First, and foremost, the quarterback situation is still wide open. While junior Bill Stull is the unquestioned leader right now, both redshirt junior Kevan Smith and freshman Pat Bostick are in the mix. But Bostick, who was held out of Thursday morning's practice due to NCAA rules that limit practice time during the first four days a player is in camp, must catch up quickly.
Bostick will return in the afternoon session and along with the others have a large group of talent to work with at running back, wideout and tight end. But the second main point of contention is the offensive line, and that won't solidify -- at the earliest -- until fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn returns on a full-time basis next week for the University of Pittsburgh.
Thirdly, the defense will be much better than last year. How could it not? The front wall will be much-improved and the linebacking corps, in particular, will be fun to watch. Defensive coordinator-linebackers coach Paul Rhoads believed that there were 7-8 players vying for the top six linebacker spots.
"During camp, it provides you with the opportunity to work some extra things, because you're not yet in the mindset to prepare for the opener,'' Rhoads said. "So, you're preparing for extra things that you might see during the season, and you're also preparing individuals to cross-train. So, at this point, we're just moving guys around to see what they can do.
"And they also can gain more knowledge to play somewhere else if we have to juggle it in a game for whatever reason. (But) I'm very pleased with the competition and the level of play that it's providing. So, nobody on that field can afford to take a practice off, because they have a chance to fall behind if they do that. And nobody wants to fall behind at this point.''
While redshirt sophomore Shane Murray has missed some time recently with horrendous blisters on his feet due to shoe problems, redshirt freshman Nate Nix and fifth-year senior Jemeel Brady have stepped up. Both have taken first-team reps, but Murray is expected to return soon, possibly as early as this afternoon.
"Shane's in a battle, and he understands that,'' Rhoads said. "So, I wouldn't expect him to be on the sideline much longer with those horrendous blisters. But Jemeel Brady, who missed all the spring after postseason surgery, and Nate Nix, who has been bounced back and forth from Sam (strong-side linebacker) and Will (the weak side), are having darn good camps.''
Rhoads noted that while redshirt junior Scott McKillop appears to be solidified at middle linebacker, there are question marks at the backup spots. Redshirt freshman Dan Loheyde and redshirt sophomore Steve Dell, who are both still battling back from surgery last fall, are working hard to get there. That's why redshirt junior Adam Gunn was shifted to the middle. He is still McKillop's backup, but he is taking reps at both the Sam and Mike spots now.
That leaves sophomore Dorin Dickerson as the top strong-side linebacker, although Gunn got a lot of reps with the first team Thursday morning. Dickerson noted that while he has made his share of plays thus far, he has also missed some because he can tend to be over-aggressive. Gunn, on the other hand, is more accountable, Rhoads said.
"If you were just worried about a percentage grade, who was right and wrong every snap on where they were, then Adam Gunn would grade out very high,'' Rhoads said. "Conversely, if you were looking at a production grade, Dorin would grade out higher because he makes more plays.
"So, there's a happy medium to find. That's why a position by committee offsets that a little bit. When you're required to take on a lineman, there's a big difference for any of those guys just because of size and stature. For Shane to come up to take on a 300-pounder, that wouldn't be too effective.
"Shane and Adam and Jemeel just don't have the poundage yet, but getting off blocks isn't something you can coach a lot,'' Rhoads added. "You just get better by doing it, and those guys can do it. They have excellent athleticism, and that's why they can move from safety to linebacker and get the job done. And make no mistake, these guys can do a good job for us.''
Rhoads also threw freshman Max Gruder's name in the mix, but then quickly added that he didn't want to talk about the freshmen so much because he was unsure which ones could contribute now or which ones would need a redshirt year before they are asked to help supply linebacker depth.
"I think what I'm most pleased with is what I thought all along that this group is, and that's a blue-collar group that is very intent,'' Rhoads said. "And at this point in camp, when everybody's tired and beat up, they are still in there working hard and learning.
In a couple practice notes: Senior TE Darrell Strong has picked things up offensively recently and had another nice catch downfield on a Stull pass. He beat fifth-year senior CB Kennard Cox in a 7-on-7 drill. ... Redshirt freshman DE Greg Romeus apparently has returned to practice without missing a beat, as he ran down speedy junior TB LaRod Stephens-Howling in one drill. But Romeus, who played off a block and tracked Stephens-Howling down the line just wasn't able to completely wrap up the elusive runner and gave up a few more yards. However, it could've been a big gainer if Romeus wasn't there.
In goal-line drills: Freshman Wayne Jones blasted up the middle and nailed fullback Henry Hynoski in the backfield. Hynoski was in the tailback spot behind redshirt sophomore fullback Shane Brooks. ... Smith hit Brooks with a TD pass on the next play. ... Also, Dell and safety Jovani Chappel slammed the line to stop junior FB Conredge Collins up the middle.
Two injury notes: Frosh DB Sherod Murdock from Tampa, Fla. spent most of practice on the trainer's table. ... Redshirt sophomore Mick Williams had headaches and missed the practice. This prompted a good "talking to'' from Coach Dave Wannstedt after practice.
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