For a defense that surrendered both points and yardage at an alarming rate late last season, Cassity said Thursday that he's begun to see signs of improvement on both fronts in recent practices.
"The number one thing that we wanted to do was to re-instill a little confidence, a little emotion and work on the fundamentals, " Cassity said following Thursday morning's practice. "And we saw signs of that yesterday [during the scrimmage]. There was a lot of spirit. Our guys hustled to the football and on and off the field and made a few plays."
Perhaps one of the primary reasons for the improved play on defense resides in the experience the returning players received on the field during last years 9-4 campaign and the leadership a host of senior defenders are now providing both on and off the field.
"We have quite a few seniors and it starts with them," Cassity said of his unit's leaders. "Robert McCune, Marcus Jones, Kerry Rhodes, Montavious Stanley..we expect a lot of leadership out of the seniors. So I do think we have good leadership there."
"I think you have different types of leaders," Cassity continued. "I try never to force a guy outside of his personality. But I think leadership starts with a spirit..an emotion and our seniors are providing that."
McCune, the team's leading tackler last season and a candidate for C-USA honors this fall, recently returned to action after undergoing surgery to repair damaged cartiledge in one of his knees earlier this summer. Cassity says the middle linebacker is quickly returning to his old form.
"He looks great," Cassity said of McCune. "He's been cleared [to practice] and he's running around doing everything that we're asking him to do. He's showing the signs to be the great football player that we all expect out of him."
Cassity also said several true freshmen have been impressive during the first two weeks of practice and singled out four such players who might see action on the field this fall.
"Lamar Myles has [made an impression] as one of the inside linebackers," Cassity said. "Brandon Cox, one of the defensive ends has done a nice job. Terrence Butler and Rod Council. But we're not going to put a young man on the field before he's ready and their heads are spinning a little bit right now. There's some talented kids in this class."
One true freshman, 6-5, 305-pound Devin Shivers appeared to receive a serious look as part of the defensive tackle rotation last week. Shivers, however, was switched to the offensive line earlier this week after starting center Will Rabatin went down with a slight knee injury. (Rabatin, according to head coach Bobby Petrino and other team officials, is expected to return to practice early next week.)
"We're looking at him on both sides," Cassity said of Shivers. "We know he's a ball player and we try to put our athletes on the field where they can help us most. We've looked at him defensively and now we're taking a look at him offensively. I expect him to be an awful good ball player here."
Perhaps the unit that has shown the most noticable improvement is the secondary. U of L's last line of defense proved competitive with their talented counterparts at wide receiver during last week's open practices and Cassity seemed pleased with their play during Wednesday's scrimmage.
"I've been encouraged with their play," Cassity admitted. "We got our hands on some balls [yesterday]. We still need to improve our tackling and we're working real hard on that. We talk about being a real physical and aggressive defense so the cover guys have to do a great job."
U of L will return to practice field this afternoon at 4:00 PM, though practice will remain closed to the general public and media.
NOTE The 2004 Football Kick-Off Luncheon will be held tomorrow, Friday, August 20 at the Kentucky Convention Center in downtown Louisville.