't be a world-beating offense that runs up the score on everyone. We are going to struggle at throwing the ball down the field. None of our quarterbacks are super accurate and Mackey, the most accurate, struggles with decision making and finding receivers who want to help him by catching the damn ball. I am hoping that Stoudt is getting more comfortable, because he definitely looks more confident, though who knows if that is the case. Brunetti won't lose any games for us, but to be honest, I can't say whether or not he can win any either. If we can manage to run the ball 30-40 times a game and be effective, then we may be a damn good team. If not, then it could be a long year. I hope I am wrong, but I only know how to be honest. Lots of two tight end sets and perhaps a bit of wild rebel will hopefully sure up what looks to be a very questionable and unsure offensive capability.