With "speed all around the defensive backfield" (as one observer put it) the coaches are looking at a variety of other factors, incluing:
Route coverage: As a practice observer explained, "Speed is essential in the way this defense is now run -- but that speed is useless if it can't be controlled. Tom [Bradley] and Brian [Norwood] are focused on building the seconary with guys who can run tight and make reads. Remember, Tom not only coached the seconary but he played in this secondary, so he understands what the positions need to run well."
Technique: The coaches are also focused on the fundamentals of the players, like "getting off the line cleanly and shifting into their stride." They are running drills to identify how they use their hands, take angles and pursue.
Reads: According to another practice observer, "Coach Norwood seems very focused on the guys' ability to read receivers -- like on cuts and posts -- and how the react to those reads."
The defensive backs have been running a variety of drills to test these various skills the staff is looking to assess. Here are some of the major drills the unit has seen:
Transitions: The defensive backs run "transition drills" that work their ability to shift from a backpeddle run off the line to a full coverage stride, which "sounds easy, but can hang up good DBs." The drill focuses on their footwork and agility making the transition
Reads: The players are also drilled on how they make reads off the line. They match up against a receiver at the line of scrimmage and attempt to read his initial direction and match it with his body and footwork.
Pursuits: Pursuit drills are where a coach typically plays quarterback. They have a wide receiver on either side of him with the defensive backs lined up. The coach snaps the ball passes it to one of the wideouts, who sprints at full speed down the sideline. At that point every defensive back has to react and sprint to reach the ball carrier. "The drill really tests closing speed and is a big challenge if you are on the opposite side of the field."
Here are some early spring assessments of some of the defensive back candidates:
Justin King: King is described as "polished" and "a pure corner." As one observer put it, "Justin's experience and overall confidence set him apart. His abilties are great, but having been on the field he is more sure of himself and is becoming a more vocal leader out there."
Tony Davis: Described as "the best kept secret at corner," Davis "has speed, power and good all-around technique. The consensus among observers is that he has the edge to land the starting job. He continues to run first team opposite King when healthy, though he is expected to miss at least a couple of days of practice after dislocating a finger Wednesday.
Lydell Sargeant: Sargeant has seen the bulk of his reps at corner so far this spring. "He has one of the fastest 40s on the team and could really emerge as a corner." He plays "tough" and "smart" but needs to work on his overall coverage skills.
Knowledge Timmons: Timmons "has another gear" and "flies in coverage." Although he is among the fastest he needs to continue to work on his control of that speed. "When you compare, say King and Timmons," one observer explained, "they are both super fast, but King adjusts very well to a move the receiver puts on him. Timmons is easier to knock off the route with a cut or move."
Willie Harriott: The redshirt year has paid dividends for Harriott. "He's stronger and has much more control over his runs," according to one observer. Harriott is expected to be in the two-deep mix and was called "the most improved DB" by one practice observer.
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