Last week, I became fully invested in both the 2007 season and in my preparation for a mobilization to the lofty peaks of the Hindu Kush next spring. To help me be ready for those mountains, I decided to make my way up "Y" Mountain each week. My initial foray yielded a time of 42:27, with the ascent taking 28 minutes and 21 seconds.
Before I went to my second practice, I was not only eager to see how the Cougars had improved, but to see if I had improved as well. There was noticeable improvement on both fronts.
Ten days after first climbing the "Y," I made it up in just 25:02. I had taken off nearly 3-and-a-half minutes. I took off almost 4 minutes coming down, as I made it up and back in 35 minutes and 21 seconds. Walking back to my truck, I had a great feeling of accomplishment and a greater desire to continue my hard work and see what I kind of progress I can make before my next attempt.
I went home, printed off a roster and headed to the practice field early enough so that I could get a good position on the balcony. I wanted to see if the Cougars had made similar progress as they prepare for the season opener against Arizona.
With the number of season-ending injuries they have sustained (Tialavea, Tafuna, Gabriel, etc.), I was especially interested to see how the backups-turned-starters were responding. I was pleased with what I saw during the 90-minute practice.
Max Hall looked much more relaxed and seemed to have improved his timing with the running backs, both out in the flat and in the underneath routes. He made two nice, patient throws to running back Harvey Unga on those underneath routes, which Unga took into the end zone during blue zone drills. Hall also looked better on the out routes. His arm strength will never be something to write home about, but with more reps with the receivers, he looks like he will be able to make up for it with better accuracy and timing.
There was also improvement in the running back corps. Fui Vakapuna, who should be a workhorse this year, looked like he had shed a few of the extra pounds he had been carrying. He still has a few more to go, but I saw a better conditioned Fui – which should assuage some fears Cougar fans might be harboring about him. Unga looked like a back with a nice set of hands and a nice sense of field vision. During running plays, he showed good patience to find backside holes, and also showed good burst when he saw holes to hit.
While not really a source of improvement – as Tialavea was easily the team's best tackle – the play of freshmen Ethan Manumaleuna and Rick Wolfley was encouraging. Going up against preseason All-Conference center Sete Aulai is assisting in getting these two, along with Mosese Foketi, game-ready. Wolfley is a converted offensive guard who is getting back to his wrestling roots. On one drill, he basically picked up backup center Tom Sorensen and dropped him on his backside. Manumaleuna was holding his own during several drills against Aulai.
Some other observations and signs of hope and encouragement:
-After several dropped passes by receivers and backs on the first day, I noticed only two on Friday – one by Manase Tonga in the flat and the other by Austin Collie on a punt return. However, it did look like he was distracted by strength and conditioning coach Jay Omer, as Omer was heard yelling that he liked Oreo shakes. So, perhaps there was a side bet going on.
-The offensive line was getting good push off the snap, especially on running plays. Three yards should be a given on nearly every running play, and that is just with the ball carrier following his blocks and not making anyone miss.
-Andre Saulsberry looks like he could be a contributor. He made several nice defensive plays on passes thrown to the end zone.
-Vic So'oto made a nice one-handed catch on the far field. I did not see who threw it, but it was a good grab.
-Mitch Payne soothed many, but not all, fears about the kicking game. He made all but one field goal attempt to start practice, including two from 50-plus yards out.
-Basketball recruit Chris Collinsworth was noticed working out with an unidentified teammate with a large medicine ball. He looked like he had added at least 15 pounds of muscle this summer.