The first day of spring practice kicked off Monday with no meetings, just a variety of drills, practicing with helmets and shoulder pads. The focus was on individual unit drills initially. Each unit on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball performed fundamental drills individually.
These drills allowed the coaches to review the progress of the players and assess how each individual player maintained his technique through the off-season. "They [the coaches] were using the time to see what they had to work with," one observer explained.
The fundamentals of each unit were assessed initially with repetitive fundamental sessions. The stance, base and footwork of each lineman were reviewed by the staff, while the speed and route-running of the wide receivers and defensive backs were assessed. The quarterbacks were also observed for their drop-backs, footwork and releases, as were the linebackers on their footwork, speed and stances. The backfield players were reviewed on their speed and cuts.
The staff shifted some linemen around at times, keeping guys on the offensive and defensive lines for the most part. The shifts were basically to review how the linemen reacted on both the left and right sides of the line and to review their aptitude of plays from either side of the line. Given the situation with the dismissed players, the offensive line staff used the early parts of the drills to assess their overall depth at each position and the ability of each player to play different spots on the line, while also reviewing the fundamentals and technique of each lineman.
In the latter portion of the practice, the offense and defense had the opportunity to go against each other for a period of time in light drills with minimal contact. It was a time where the staff reviewed how each player applied their technique and fundamentals (footwork, stance, base and leverage) to an assignment on the lines. These drills were run for details with some "stop and go" by the staff to correct what they saw on both sides of the ball. While there was some running and passing, "the objectives of the match-up drills were to see the basics."
The wideouts and defensive backs had the opportunity to match up in some drills yesterday as well. To everyone's disappointment Justin King and Derrick Williams did not match-up yesterday.
Mark Rubin has increased his size some and is "more built" he is a challenge for most of the defensive backs to cover given his 2 to 3 inch advantage over most of the secondary players. He did a nice job of "creating separation and boxing out on some routes" yesterday.
All eyes were on Justin King who is "amazing" and "flat out flies" according to two observers. Although King and Williams did not match-up on day one, one observer was so impressed with King that he said "I think King would manhandle Williams - he's that good. I really think he would shut him down in a heartbeat." Keep in mind this is just one observer's opinion.
A surprising comment considering Derrick Williams showed off some moves of his own. On one drill he "shook Chris Harrell so bad, he made him fall over." Williams "is incredibly fast" but his most impressive weapon may be his "razor sharp cuts."
Here are some insider observations and notes we have pulled together on a variety of players as Penn State began the spring sessions.
There is obviously a lot of skepticism around Michael Robinson getting the reins of the program this season with Anthony Morelli waiting in the wings, but observers around the program have seen a "different side of Robinson lately." First off, he does have the clear edge in the QB battle heading into the spring.
As one insider explained, "I have been one of the biggest critics of Robinson, but I think we could see some big things out of him this season."
Michael is said to have "sharp focus" and has apparently said he is giving up alcohol until "January 2006, after we win the national championship," according to another insider.
As comical as many may find that statement, the sentiments are shared by many around the program regarding Robinson. He is constantly watching film, is "always in the gym" and "seems to have the playbook with him everywhere he goes."
Another observer told us, "I just have this feeling that this team could do something big this year with Robinson leading the offense. He has his shot now, and that kid wants something — whether it's a future in the NFL or a ring, it's something and I think he's willing to do what it takes to get there."
His all-around strength is solid and he throws well in drills. The biggest question heading into the spring sessions is his accuracy.
Robinson has really stepped up as the clear leader of the offense, running regular toss drills with the wideouts and tight ends. He is down to 215 pounds, about the lightest he has been at PSU, and is has "submerged himself in the game with workouts, film, drills, film playbook and more film," as another insider shared.
He is also running a lot to improve his speed with the likes of the speed coach, Williams, King and Zemaitis. "He is trying to become lethal in the sense of speed and decision-making. He knows the offense is on his shoulders — it is his chance — he doesn't want to waste it," one observer explained.
Cianciolo has a lot of "fans" around the program who continually praise his all-around work ethic and head for the game. He has a solid 2004 season in practice and is a prospect "many may be overlooking."
One observer describes him as "one of those quiet kids who keeps their head down and just works their ass off. He doesn't stand out in a crowd, but he has a quiet confidence. He lets his actions speak for him." He is aggressive with every aspect of his conditioning and drills. Another observer's comment was, "He pushes himself very hard day in and day out. Aside from that he's upbeat — he has a great attitude."
Cianciolo has "excellent fundamentals." He "can't stand up to Anthony [Morelli] physically, but mentally he has the edge." Although he lacks Morelli's flat out arm strength he throws consistent "snappy" balls with a "quick, confident release." He also has good footwork and an impressive ability to read off multiple receivers.
Cianciolo is expected to play an integral role in the spring sessions. As one program insider put it, "I think he's gonna suprise a lot of people this spring." Many observers have also indicated they would not be surprised to see him seriously pushing Morelli in a "strength vs. smarts battle," with one comment being, "He's the type of player you tend to overlook, especially when you have guys like Morelli and Connor in the class who had a tidal wave of hype coming in."
Purcell has done well with conditioning and "continues to improve with his all-around strength." He has a ways to go in order to get to the level of Matt Rice, Tamba Hali or Lavon Chisley with his strength, but he not "terribly far off from where he should be." His legs are in good shape and "serve him well with his pass-rush game."
He comes off the line well and has a strong tendency to sit low, which helps him pressure his assignment on pass-rushing situations. Although he comes off the line well, he is often "fla-footed" in his stance. The staff is working to get him up on his toes to enhance his mobility, something he didn't seem overly comfortable with last season. He shifts his upper body well, which helps him "leverage and wedge his assignments."
With Hali, Rice and Chisley the clear front-runners at the defensive end spots headed into spring, it is expected that Purcell has a good shot a breaking into the two-deep. We're likely to see Rice on one side and Hali on the other, with Chisley backing up Hali when he needs breathers. Although he could likely make the two-deep Purcell is not expected to see a tremendous amount of playing time this season. He should see reps, but he has "three solid ends who are well above him right now."
OK, it's no shocker that Williams is expected to make a significant impact this coming season, just ask Brennan (who chose him over Justin King in our recent debate over impact rookies) or anyone else in the Nittany Nation. Well, folks around the program who have had the opportunity to see Williams in action seem to share those sentiments.
The predictions around Williams are that he will see some early action thanks to his speed and hands. As one observer said, "We just don't have anything close to his abilities right now. If he can handle the pressure he could have a fantastic freshman year that's Connor-esque."
Williams is expected to be the third or fourth wide receiver in sets, which indicates the offense will be embracing a four-wideout attack this spring. The expectation is that the offensive staff will use him on several crossing routes to throw off the coverage and "provide higher percentage tosses to get to him."
There is skepticism as to whether he sees time on special teams. One statement was, "There is no doubt he can handle it, but we're too thin and he's too valuable to the offense to put him on returns where he can take a nasty hit."
He'll likely get some return experience this spring to give him the feel for the spot, but it's expected that he will focus on contributing to the passing attack first and foremost.