TBS Practice Report: Owning the Blue Zone

A hallmark of Bronco Mendenhall's practices since taking over as head coach is the increased number of 11-on-11 drills that start on the 20-yard line. These "blue zone" drills, test the mettle of both offense and defense. Today the defense did an admirable job of thwarting an offense that was almost unstoppable inside the 20 last season.

"That's where it counts most," said cornerback Ben Criddle of the blue zone. "You win games by putting up points. You don't win games by giving up the least amount of yards. You win by giving up the least amount of points and that's our focus."

The defense held firm when the team practiced exclusively in the blue zone for the final 11-on-11 drills. The blue zone work also allowed new deep-snapper Jayson Clark to work with the field goal unit. Clark did well in his first full pads work.

Defensive highlights included Justin Robinson knocking the ball down in the end zone on an attempted pass to McKay Jacobson. Ben Criddle fading Jonny Harline to effectively cut off his route. Bryan Kehl, Shawn Doman and Mosese Foketi all tallied a sack.

Offensively, Ray Hudson ran for a 10-yard gain and Harvey Unga took a handoff for 11 yards thanks to a key block by Ryan Freeman. The true freshman Freeman is seeing increased time with the first and second units.

Daniel Coats made a shoe-string catch of a slightly under-thrown pass from Jason Beck for seven yards and Max Hall completed a 12-yard pass to Vic So'oto. John Beck threw the lone touchdown pass from five yards out to Manase Tonga.

Move to the Outside

One of the more notable changes in the defense is Hala Paongo playing at defensive end. While Paongo started fall camp as the only proven option at nose tackle, several factors contributed to the move.

"The young guys have stepped up big," said Paongo. "Russell [Tialavea] has done very, very well so far, and Romney [Fuga], man he's one of the strongest true freshmen I've seen come in here. Those two playing so well has allowed the coaches to try some new things."

Paongo mentioned that the biggest changes that accompany the position move are more focus on technique on the outside and a greater need for speed and containment. Seeing the ball and where it is going is also something he has to adjust for because he is not at the point of attack.

"It's different," said Paongo. "That's for sure. It's an adjustment, but one that I'm happy to make. I've gotten quicker and more able to play on the end. If coaches think that's where I'll best serve then I'm all for it. I just want to do and play wherever will help the defense most. We have a lot of guys on the line and it's allowing the coaches to do different things."

Kicking it farther

In kickoff drills kicker Jared McLaughlin was consistently kicking the ball out of the end zone. In his field goal attempts, McLaughlin easily has enough distance to hit from beyond 50 yards.

"It didn't just happen," said McLaughlin of the increase in his range. "I spent this whole summer working on my leg strength and so far it's paid off. I'm kicking it a lot farther this year and now that I have that, I just have to keep accurate. The goal is to be perfect from 50 yards and in with the ability to put some through from 50 plus yards. I also want to kick it consistently out of the end zone on kickoffs."

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