Toned Down Practice Focuses on Execution

<b>COMMENTARY</b> <br> I attended my first BYU fall practice Thursday morning expecting pads-popping, mean-on-mean smash-mouth football; the kind I have been reading about for a week. I walked away <i><b>happily</b></i> disappointed.

I was there to see if my favorite college football team was well on its way to exorcising its on-the-field-demons of the last two years and redeem itself with an potent, high-flying 2004 offensive attack. What better place to gauge this "renewal" than against the Cougars own stingy defense, rated overall as the 14th best Div. 1 college defensive unit, according to the 2003 NCAA rankings.

My immediate takeaway from practice was it looked like BYU coaches emphatically got the message across to their adrenaline-charged athletes that the necessary-but-unhealthily-heated practice battles are not worth avoidable injuries to key players before their season-opener against Notre Dame on Sept. 4.

Quite simply, the Cougars cannot afford preventable injuries to their two-deep roster athletes because they don't have any meaningful depth in most of these positions. Moreover, they are thin beyond their projected starters in several positions.

Defensive tackle Manaia Brown's injury yesterday afternoon in practice must have caused a temporary "oh, no" to coaches who watched as he was carted off the field in agony. The hope is he can be rehabbed back to full leg strength by their first game in Provo.

His defensive line cohort, Daniel Marquardt, continues to rehab a surgically-repaired pelvic floor from the off-season. His mother, Betty Ann Marquardt, indicated several weeks ago he should be ready for the USC game, hopefully sooner.

Both Brown and Marquardt, proven standouts in the middle front, are vital and needed this fall if BYU is to deliver on the excellent promise of its effective defense – especially with linebackers Paul Walkenhorst and Bryant Atkinson now declared out for the season.

Indeed, this morning's practice did not yield the extra or overly physical contact reported in recent days and it was just as well. Several players had slight limps after practice, but a good icing or a massage by trainers would probably eliminate those.

Fall camp injuries are commonplace at every college campus preparing for the 2004 season, but the Cougar coaches walk a delicate balance encouraging aggressive contact to help the team, but not too much to prevent avoidable injuries.

A snapshot of this morning's practice featured another successful 50-yard bomb from quarterback John Beck to guess who … JC All-American receiver Todd Watkins. As productive as this tandem has been in fall camp, I noted that 2003 QB starter Matt Berry seemingly had the same successful connection this morning with freshman receiver Antwaun Harris on several 30-yard slingers.

While the quarterbacks are spared contact from charging defensive players, it looked like head coach Gary Crowton was timing them on drop-back passes, after which they had to escape the pocket without contact, throw to receivers on the move, or simply tuck the ball and run the ball through open seams.

That's a good sign because you can bet Notre Dame and USC will repeatedly attempt to capitalize on their defensive line strength against the relative youth and inexperience of BYU's fast- developing offensive line.

John Beck had the majority of snaps at quarterback this morning, but both he and Berry looked comfortable and were mostly accurate throwing in the pocket.

Every BYU opponent already knows about Todd Watkins by now, but he will still be tough to defend against because of his ability to consistently separate himself from the Cougars best defenders.

… And if they make the mistake of double-covering Watkins too much, look for a slew of other BYU receivers to move the chains on the opposite sideline and over the middle.

… And if they focus on shutting down BYU's potent receiving game, expect the Cougar tight ends and running backs to make them pay the price.

It's still too early to get a really accurate reading of how good the 2004 BYU Cougars will be overall, but it's not too soon to confidently predict they will be much better than last year – barring injury to key starters, of course.

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