"Our defense really played better today," Croom said, "really stepped it up another notch."
They did so in a ‘shells' session held indoors today, lasting a little under three total hours. Though nominally non-hitting, a more assertive defense didn't shy away from at least some contact…particularly when it was the difference in a play made or stopped. In the eternal balancing act coaches play with practice evaluations, Croom wasn't 100% pleased by the stops.
"I'm disappointed to see that on offense, we didn't finish plays. But it was very good to see the offense find a way to finish plays. It was like they were getting closer to game-speed today than the offense was. Now, our offense has to step it up to match that."
Much of the afternoon focused again on red-zone situations by both varsity units, as well as specific drills for runner and receivers inside the 20-yard line against individual defenders. For most of the last ten days, the team with the ball has come out ahead in these matchups. Not so much Thursday. Croom said QB Wes Carroll put the ball on-target and usually his targets were open, at least initially.
"The ball hit receivers hands, looked like nice completions, then the defense some kind of way got balls out and knocked balls loose." Which meant mixed feelings as stops and strips are good for the defense, getting stopped or stripped or both means extra work for the offense.
Similar reports came in ground-game settings, where the offense has really dominated most days when HB Anthony Dixon gets the ball behind the first line. By no coincidence, the full-speed status of DT Kyle Love evened that playing field a good bit this time.
"The defensive front is looking healthier, and better," Croom said. "We didn't have many guys in those red-cross jerseys today up front and it really changed the impact the defensive front had. Particularly in the running game. We had Love in there, McCraney was looking better in there, Charles Burns. Guys on defense looked like they were flying around a little more than we have. Now the offense has got to raise the bar."
A couple of players returned to duty today, as OT Mark Melichar came back after two days with stomach ills. Starting WLB Dominic Douglas came back after missing Wednesday with a turned ankle; though in limited-purple he was able to participate in all drills again. Backup DE Jimmie Holmes is still limited by back spasms.
But first-team offensive RG Michael Gates missed a third day of work, still kept out with tonsillitis. Second DT LaMarcus Williams is getting over wisdom tooth extraction, starting S Keith Fitzhugh is still out with stomach virus, and HB Wade Bonner with a hip flexor issue.
Missing two days cost right tackle Melichar the first-team job he'd been holding on to by the narrowest of margin. Redshirt Quentin Saulsberry took that status Tuesday and was still number-one today as the competition for starting job may go on into next week. Veteran Craig Jenkins is the current first RG, with Addison Lawrence his second. Phillip Freeman is the third right tackle.
Even with Love back, the defensive line keeps shuffling as the starting four and rotation is being settled for week-one. Love and Jessie Bowman remain the top tackles, left and right, but Thursday some backups were given turns with a mostly first-team defense. Such as Reggie Odom at right tackle, and either McCraney or Burns at left. Love even took a turn at right tackle as Williams is out for the moment. Right end is Tim Bailey's starting spot but he had to work more snaps than normal today with Holmes limited. The real questions remain out left, where Brandon Cooper as at least caught up with freshman Sean Ferguson and may be ready to take the starting job for himself.
With Douglas taking it easy, Terrell Johnson has temporarily moved up to first weak LB backed by Mike Hunt and Mark Lynn. Backup middle LB has turned into the most interesting battle as freshman Bo Walters is holding his own with Jamie Jones.
And while Fitzhugh recovers, and with starting FS Derek Pegues suspended for the opener, freshman Charles Mitchell is getting more and more comfortable working not only as backup safety but taking turns with the first unit as well. Zach Smith and De'Mon Glanton round out that rotation.
Though indoors, punt protect and cover also got some work done without actually booting the ball under a roof. Varsity CB Tay Bowser and freshman CB Louis Watson work as one set of ‘gunners' in outside coverage, with CB Damein Anderson and freshman CB Corey Broomfield the other pair.
For punt returns, WR Jamayel Smith is the first taking turns ahead of freshmen cohorts Delmon Robinson and Corey Bailey. But fellow frosh, Terrance Davis, is also fielding punts now and bidding for early duty there.
Croom said Friday's afternoon practice will stress overtime and back-to-the-goal plays, and other special situations. Saturday will have a morning session built around all sorts of kicking and return work. "Then we're going to let them off for about 24 hours. And get back on the gameplan starting Monday." Not that the coach wants his club forgetting entirely about football and the opening game in that day away.
"I told them when I look in their eyes Monday, I want to see a look about playing a game. It's not just about coming to practice, it's about getting ready for a game. And it's supposed to be different Right now we're practicing; next week we're getting ready to play a game. It's hard to put that in words but you can see it in a guys face and the way he moves about. I expect to see it Monday."