One of the big questions going into the spring was how much of an impact would the new-look coaching staff have on the team, and how would the players respond to a basically new staff. From watching practice I would say the team has responded well to the changes.
First of all Mike Hankowitz is as good as advertised. It does not surprise me that he masterminded a defense at Colorado that won a National Championship. Or that he established one of the great defensive traditions at Texas A&M. He has already very skillfully given a totally different mentality to this defense. It is a highly aggressive, reckless, yet sound style of defense. Without even talking about the scheme, which is fun to watch, these guys are swarming to the ball, unlike I have seen around here in years. The neat thing is that it is by design. I am so impressed at the drills that Hankowitz has implemented that just focuses on swarming to the ball, but at the same time staying in the proper pursuit lanes. It's fun to see.
Secondly, there really seems to be a real return to fundamental defense. I am not seeing nearly as many missed tackles as I have in recent times. I also love the way the new LB coach, Craig Bray, coaches. You get the real sense that the LB's will "bring it" under this guy. His aggressive nature seems to be rubbing off on the LBs.
The best thing about this defense is that it is a big-play defense. The blitzing nature of this defense causes the opposing offenses to make quick decisions, which can lead to mistakes and ultimately, turnovers. There are multiple blitzes that come from all directions. Plenty of zone blitzes, which lead to interceptions quite often. Hankowitz has also done an excellent job of getting the right personnel on the field. This defense actually allows Arizona to get it's best defenders on the field at the same time. A good example of this would be on the defensive front where in last year's scheme, the front four would have been Marcus Smith DE, Copeland Bryan DE, Vince Feula DT, and Carlos Williams DT. In the Double Eagle Flex Scheme, Bryan and Smith would be considered undersized DE's at around 230-240lbs respectively. This was most evident in running situations. In the new 3-4/5-2 scheme they are in a much more advantageous position. Now there are basically Three Defensive Tackles (Williams, Feula, Brittain) and two outside LBs with Bryan and Smith. I know that doesn't seem like much of a change but scheme really has strengthened this defense at the point of attack.
Now there are many variations of the scheme, but just minor adjustments like that have really given the defense much more pop. I could go into all of the defensive personnel but that might be too boring.
The QB situation has been fun to watch. My quick analysis is that Ryan O'Hara is in the lead. He has shown a knack to make the big play down field consistently. He still has mechanical problems that, at times, cause some of his passes to float. That can be corrected. The important thing is that he gives this team an element that they did not have last year, and that is the threat of a deep pass. I have watched him hit the big one over and over in practice so far.
Costa looks very solid at times. My analysis of him is still the same. I think he will continue to have trouble finding passing lanes. He still ends up holding on to the ball too long some times, because he can't see the lanes fast enough. More evidence of this is the number of batted passes that have occurred recently.
I still think that the freshman coming in could have an impact. Both have above average arms, but Kovalachek is very advanced fundamentally. He already moves very well in the pocket and he ran a pro style offense in HS. The X-factor will be how well he learns the offense in just one training camp. If I were him I would be here early this summer and get a few summer school classes.
The WR situation has greatly improved over the spring. It started off a little shaky with the dropped passes, but it finished quite strong. The young guys got a lot of experience, namely Ealy & Jefferson. Ealy really has shown some good things. He runs nice clean routes and has nice hands. He also is a true deep threat. Jefferson looks like he has a lot of big play ability. Though he is not as fast as Ealy he could be more effective after the catch. He is good in the open field. Andrae Thurman has taken his game to a higher level. He looks really fast, and he knows how to get open. There are others that have done well, like Relford and Williams. I predict that this will be one of the strengths of the offense.
The offensive line has shown a lot of improvement. They really have been challenged by the new-look defense, and have competed well. The major difference that I have seen so far is that they are finally getting some movement up front. In other words they are opening some holes. The evidence of this can be seen in goal line situations this spring, when the offense needed to punch the ball in, they were successful on several occasions. I think that the new additions to the line in the fall will only bolster an improving line. The summer will be crucial for this unit. They need to live in the weight room. We don't need a big fat line. We need a big, strong line!
The running back situation is still unresolved in my mind. I do feel that Mike Bell is still the leader. He seemed to become more comfortable as camp progressed. Though there are no Clarence Farmer look-alikes, there are some solid runners out there. Gainus Scott, who was injured during spring, is a big play type of back that will have an impact if he can get healthy. Mike Bell will be successful if he just runs hard. He has good instincts and cutting ability, he just needs to break arm tackles. This will lead to some very long runs, with the type of speed this guy has. Chris Harris has also been surpassing. He may be the fastest guy on the team. The neat thing is that he is finally starting to look like the type of player that he was regarded as out of HS. He seems to be running with much more vision and patience. As a result you really see that speed that he possesses. He could have an impact. I like to see this guy come out of the backfield in passing situations. What LB could cover a back that fast?
Over all I think that team made some important strides this spring. The defense will be better. The secondary is playing well right now. The O-line has shown improvement, but needs to continue to get better. The team hit a lot this spring, with minimal injuries, which was another good sign. The interesting thing about all of this is that this team could greatly improve and still have a bad season. They have a fierce schedule. If they come out of this season with a winning record, I say that this staff is a keeper. We will see. The fun thing will be watching it unfold. Bear Down!
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