The Big Cat Drill, which pits members of each side of the ball against one another in a hear-the-whistle, push-the-opposition-back affair, has been head coach Les Miles’ medium of communication with fans this spring.
After a 2009 campaign where his team finished the season ranked in triple-digits (112) in offensive production, the masses expect a much more polished team to take the field in the fall. For Miles and his Tigers that means becoming better on the ground, which starts with getting more physical up front.
Will Blackwell, who has gone through the past three weeks of workouts at right guard, is confident that the message to raise the bar has been both delivered and received, hard work this March that should prove crucial to the development of the entire team this offseason.
“We start with the Big Cat Drill in terms of being physical, then we go and bang heads for three hours a day,” Blackwell said. “I am happy … we have had a good spring. We are getting better all around.”
If there becomes a comfort level with the unit’s progress, Blackwell said that he would be the first to snap his fellow linemen back into the reality of what happens on the football field.
“As a player you never reach a plateau, and you are always getting better or getting worse,” he said. “We have to keep working harder than the day before … we need to send the offseason away with some stability.”
One key factor in maintaining stability in the trenches is the ability, if need be, to use multiple bodies. Prior to the spring, Miles wanted significant reps to trickle down to even the third-team unit. While offensive line coach Greg Studrawa’s bunch didn’t perform to expectations in 2009, Miles – a former offensive lineman – wouldn’t accept the same results for 2010.
While the starting unit over the past three weeks has consistently been (left to right) Joe Barksdale, Josh Dworaczyk, P.J. Lonergan, Blackwell and Alex Hurst, new names are worked into the mix during each passing scrimmage, a rotation Blackwell hopes can bring a raised confidence level to everyone that ends up in the two-deep on opening day.
“With these practices you come out and try to get guys as many reps as you can,” he said. “One of our main focuses is getting everyone ready to play, because you never know what could happen. Everyone is one play away.”
The unit found that out the hard way last Saturday, seeing center T-Bob Hebert, who made 11 starts last fall, go down to injury.
“Losing T-Bob was a huge blow,” Blackwell said. “He was competing for a starting spot.”
Hebert will have surgery and is slated to return to the team in the fall.
With Lonergan now alone in the number one spot, Blackwell - already a starter - has moved back into the role of double-duty, running with the ones at guard and the twos at center.
During Saturday’s Spring Game in Tiger Stadium, don’t expect to find the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Blackwell doing much sitting on the sidelines.
“I would like to think I would get a break, but who knows,” he laughed. “I will snap, play right guard, play tackle or whatever. It just adds to my repertoire, and I like taking the responsibility.”
If work being accomplished comes at the price of exhaustion on Blackwell’s part, the junior guard considers it a job well done.
After losing four games in his first season on the field, Blackwell is ready for the team, the one he grew up watching in Monroe, to make the move back to the top, both in the Southeastern Conference and on the national stage.
Now a slated starter, Blackwell reflected back on the 2009 year in vivid detail, describing high and low times that pushed him along the road of the development.
The shining moment came at Georgia. Trailing late and seeing linemen drop like flies under the sunny, Athens sky, Miles called Blackwell’s number - and he responded.
“I had that chance to go in, and then we came from behind and scored two touchdowns to get the win,” Blackwell recalled.
Unfortunately, during his first big-stage moment also came a story Blackwell could one day share with his grandchildren (if he chooses). With CBS cameras zoomed in and the nation watching, Blackwell – feeling upset in the stomach and exhausted from the heat – took a knee on the field and regurgitated the day’s share of Gatorade.
Needless to say, his teammates have yet to let the story die.
“I try to forget about that, but people keep reminding me,” Blackwell laughed. “That is my driving point. I have to get past that. It is pretty embarrassing, but that’s part of it.”