With the new jerseys and faces to confuse us, it usually takes a few days to get everyone straight. However, we did get a look at a number of the freshmen players and we were impressed with what we saw.
We spent a good deal of our allotted time watching the young secondary. Defensive coordinator Kent Baer also saw it as a priority as he was working with defensive backs coach Steve Wilks the entire time we were there.
We assume that means those considered to be on the first two teams at defensive back would be Dwight Ellick, Quentin Burrell, Freddie Parish, Tommy Zibikowski, Carlos Campbell, Mike Richardson, Chinedum Ndukwe and Preston Jackson at this point.
We were impressed with the size and quick feet of both Terrail Lambert and Isaiah Gardner in the drills we witnessed. Both players looked very thick and very quick. Lambert had some extra bounce in his step that you like to see in a freshman.
The best athlete of the bunch appears to be Wooden. Wooden has switched to No. 22 and is listed at 186 pounds. That might be a reach on the weight, but he sure has some quick feet and closing speed. He can cover a lot of ground in a hurry and looked a lot more natural out there than when we saw him at defensive back this spring.
Another player who impressed us with his quickness was freshman Tregg Duerson. Duerson is small, and reminds us of Wooden's stature when he reported as a freshman in 2003. But, Duerson does have good foot speed and looked well-coached in his backpedal and change of direction.
Junior Jabbie also looked pretty thick for a freshman. He's a shorter (5-10 would be our quess), stocky guy who reminds us of a quicker Garron Bible. Jabbie looked to have solid potential as well.
Leo Ferrine also looks a little smaller than his listed 6-0 height. We didn't get as good of a look at Ferrine as we'd like so we'll wait to comment on him.
Also watching the defensive backs and sitting out practice was Anthony Vernaglia. It appears Vernaglia is starting out with the defensive backs as he stood by the unit watching and learning. He later retired to the stationary bike along with offensive guard Jamie Ryan.
We also got a quick look at the young linebackers. Mitchell Thomas looks like he gained 20+ pounds and is listed at about 230. That weight appears about right and he's still got the speed he's been known for.
Both Abdel Banda (No. 58) and Maurice Crum Jr. (No. 40) look to be about the same size--maybe a shade taller than Joe Brockington for comparison. Both will need some work in the weight room, but both showed excellent foot speed in agility drills. Both players appear to have very similar quickness to Brockington and Thomas, and that is a good sign.
Both players reported in what appears to be excellent shape. Walker looks to be pushing 205 at this point with a very sculpted body and powerful legs. We were also impressed with the size of Hoskins as he looks to be a legitimate 190 pounds and in fantastic shape. We didn't get to see them do much, other than lining up and taking some handoffs through particular holes. Both players showed a nice burst through the hole and good acceleration. We didn't get to see enough to know if they have the talent to compete right away, but they sure look to have the physical skills.
Wide receiver Chris Vaughn also impressed. He appears to be around 6-3, 210 pounds if we had to guess. He's got the nice natural running gate and caught everything thrown at him that we saw. Until we see him go full speed, it will be hard to make any prediction on if he'll contribute this season. He certainly passes the eye test, however.
Head coach Tyrone Willingham met with the media after Wednesday's practice in good spirits. The Irish coach said he has been pleased so far with the first two days of practice.
"I've enjoyed both of our days," Willingham said. "I think there's been some good activity and some really productive learning that has taken place. I've been pleased with the progress so far."
We spoke to a number of players after practice and the consensus seems to be a thumbs up on the split squad practice in the first few days. The always cautious Willingham said he's not willing to give it his seal of approval just yet.
"I think hopefully it will be a good design for us," Willingham said of his decision to split the squad the first few days. "Hopefully it allows our players to do a lot of things. I think the jury is still out, but I'm pleased with what you've done so far."
The freshmen have now had a couple of days to impress the coaching staff. We asked Willingham if any of the freshmen have shown they have the ability to make an impact this fall.
"You don't know when it will happen, but I think as you look at the class, the initial look looks good," Willingham said of the class of 2008. "We see guys at the linebacker position that can run—(they) don't know anything yet, but they can run. You look at the backs, you see them being able to have that kind of athleticism that you like.
"I would think that some of our veterans are saying, ‘OK, we've heard all this stuff, we're ready to perform, too.' It just makes for a very interesting and competitive situation for us."
Willingham has coached a number of teams in his career and is in his 10th season as a head coach. We asked him what common factor he's seen in teams that ended up surprising people.
"Usually for any team have success, you've got to believe," Willingham said. "What makes a team a surprising team is that usually all around them don't believe, and they do."
Could the 2004 Irish be one of those surprising teams? Stay tuned…