Another day, another day won. I told y'all I would focus more on defense today, where a few question marks remain. It hard though to really analyze these guys with them not hitting folks and manning up more in pass skeletons than actual plays.
First off, I want to talk about the discipline being instilled by Wommack and the rest of the defensive staff. When they warm up, the helmets for every group of players (linemen, linebackers, and secondary) are in a perfect line. They want to get them disciplined from warmups all the way through the day.
In opening drills, half the position players worked with Tom Allen and D Nix on staying low and flipping their hips to either get an angle on the defender on defense or downfield blocking on offense. At the same time on the other end, Wesley McGriff and, I believe, Corey Batoon (assistant AD for Player Development), worked on blocking. Then, halfway through, the two troops swapped. The defenders especially look better at flipping their hips on the Allen/Nix drill. One person who is looking way better on blocking is Jeff Scott. He's engaging sooner, working them further outside and will be good to take care of the extra blitzer.Wommack was quick to work post warmups with the linebackers and secondary on moving with motion men across the offense. Used 2 and 3 linebackers in this look. Joel Kight and Mike Marry were the two most used, but Sedarius Bryant (who is going to kill someone this year. He's still mad about being short), Ralph Williams and a couple others less often. The defensive backs look lighter on their feet and more agile. The defense is solid in their motion in going either way. But like I said, its hard to tell much about how they will be before they put the pads on tomorrow.
Looks like CJ Johnson has been working more with defensive ends than the linebackers, but that could have just been today. I think that is primarily due to the lack of depth at the position until Channing and the rest of the class arrives. Didn't see a whole lot of the d line until the couple of scrimmage plays (which I'll get back to later). I don't know if its the lack of experience at offensive tackle or if they are that good looking, but Jason Jones and Gerald Rivers (to an extent) have done a good job getting into the backfield.
Later, the tight ends, linebackers and quarterbacks set up and ran a pass skeleton. First defensively, Tom Allen has improved the linebackers on engaging the tight ends at the point of attack and within the first 5 yards of defense. DT Shackleford was out there on crutches in his brace (still hate to see that) and was attacking as a coach and a cheerleader for the linebackers on the sideline.
Offensively, Maurice Harris has done a good job in converting some fullbacks, like EJ Epperson and, the kid with the greatest 1930's running back name ever, HR Greer, to work from tight end. Mosley still has probably the best hands and will be a good big target for whoever our quarterback will be (more discussion on that later as well). Ferbia Allen looks better catching the ball too. The tight ends all seem to have better hands and are running tighter routes. If a tight end drops the ball, Harris forces them into pushups as well. No one pulled the Willie Mayes Hayes "How am I supposed catch the ball if I can't lift my arms?" since I only saw one set of pushups.
Moving back to the defense into the secondary for the weekend, Cliff Coleman is covering tight. Shut down the slot receiver two or three times today. Aaron Garbutt and Wesley Pendleton both look improved. I was a big critic of Pendleton for celebrating without doing much in coverage last year, but McGriff has helped him out a lot. If Brishen Mathews stays healthy this year, I'm fairly positive he will decapitate someone this season. Tanner Burns learned a good amount of from his dad and is a good rangy safety. Frank Crawford looked moderate to good in coverage against the outside receivers. Dehendret Collins is a good, but not great defender in man coverage, but can be a really good safety. More than just his number reminds me of Damien Jackson.
One person on the field yesterday I forgot to mention yesterday was Barney Farrar. He serves as the "Assistant A.D. for High School and Junior College Relations", but was on the field working with the secondary. Firstly, his voice is AWESOME. High-pitched, gravelly, and loud as he shrieks out "Rip the ball out" and "Players Play!" all day alongside McGriff, who wasn't as much of a Team Backsweat member as he was yesterday. Secondly, the players all seem to respond to Farrar though, especially the DB's. For anyone going to a practice, he is fired up and will make you laugh a lot through the day.
On the other side of the ball, the quarterback play seemed to be a lot like yesterday. Bro (he's at Ole Miss, might as well make that change Bo) Wallace is just above Barry Brunetti in terms of play. Mikhail Miller continues to impress, but he's fell off a little bit from yesterday. Werner is making sure the quarterbacks (and the rest of the offense) keep the ball high and tight. When running a zone read, Brunetti made a cut inside when he should've either given it off to Devin Thomas or stayed outside, so Werner forced him to do up-downs and gave the reps at that time to Wallace. If I had to set the depth chart today, it would be: Wallace, Brunetti, Mackey, Miller, Ratliff, Stoudt and Ingram.
The offensive line is getting coached well by Matt Luke and he really wants to see success out of this school. Today, first line offensive line left to right looked like Aaron Morris, can't remember left guard, Evan Swindall, Justin Bell and Pierce Burton. Exterior line was good at times. Burton has been doing a good job on the edge so far. During the scrimmage plays, Burton came off the right side and was blocking a linebacker (might have been Mike Marry, but don't quote me) and a small skirmish broke out. After the skirmish, McGriff, Farrar and Jackson were happy to see the energy out of the team. Hugh decided to bring the whole team together, turned down the music and calmed them all down. When they broke out and the music started back up, the first play out was a post pattern from Bo to Collins Moore which went for a TD as Chief Brown looked like he tweeked a hamstring and hobbled off. He returned quickly, so I wouldn't worry about Chief though. A few plays later, Nick Parker had a long TD run off right tackle. His burst and power through the line went down the right side is gonna be a big factor on offense this year.
