It's been tough to get a sense for the depth chart in the early goings of training camp. However, when the head coach and defensive coordinator start making mention of a few names within the first two days, that should be clarification enough that someone is at least in the mix for a spot.
"It'll be an ongoing process, but the first scrimmage will be a big evaluation," head coach Todd Graham said on Tuesday. "Then, that next week will be a big evaluation. Then right around the week camp ends, where we exchange scouts, it'll be set. We have a couple weeks, really. There will be some (starting spots) who compete throughout the year. There were a lot of exciting young guys competing out there. We have a lot of good competition out there."
One of those names came to fruition after Tuesday morning's practice. In the spring, Graham consistently said that ‘there can never be enough Panthers,' referring to the outside linebacker spot that is a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position meant to impact the quarterback. In the spring, it was Bryan Murphy who played strictly with the first team, while presumed starter Brandon Lindsey had to sit the entire spring out due to an injury.
Things reversed a little on Monday when it was announced that Murphy was declared academically ineligible for the 2011 season. Murphy will return in 2012 as a redshirt sophomore, with three years of eligibility remaining. Also in the spring at Panther was Shayne Hale. Hale started off Monday back at defensive end. Graham confirmed Tuesday that Hale will stay at defensive end. Co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, however, feels that Hale playing at defensive end in this 3-4 scheme, will benefit him even more.
"This system fits Shayne Hale better because now we've moved him to one of those defensive ends," Patterson said. "He's having a great fall camp to this point."
With Lindsey back at full strength, and with Murphy and Hale gone from the Panther back, the door has been opened for true freshman Ejuan Price. Price has made the most of his opportunity thus far. Tuesday morning, he had the equivalent of two sacks. With the quarterbacks being off limits for the most part, the players not being in full pads, it makes it a little different. Price, as the Panther back, is impacting the quarterback as is required to play the position. He also stripped the ball off Tino Sunseri on another hurry.
"The young man from Woodland Hills is pretty special," Graham commented. "I thought Ejuan Price did some special things. He'll be in the mixture there as well. Brandon, that's the type of guys we're looking at."
"Ejuan Price, today, by what he showed today, has a chance to be special," co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson added. "I feel very good. We're very athletic."
Are there differences between the Spur—the spot opposite the Panther? Yes and no, says Patterson. Though it's not likely that the Spur and Panther positions are interchangeable, it is possible. Patterson explained some of the differences in the two outside linebacker positions.
"A Spur, he's more in space, he's the outside backer to the field, he's got to have more playmaking ability, maybe a little bit more defensive back type; linebacker/defensive back," Patterson said. "The Panther has to be more into the boundary, a lot of times where he can end up to the tight call. Therefore, he's got to be a little bit more of a defensive end type; defensive end/linebacker. He's more of a run (stopper). He can still impact the quarterback on a pass rush. That's the biggest difference in the two. They are interchangeable in certain packages."
On the side opposite of Lindsey is a battle between senior Greg Williams and freshman Todd Thomas. Right now, Williams has the lead, and according to Patterson, has a chance to be more effective in this system.
"There's no doubt this system is really going to fit Greg," Patterson said. "He's 240 pounds lining up on a slot receiver. It makes it very difficult for that receiver to get off the line of scrimmage. You're going to throw the ball with all those bubble screens, and all those perimeter runs, and now you're going to block a 240-pound linebacker, essentially with a slot receiver? It's not going to happen. He's got great speed, and he'll be very, very explosive in zone pressure."
The inside positions are starting to sound a little more clear. Some former outside linebackers in the previous system—Joe Trebitz, Manny Williams and Eric Williams—have been moved to either the SAM or the WILL in the new 3-4 scheme. There's also some younger players here, who are making a move in the early part of training camp.
The biggest question entering training camp would be the health of Dan Mason. Though he has been able to line up in some of the 7-on-7, it doesn't appear that Mason is ready for contact just yet. Graham tries to remain optimistic about Mason's chances of returning to the field, but even he isn't sure.
"It's just a day-to-day deal," Graham said. "Dan's got faith and belief that he can make it back. He's still a ways from where he can compete yet."
Even without Mason, the group at the SAM and WILL still sounds pretty good if they're going to start the season without him. There's already a good four in the mix, which includes true freshman LaQuentin Smith.
"Where we're coming on and getting better every day is inside with Gruder and Tristan Roberts, and Shane Gordon," Patterson said. "(Gordon) is having a great camp so far. I feel very strong about those three guys as well as some young guys."
It might be premature to bring a freshman's name into the discussion for a two-deep, but it's evident that Smith is making a very good case this early in camp.
"LaQuentin Smith, a 250-pound freshman who I think has a chance," Patterson said. "He's a WILL linebacker, inside. Really, when you have a 250-pound WILL linebacker in an odd front, when he forces the fit, it's almost like making the run fits nice and tight. I feel good with him. There's guys that continue to impress; some of the younger guys. I feel very good about where we are defensively.
"The two insides are SAM and WILL. I've got Roberts and Gordon at SAM. I have LaQuentin Smith, who's a freshman, with Gruder at WILL. They're probably in the top four. We've moved Eric Williams inside. We like his height into the boundary. He's 6-2 ½ , 6-3 and he has nice range. He's now a WILL linebacker. We moved him to WILL because he'll do some things for us coverage-wise. It makes it difficult on some quarterbacks when you have that kind of height. It creates problems in zone concepts."