Along the offensive front recent injuries to expected starters Matt Reynolds and Jason Speredon have put the position in transition. Lately the offensive line seems to have found its groove, as the starting five looks to be set.
"I think they're getting better," said head coach Bronco Mendenhall about the offensive line. "We've done some things with the snap count to make it a little bit cleaner and the number of assignment mistakes is decreasing daily. I've now seen enough progress during the last three or four practices to feel like we're making significant strides."
Right now the starting offensive line seems to be all but set, with Nick Alletto, Terence Brown, R.J. Willing, Marco Thorson and Braden Hansen in position to start going across from right to left. Matt Reynolds is likely to play against Oklahoma, but if he can't go, coaches have confidence in Hansen to play at left tackle.
With the front five set, the goal now is to look for the next three or so linemen that will be used to rotate in as the need arises. "We're trying to determine six, seven and eight and what combinations will come in," explained Mendenhall. "As much as I'd like to get the number ones as much work as possible, we have to find six, seven and eight."
One of the position battles that doesn't look to be resolved any time soon is the battle for the starting field corner spot. While Robbie Buckner was the frontrunner, others have risen to become ready options in the minds of coaches.
Most recently it has been Brian Logan who has risen to provide good play at field corner, while on Thursday it was Garrett Nicholson's chance to prove his worth. "Garrett has been working so hard," commented Mendenhall. "He has proven that he's capable with day-to-day responsibilities to where coach Hill has felt that he's deserving now to give him a look."
Buckner is expected to return to full play here soon, but every day he's out he potentially falls further behind. Mendenhall mentioned that there is no timetable to determine who will be starting at field corner.
At linebacker Mendenhall indicated that he's been very happy with the play of Matt Bauman at Mike linebacker and Coleby Clawson at the Will spot. Jordan Pendleton has gotten progressively better at Sam while Terrance Hooks will battle with Shawn Doman at the Buck position. Mendenhall intends to split the reps pretty evenly between Hooks and Doman when Hooks returns while also allowing Shiloah Te'o to hone in better on his nickel-package role.
Mendenhall commented that Jordan Atkinson is making up ground daily in backing up Clawson, while he likes the options presented by Brandon Ogletree at Mike and Shiloah Te'o at Buck linebacker. Overall, he's been pleased with progression of the linebackers as a unit.
At running back the focus continues to be finding the fourth and fifth guys that will play behind Harvey Unga, Bryan Kariya and J.J. Di Luigi. Thursday it was Peni Maka'afi seeing most of the reps, though that will certainly vary until running back coach Lance Reynolds becomes more comfortable with what ends up as his fourth and fifth options.
One battle that Mendenhall didn't expect was the potential battle for place-kicking duties. Mitch Payne again struggled Thursday, which forced Mendenhall to give Riley Stephenson a try at place-kicking. Stephenson nailed his one field goal attempt, while Payne responded to finish off practice with a made field goal from 28 yards out.
"If Riley is capable of making those kicks consistently, then there might be a competition," said Mendenhall about the place-kicking duties.
-Players that sat out again Thursday were Brandon Bradley with a groin injury and Robbie Buckner. Terrance Hooks is still rehabbing his hamstring, but is expected to practice again next week.
-The team is still awaiting word on Manase Tonga and whether he'll be able to play this year or not.
-Defensive players that were notable in the backfield Thursday during drills were Jan Jorgensen, Tevita Hola and Matt Putnam, as each recorded sacks. Putnam in fact accounted for a couple of sacks.
-The catch of the day, and indeed what may be the best catch of the fall practice session, was made by Matt Bauman. Max Hall appeared to have Dennis Pitta streaking wide open for a big gainer up the middle of the field until Bauman leaped up high to snare down the pass and pick it off while he was providing underneath coverage.
-Hall had a long 70-yard touchdown pass to McKay Jacobson called back because the play was whistled dead as the pressure got close to him. Hall completed another long pass to Spencer Hafoka for 35 yards during team drills. He finished the day going 16-of-23 for 147 yards.