The passing game, consistent last season only in its ineffectiveness, was always a question mark and has become the focus of the offense this fall.
The Tigers tested their new look inside the red zone for the first time on Thursday, and results were mixed. As a whole, the first team defense shut down the top offensive unit, but a few players farther down the depth chart managed to make offensive contributions.
The top units faced each other for three plays to start the drill. On the first play, junior QB Brad Smith found junior WR Sean Coffey on a bubble screen, but Coffey could only manage a short gain before he was forced out of bounds. Junior TB Damien Nash rumbled to the left side for about four yards on the next play before he was tripped up by senior LB James Kinney. The offense returned to the passing game for the final play, as Smith attempted to connect with freshman WR Jason Ray. Smith's throw was short, however, and fell incomplete, and the defense won the matchup.
The second team offense was more effective. Freshman TB Marcus Woods picked up 12 yards on the unit's first play, hiding behind his offensive line and knifing through the middle when he found an opening. The offense stalled from there, as sophomore QB Brandon Coleman struggled to connect with his receivers.
It was mostly a mixed bag after that, with the defense continuing to knock passes down, with a few exceptions. Freshman WR Jerrill Humphrey made the biggest play of the drill: freshman QB Mack Breed found Humphrey on the sideline, and the receiver fought through a few tackles before being brought down near the goal line. However, as the life of a freshman quarterback goes, it wasn't all good for Breed during this drill. Several plays later, he fumbled the snap from center and couldn't fall on the ball before the defense recovered it.
Fellow freshman QB Chase Patton struggled as well. In an attempt to find freshman WR William Franklin, who was in one-on-one coverage, in the back corner of the end zone, Patton underthrew his target. Senior S Ryan Edwards seized the opportunity, picked off the pass and took a knee for a touchback.
These mistakes have been commonplace--and expected--from the freshmen. The types of plays run by the first team offense were probably unlike those called in a game atmosphere, as the coaching staff would likely let Smith use his legs to push the ball toward the goal line.
But it was encouraging to see the first team defense flex its muscles a bit, and show that it has the ability to dominate. The speed and athleticism of the starting linebackers--Kinney and sophomores Dedrick Harrington and David Richard--was evident. The sophomores, both with limited experience at the position, should be able to rely on their quickness to break up plays, until they become instinctively comfortable in their new positions.
The first scrimmage, scheduled for Aug. 21, should further explain the Tigers' offensive tendencies in the red zone this season.
Hammies hamper two: Junior WR Chris Crosby and sophomore K Alex Pettersen missed the majority of practice Thursday, both suffering from hamstring injuries.
Crosby tweaked the injury Wednesday and dressed for practice Thursday, but did not participate. Pettersen kicked before and during the early minutes of practice, but the coaching staff advised him to sit out the final few drills.
"Get by with a little help from my friends": The Tigers close practice each day with a series of sideline wind sprints. The coaches break the team into four groups, by position, with each group running the width of the field and back. After two hours of practice, these sprints can take a toll on the players, particularly the linemen.
Freshman OL Aaron Saunders completed the sprints in the required time Thursday, but just barely. He received verbal encouragement from his line mates through the first few sprints; he got a little extra help in the final run. Saunders looked steady in his final run downfield, and then faltered at the turn. At this point, he was helped by three other runners, who grabbed Saunders by the shirt and starting pulling him along. Saunders finished the run in time and thanked his aides with an appreciative embrace afterward. Coach Gary Pinkel noticed this and commented on the leadership shown by the other linemen. It might not have been completely unselfish, though.
"If he hadn't made it, they would have done it over again," Pinkel said. "But that's what teamwork is all about. The young guy's having trouble, but you got three guys that made sure, if they had to throw him across the line, that he made it across."
Time to ‘thud: Friday morning brings the Tigers' first practice in full pads, allowing the players to be more physical than they have through the first four days. It also means practice, already run at a high level, will be even more intense.
"It'll be much, much more physical practice--I mean, remarkably more physical," Pinkel said. "But hopefully you won't see players laying on the ground and leaving their feet, because that's when you get injuries."
Proud Grandpa Pinkel: Pinkel received word late Wednesday evening that he had become a grandfather for the first time. Erin Hendershott, Pinkel's daughter, gave birth to Madison Aileen Hendershott at 8:34 p.m. in Toledo, Ohio. Madison weighed 7 pounds, 6 ounces, and all are doing well. Pinkel said he had been checking his cell phone throughout practice Wednesday afternoon, hoping to hear word of the birth. It finally came, from his daughter, at 9 p.m. Pinkel said he hoped to visit the newest member of his family this weekend--if the practice schedule allows it.
Understandably, Pinkle exclamed, "I'm pretty excited,". Catch of the day:Junior WR Sean Coffey made a juggling catch over the middle of a Smith pass in a seven-on-seven drill. Coffey split two defenders to make the catch, about a 30-yard completion.
Hit of the day: While defending an option drill, Harrington forced the runner out of bounds. Harrington could not stop his momentum, careening into and over freshman DB Alex Woodley, who was observing the play from the sideline.
Quote of the day: "The players' prayers were answered and mine weren't. We'll get the heat; the heat's gonna come around the corner, I know that. So I'm eventually gonna win on this one."
--Pinkel, on the surprisingly cool weather the Tigers have practiced in this week. Audibles: Senior P Brock Harvey continues to recuperate from offseason surgery. He has performed well in practice, and Pinkel said Thursday that he is pleased with his progress. Harvey will face stiff competition, though; sophomore Matt Hoenes has kicked well, including a 55-yard bomb during a punt return drill Thursday. … Breed has an unorthodox throwing style, appearing to short-arm the ball. He keeps his arms close to his body when he throws, resulting in an awkward-looking release. But, more often than not, he is accurate. … Walk-on freshman WR Tommy Saunders has picked up where he left off as a prep star and looks like he belongs playing at this level. He catches almost everything thrown his way, including a nice over-the-shoulder catch in a one-on-one drill Thursday. … Patton appears calm in the pocket, even under pressure. He never seems to panic, although he has often made poor reads and attempts to force balls into places he shouldn't. … Walk-on Ks Scott Russell and Adam Crossett had the most leg in their field goal attempts into a stiff wind Thursday. Russell has been strong, often overshadowing fellow walk-on Joe Tantarelli, who had scholarship, offers to kick elsewhere.
Looking ahead: The Tigers start early Friday, practicing at 8:15 a.m. The coaching staff moved up the practice time earlier this week to allow the players extra time to rest before two-a-days start Saturday morning.