Practice Report 8: Defense Shines

Head coach Mike Gundy must have sensed the need for a break because at the end of practice he told the players they had the rest of the evening off after dinner – at least until the 11 p.m. bed check. Now, that adds up to about just two hours. But during preseason camp, which can seem like boot camp, two hours can seem like a long time. The defense may enjoy their evening off a little more because it had the better of it during the two hour, 45 minute practice on Wednesday afternoon.

"I thought we started out a little sluggish today, which unfortunately is a part of two-a-days," said Gundy in his post practice debrief with the media. "At the end I thought the players gave good effort on both sides of the ball. I was encouraged by the offensive and defensive lines with those guys fighting through it and doing things that we weren't very good at last year as on offense or a defense."

The emphasis on offense was on both run and pass, with more extended work on the short passing game to the wide receivers, tight ends and backs. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew got a significant number of reps with the first team during the workout, and offensive line coach Joe Wickline let some of his freshman offensive linemen get some reps in drills with the first and second offensive units. Both quarterbacks (Donovan Woods and Bobby Reid) threw the ball well. The problem in the passing game was not receivers getting open but it continued to be drops.

"That's one thing that we are working hard to correct because the style of the offense has been very successful here. But we are converting from a power scheme – running the football, deep ball passes, play action – to a wide open, meticulous route running, have to catch the ball offense that these guys have to convert to that and do it," explained wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer.

"First, you have to find out why they didn't catch the ball," continued Brewer. "There is a reason why things happen. They didn't look it in or they thought about running before they caught it. Then when they understand why they did it, you work on it so they don't do it again. Some people are natural ball catchers and some aren't, but we do five or six up-downs for each drop so they know it's not acceptable. But like your own child you want to say why did you do that and how can we correct that."

Brewer had a new contraption at practice Wednesday to help receivers concentrate and focus on catching the ball. The new piece of equipment resembled a tether ball pole from grade school. The pole had an elastic cord attached with a football on the other end. The receiver throws the ball away from the pole and it snaps back extra quick. Cowboy standout receiver D'Juan Woods has it mastered as we watched him try it about 10 times and catch the ball snapping back nine of the times.

"We need to come out here and be focused when we're tired," said Woods of the dropped passes. "We've had a lot of practice and it's wearing us down, so we have to be mentally tough and look the ball in and make those easy catches and not take them for granted. You can't say much when a guy drops a pass. He knows he dropped it, and he's as disappointed about the drop as you are, especially in a crucial situation. There's not much you can say to them except get it next time."
,br> Another veteran receiver Luke Frazier has been having a great camp. He caught several balls in team blitz, a bubble screen and an out route, and had several other nice receptions in 7-on-7 work. He has confidence that the receivers will overcome the problem with drops, and is confident that he can keep his good play up. He even reminded this reporter that I had written in the spring that he lacked break away speed. If you have read the practice reports so far you realize that opinion has been amended.

"I've come out and separated myself from some other guys," said Frazier of his performance. "A lot of people see I'm white and don't think I'm that fast. I even read where you wrote I didn't have break away speed, but in the spring I ran a 4.4 flat. But I like it because I get out there and a DB will think it's a white guy and I can take off."

There were four drops in the first six balls thrown in 7-on-7 drills, but Brewer says he will help his troops solve the problem and he added that freshmen Jeremy Broadway and Ricky Price will play and that should spark some veterans to improve their performances. He was still impressed with the catch that Price made over the middle in Tuesday's second practice.

"Here's a kid that's only been out here six or seven practices, takes a 16-yard dig across the middle, lays out extended, got his rib cage exposed, and he catches the ball and takes a heck of a hit," described Brewer of the catch by Price on Tuesday. "He gets up and goes back to the huddle and acts like he's done it again and again. That's a special kid and he'll be a player for us."

Sticking with the offense, while Woods' slate remained clean on interceptions during Wednesday's practice, Reid, who has played well and made some big plays, both throwing and running, still had a problem with aerial turnovers. The practice ended with a diving Grant Jones interception of Reid – that's twice that has happened in three days. In keeping with his statement of waiting until next week to really critically analyze the quarterbacks, Gundy said he hasn't overexamined Reid's errant throws.

"I haven't really studied them. You'd have to ask Larry (offensive coordinator Larry Fedora) that," said Gundy. "Probably it's being young and inexperienced, but Larry would know that."

Reid had many successful passes including a rifle out route to Tommy Devereaux that Devereaux turned up for a big gain.

The defense, as previously mentioned, had plenty to crow about. In the inside drill it was somewhat dominant. After Mike Hamilton took a counter all the way on the first play, the defenders woke up. Defensive tackle Ryan McBean and linebacker Lawrence Pinson combined to stuff Julius Crosslin on the next play. Linebacker Pagitte McGee had a couple of tackles, including one on Crosslin for a one-yard loss. Big Walter Thomas, with help from strong safety Jamie Thompson, stopped Hamilton on a stretch play. Freshman defensive end T.J. Minor was in on two tackles. The offense had a couple of fumbles, but it was Xavier Lawson-Kennedy that had the best play as the big defensive tackle blew into the backfield, and with help from linebacker Paul Duren, stopped fullback John Johnson for a three-yard loss.

Cornerback Grant Jones had another good day making several break ups and he had a big hit on Greg Gold in 7-on-7. Then in the extended team period, which also included a two-minute drill, Pinson had the hit so far of the camp as he blasted Crosslin on a play up the middle. It was one of those collisions that reverberated off the nearby buildings.

"It's really good," said Gundy. "The first play (of the team period) he allowed Michael Hamilton to shake him and he didn't wrap up and I yelled at him, so next time he made sure that didn't happen. That's what we want from those guys, (they) have to wrap those back and receivers so that will be a four-yard gain and not a 14-yard gain."

The Cowboys had better get a good night's sleep as they will be back at it at 10 a.m. for the first of two practices on Thursday with the second at 4:45 p.m. Both practices are open to the public.

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