On the edge, Heard is doing a good job at getting the receivers to tighten up their routes. The receivers we're using on the outside are Donte (another great day today), Ja-Mes Logan, Vince Sanders, Tobias Singleton, Terrell Grant, and, I'm assuming when he comes back, Snoop. At slot receiver, look for both Moores (Philander and Collins) to break out. Philander has obvious speed from that time as a JUCO All-American kick returner, but Collins has some deceptive speed to burn if they get him the ball on the run. Getting them on routes down the field with posts, flags and go routes can go the distance. Both Bo (to Collins twice on post) and Barry (to Philander on a go route) can do, but Bo more consistently. Korvic Neat is doing a better job out of the slot as well. Earlier in the practice, Grant Heard was throwing passes to receivers, but like three straight times, he gave Korvic bad balls to try and catch. But when they got to the pass skeleton, Korvic came out of the slot and had both a full extension laying out catch and also went up and is getting the ball at its highest point and securing it on his way down.
Also today, they began to implement a play similar to West Virginia's "Volleyball Pass" to motion man on a jet sweep. As of right now, the timing to simply "set" the ball to the motion man isn't there, so its a forward pitch (or Utah pass). The advantage of this is if the play is broken, the connection isn't quite made and the ball is dropped, its counts as an incompletion instead of a fumble.
I'll let y'all who don't know much about Freeze's philosophy outside the play-calling inside what we saw today. Today, when we ran the two-qb hurry up offense drill we ran yesterday and they ran a bubble screen to Philander for about 15-20, when they blow the whistle is where the play is dead. Philander was at speed and kept running so to slow up for about 10-15 yards, which was one of the worst things he could do. When he reached about half speed, Hugh screamed at him from 20 yards away to get the ball to the official way quicker than that. On the offense, Hugh is making sure the ball is given to the official within 5 seconds and they are back on the ball. When the offense on the field "scores a TD", they are instructed to celebrate as a team. I wouldn't call the celebrating showboating in this case, since its nothing more than a couple high fives and running off the field as a team. It is never one person on his own. Later, we saw this wasn't just for these touchdowns. After a great catch, the rest of the group of receivers, or even entire offense if the play calls for it, will run down and celebrate with the guy. Today, Ja-Mes made a great catch over top of Tanner Burns that he couldn't have defended any better. Not only did the receivers in the play and linemen run down, but Grant Heard, Hugh and Matt Luke all went down to congratulate. Even Barney Farrar ran over to give him a slap on the helmet. There is a sense of family and enthusiasm that I haven't seen over the past 4 years that I am VERY happy to see.
Other random notes from the practice. One of the best moments of practice was when they brought Charles Sawyer on a corner blitz, he got into the backfield quickly. After Brunetti stepped up, Sawyer saw he was going to barrel Hugh, so he held up and wrapped up Hugh and then hugged him as if to say, "Sorry 'bout that Coach". Also seen at practice today; Keith Burns and family to watch Tanner. Some of the players came over to see him. I don't think he'll get the credit he deserves for his help with our secondary last year. I think he really helped sculpt Charles Sawyer into an all-conference candidate. Sean and Leigh Anne were there for a little bit as well. And we can say, Deuce is lose again on the practice fields of Ole Miss. He came out in a pullover during stretches and earlier drills this morning. I'm guessing he is helping in his "offensive quality control" capacity (say that three times fast).
Wrapping up, there are probably Important Takeaways from this first weekend of practice.
1) This team is in phenomenal shape and won't lose some of those close late games because of lack of conditioning this year.
2) When they say this team is going to go fast, that is almost an understatement. Look for this team to be on the ball and ready to go within 20 seconds, which should be a change of pace the defense's in this conference will not be ready for.
3) You can set your watch to Freeze's practices. He writes out a schedule and follows it to the minute. Whether or not you are done fully with a drill, its time to go. No time to waste.
4) Freeze has a passion for this game and this school that you really can feel. You can tell he's where he wants to be when he's on that field in the red and blue and looking up at Vaught-Hemingway standing like a monolith over him.
5) With Nick Parker seemingly coming into his own and Jeff Scott looking stronger and shiftier than before, our running back corps could really sneak up on some people this year.
6) The quarterback competition seems to be tighter than many would have anticipated. Bo Wallace's understanding of the offense is equal to the passion Barry Brunetti is showing to be on the field. And maybe the honoring of Mikhail Miller's greyshirt scholarship wasn't such the risk we thought it was.
7) The separation of receivers into outside and slot receivers in practice should do wonders in getting them more involved in their specific assignments. Doing this will help to get guys we were wondering if they were worth the scholarship a year ago more involved in the offense and improve general production.
8) Wesley McGriff was not just brought in for his recruiting acumen. He is a fine defensive backs coach and we shouldn't see our guys out of position like we have seen over the past few years.
9) The front 7 defensively may be a bit thin and a bit young as of right now, but with time, we should see an aggressive defense who will do exactly what they say they will, "Relentlessly pursue the ball and knock the ever loving crap out of someone."
10) And finally, there is a passion and enthusiasm from everyone from the coaching staff, to the players, down to the fans who go out for practice. Its infectious and will be palpable in the stadium this year. There will be some growing pains obviously, and this year might take a little while to get settled in fully, but its gonna be fun, and should be for years to come.
The team gets in pads for the first time tomorrow. According to a friend who is personally close to Freeze from his time at Briarcrest, we might see scrimmages at the next few open practices. I'll be back here next week to let you know about how this team looks after a full week back and really hitting somebody.