Practice Observations: DB and WR

A few thoughts on the competition at DB and WR after Saturday's open practice.

Practice Notes: Defensive Backs

Darrin Walls is the team's most fluid defensive back (and overall athlete); if he can improve his play with the ball in the air he'll provide a huge boost to the team's downfield coverage next season…Blanton continued to show a nose for the football (picking off a tipped pass and scoring today, nearly intercepting another, and breaking on the ball twice on the outside; but he's a full step slow at CB…Jamoris Slaughter is my early choice for September fan favorite; he's aggressive, a willing albeit undersized hitter, and gets from Point A to Point B with urgency…Zeke Motta will make an impact as a nickel and dime LB next year, but he's unlikely to win the starting SS spot in early September; I like his blend of speed and physical play in passing situations, but more so in short zone coverage…Lo Wood possesses an early confidence absent in his quick-footed classmate Spencer Boyd; Boyd appears to be learning on the job at field CB…

E.J. Banks has improved since last season and is a vocal part of the second unit, but he won't challenge any of the Walls/Gray/Blanton trio this season. Banks made a nice play on the ball on 4th down during a live period today, disrupting a (high) slant from Crist to Tai-ler Jones; Banks had a chance for a post-pass breakup but Kamara bodied him for the catch despite contact (Banks could have come with more authority); Banks with a nice one-on-one form tackle vs. Toma, but a bigger player might have shed E.J.…Gary Gray will pile up impressive statistics at CB, offering plenty of help in run support, playing physical and confidently against bigger targets, and as guy that will compete for the ball in the air. Gray could likely play the free safety role but Slaughter is poised for a breakout season at that spot…

Unless I've somehow missed him in the mix on the coverage teams, early enrollee Chris Badger appears headed for a red-shirt freshman season; then again, with only four safeties in front of him, he's one injury away from the two-deep...Dan McCarthy looked the part in goal line and 1st and Goal drills over the last two outings, though he was reminded to tone it down by veteran teammate Kerry Neal when an obvious late hit vs. John Goodman would have resulted in an automatic first down; Slaughter appears set, but McCarthy could push Harrison Smith through August if the team looks to put its best tackling pair of safeties on the field...Wood closes well when he diagnoses the route...

Spencer Boyd still appears a bit hesitant and unsure of pre-snap positioning (in 1-on-1 situations); Boyd made one nice break in live drills vs. the second unit...Blanton looks alternately great (physical) and worried about the green behind him (Riddick used him on an out from the slot)...Slaughter brings some heat when breaking on a slant...Walls is a gazelle when asked to turn and run...Motta has a bright future as a hybrid player, he'll hit anyone.

Practice Notes: Wide Receivers

Duval Kamara has a presence as an inside target down the seams, absorbing hits from DBs in the open scrimmage and maintaining his balance for the catch and a few forward lean yards; he and Kyle Rudolph could be a nightmare in tandem vs. opposing middle zones…Kamara's biggest issue over the years has been consistent concentration followed closely by wavering confidence; neither should be an issue entering his senior season but I've been wrong on his projections for the last two seasons…I think Michael Floyd has the prototype frame for this and the next level, but its hard to imagine him having the impact on games that Golden Tate had last season; Tate's 2009 was one of the best individual efforts in program history, and the bulk of his contribution occurred as the result of winning the battle for the ball in the air or as a weapon after the catch; Floyd's hands are ridiculously strong...

Roby Toma will be a valuable rotation receiver as long as he can remain upright - his body will take a beating underneath as a still-undersized sophomore; Toma runs aggressively through the ball on slant and in-routes…John Goodman appears to be much more athlete than receiver in our brief glimpses; that might not be a bad thing with Rudolph/Floyd/Toma already serving the role of technically sound, chain-moving targets; Goodman does present a nice target on slant routes, even if he's the fourth man, he'll be heavily involved and receive plenty of touches…Deion Walker has been less impressive in practice this season than during his moments of intermittent brilliance last year; but the unproven junior seems to be in the running for a No. 2 role outside and I'd be surprised if seven receivers don't see significant snaps over the 12-game regular season; Walker has been (audibly) called out twice for mental errors in our time inside the gates…

Tai-ler Jones is legit and has a head for the game (correcting a veteran teammate pre-snap when told to adjust his stance); he catches with his hands, is at full speed quicker than most, and does not go down easily; I'm skeptical he'll remain in the No. 1 role through August, but it will be his in 2011; Kelly's Saturday notation of Jones "still having the tassel hanging from his mirror" was a quip reminiscent of the coaching fraternity's quickest wit – Lou Holtz…Barry Gallup needs to catch everything to earn a role next fall – and he doesn't; look for Gallup to again contribute to the specialty units…

Shaq Evans remains a mystery, though I do think he's a bit more of a "gamer" than practice receiver; I've rarely observed a receivers' drill in which he doesn't suffer a drop or mental error; Evans' ability to broach his potential this season is key to the all-important "YAC" (yards-after-catch) performance of Kelly's spread attack; as stated previously: Evans is committed to getting better and producing this season; he's also a pretty big kid for a true soph...Speaking of YAC, Theo Riddick is a work in progress as expected: he appears to still fight the ball at times and let it too close to his body on the catch; opposite of Riddick: both Floyd and Rudolph excel at catching the ball at its highest point on deep throws while presenting a perfect target with their hands regardless of the zip on the throw...Walker and Kamara still suffer "concentration drops" (such as easy catches on hitch routes).

Note: More positional observations to come this week and following the Blue Gold Game.


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