Spring Practice Report: Day Two

One of the most intriguing and intense battles this spring was believed to be at the two open cornerback positions. The graduation of Ben Criddle and Kayle Buchanan left both starting spots wide open. Two days into the spring practice session, the battle for both the boundary and field cornerback positions is shaping out as a very intense battle.

"We think we have the right candidates for each spot," said head coach Bronco Mendenhall referring to those who will be competing for both the boundary and field cornerback spots. "Now it's just competition and getting them experience."

At the boundary cornerback position, the competition to replace the vacancy left by Ben Criddle is between Scott Johnson and Brandon Bradley. Johnson is seeing all the reps with the first-teamers so far, while Bradley is trying to work his way up from the second-team defense.

Johnson in no doubt aided his cause to start at boundary with his play during 11-on-11 drills, as he knocked down two passes in coverage.

On the other side of the ball, the competition is shaping up as a battle between junior Brandon Howard and freshman G Pittman. Howard is currently running with the first-team squad, while Pittman is with the second-team trying to do everything possible to earn a spot as the starting field cornerback.

"I'm working as hard as I know how," said Pittman. "Coaches told us that the position is open and it's my intent to grab that starting spot. I want it bad, real bad."

Pittman came on to the scene last season as a freshman, impressing all spectators with his play. He showed quick feet and great instincts at the cornerback position. However, Pittman's bid last fall was cut short due to injury.

"Last year was very frustrating for me," said Pittman. "You want to come in and make an impact right away and that was taken away from me due to injury. So yeah, I've been waiting for spring for a long time now, to get the chance to get back out there and show what I can do."

So far so good, as Pittman has shown no ill effects from his injury and is able to go at full speed to make plays and a spot for himself on the team.

"I feel good, really good," said Pittman. "I'm moving as well as I ever have and I'm going hard. I know the position is open between me and Brandon Howard, who is a great player, and we're pushing each other hard every day."

Friendly Competitors

Both Howard and Pittman will quickly acknowledge each other as being one of their best friends on the team. Both players are very good friends off the field, giving an interesting dynamic to the competition at field corner.

"We're both tight, real good friends with each other, and we both want each other to succeed," said Pittman. "If Brandon gets the starting spot, then it will be because he earned it, and I'll be happy for him. Doing what is best for the team and helping the team out as best we can is what we both want more than anything else."

That said, Pittman has no intention of giving an inch to Howard simply because they're friends. Pittman wants the starting spot and will do everything necessary to beat Howard out for the starting spot despite their friendship.

"We both know that we want the starting spot real bad and there won't be any hard feelings either way regardless of who starts," said Pittman. "Brandon is a great guy and I know he'll be as happy for me as I would be for him if I get the spot."

Pittman is aware that Howard's biggest edge at the moment is that he has more time in the program and game time experience, where he performed very well.

"Brandon Howard is very good and will be hard to beat out." said Pittman. "He's more experienced than I am and knows the system real well, but he's helping me every chance he gets which I really appreciate. He wants what I want, and that is to help the team. He knows that helping me to be the best player I can be will help the team that much more, and that is the main goal for everyone."

Learning Curve

With the graduation of both starting cornerbacks comes a steep learning curve to learn the coverages and right reads in defensive coordinator Jaime Hill's defensive system. So far, Mendenhall likes what he's been seeing from the two players competing at the open position for starting field cornerback.

"We like their athleticism, their confidence and their speed," said Mendenhall about both Howard and Pittman. "Seasoning is what they need, so that's what we're focusing on this spring."

Overcoming the learning curve involved will be the chief focus for Mendenhall and his staff this spring when it comes to both cornerback positions. A lot of coaching is being done to get those competing at the positions to learn the system as effectively as possible.

"There's a lot of learning," said Mendenhall. "There are a lot of mistakes, but that is where the teaching is coming in. We spent an extra half hour in meetings today just in terms of correction to make today's practice effective and more relevant, and we might do that again for the next practice session after we see film of today's practice."

"It's all mental," said Pittman. "I know that I have the physical attributes. Now it's just focusing on the mental part of the game, [and] working on being where I need to be. That's my focus everyday more than anything else."

Coming Back Strong

Mendenhall noted that he's been very impressed with both Luke Ashworth and Spencer Hafoka coming off of their mission service. After Tuesday's practice, Mendenhall expressed that he's very impressed with Ashworth's physical condition following his mission.

"In terms of physical readiness, [Ashworth's] body has come back not quite as fast as Fui [Vakapuna] when he came back, but probably the next closest to that," said Mendenhall. "So he's doing a really nice job and I've seen enough of Spencer Hafoka to tell that he's going to be a very good player as well."

Mendenhall is happy with the competition at receiver, noting Ashworth, Hafoka, Reed White, Ryan Neely, Landon Jaussi and Tyler Kozlowski are all competing hard for the positions to back up Austin Collie and Michael Reed. The general feeling is that Hafoka is a bit behind right now until his body catches up to where he'll be able to compete.

Practice Notes

-The team finished out practice with 11-on-11 drills, where the offense was able to get the ball into the end zone on the last series of reps.

-Max Hall went 3-for-3 during the first set for 20 yards. Passes were completed to Austin Collie, Tyler Kozlowski and Harvey Unga for 15, 5 and 5 yards respectively. Linebacker Vic So'oto recorded a sack.

-During the next series Brendan Gaskins went 3-for-5 for 20 yards and an interception. Gaskins completed passes to J.J. DiLuigi for 7 yards, Matt Marshall for 6 yards, and then Ryan Neely for 7 yards. The set ended with safety Andrew Rich picking off a pass that was deflected by linebacker Terrance Hooks in coverage.

-Scott Johnson then knocked down Hall's two attempted passes, one for Manase Tonga and the other for Michael Reed.

-Gaskins then completed all three of his passes for a combined 23 yards. He hit Ashworth for 15 yards, Landon Jaussi for 6 yards, and then DiLuigi for 2 yards.

-Practice was wrapped up with Hall going 4-for-5 for 50 yards. That set was capped off by a 34-yard touchdown pass to Collie on a deep post pattern. Hall also completed a 25-yard pass to Collie, a 5-yard pass to Unga, and a pass to Kozlowski for 6 yards.

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