The sky was clear but a significant southeast wind was blowing on the tenth day of spring practice on The Farm. Stanley Wilson, Calvin Armstrong, Michael Craven, and Gerald Commissiong were present but did not participate in any of the contact drills due to injury. They spent the majority of the time either on the sidelines or on an exercise bike. Josiah Vinson and Alex Smith were also inactive due to leg injuries. Vinson was a known quantity, but Smith took us by surprise as he sat with the freshman offensive guard in a golf cart on the sidelines. Smith had his left foot in a heavy boot and walked around later with crutches. A scary sight to be sure, given the incredible talent he has shown this spring, coupled with the unmatched importance of the tight end in the offense for 2003. Undoubtedly, this injury had to be tied to an incident Wednesday where he rolled his ankle and then twitched in pain on the ground. But we didn't think much of it given that Smith bounced up soon thereafter and walked around on the ankle. Later in practice, he was running on it. But tight ends coach revealed after practice that Smith had sprained his ankle, with the swelling surging after practice. He is wearing the boot while the swelling is high and it is unknown if he will miss the remainder of spring football or not. He is definitely out for Saturday's 11th practice, though.
Justin McCullum was curiously absent from practice, and we later learned that he had come down with food poisoning the other night after going out to eat for a dinner. McCullum had to go to the hospital and was too sick Friday to even come to the sidelines in street clothes.
The offense worked on run-throughs in the early going. The emphasis on establishing a "horizontal" game was evident. Chris Lewis, Trent Edwards, and Kyle Matter practiced pitch outs and the option. Many of the pitches went to the flanker in motion off of a play action fake. The option had some success, but there still are some growing pains with this new part of the offense.
Later on, the offensive line and the running backs broke off to practice basic blocking tactics. We saw extensive work on run blocking as well as blocking for passes out of the backfield. Buddy Teevens commented after practice that he is seeing incremental improvements in the young OL. "You can see their progress each day," Teevens noted with his two hands a few inches apart, motioning sideways the steady improvements. "It's little bits at a time, but definitely they are coming along."
The offense and defense united to practice the running game at what I would call three-quarters speed. With the runner ruled down at first contact, it was nearly impossible to gain yards up the middle. The offense found more success on the outside as Kenneth Tolon scored on a sweep and Chris Lewis hit pay dirt on a quarterback keeper.
Eric Johnson had the opportunity to punt with a rush coming directly for him, in what would be described as a "live" punting drill for both sides of the ball. The results were pleasantly surprising for the fifth year senior. Although it was difficult to judge the distance of his punts from the area we were standing, it appeared that his worse punt was no less than 40 yards long. The best was a high sailing rocket, well north of 50 yards. Returner Luke Powell spent most of those repetitions running backward to try and catch the ball over his shoulder. All punts had adequate hang time. Out-kicking the return coverage is one problem that many Cardinalmaniacs would not mind seeing after the program's recent struggles in the punting department. All of the snaps (from Drew Caylor) were accurate, with the exception of one that was too soft and bounced before it got to Johnson.
The squad converged again for more 11-on-11 play later in the practice, this time with the focus on the air game. Lewis, Edwards, and Matter rotated in taking reps while David Lofton and Ryan Eklund watched attentively. Perhaps due to the wind, all of the quarterbacks were a bit erratic early in the scrimmage. As the drill progressed, the accuracy appeared to improve. It is notable that Kyle Matter received some repetitions in the tight quarterback rotation, as Lewis and Edwards had dominated the snaps the past week. Teevens confided after practice a revelation about the strategy for the QB practice time. "Last year, Kyle gained a lot of experience with a lot of work in games and practices," he opened. "He can see things better right now, look down the field and boom, boom know what to do. Trent is down here (motioning with one hand lower than the other) in his understanding, but his upside gives him a chance to be up here (raising the lower hand). So we set out to give Trent more reps to give him a chance to show what he can do. Kyle had the advantage in the fall, and now Trent gets a chance to catch up. Kyle was of course a little frustrated but is patient and understanding. We told the guys we can't spread the reps through five guys, so there are going to continue to be trade-offs."
After dropping several passes earlier, Luke Powell promptly turned things around in the 11-on-11 scrimmage, scoring twice off of long passes, both from around 40 yards out. The separation Powell was able to get between himself and the defenders was encouraging for those in attendance. More precisely, he showed that extra burst of speed in the final ten yards of the pattern that we last saw from him in the 2001 season. It's official: Cool Hand Luke is back! And for the record, Lewis threw the first pass while Matter launched the second. For Matter, it was an outstanding throw at a distance where he has previously struggled to throw consistently and with good pace. His arm strength has certainly improved. You just wish his throwing motion could be a little shorter for those balls, though.
Also having a strong day was Brandon Royster, who nabbed several difficult passes. The most impressive was his reception of a bullet from Edwards. It was threaded through traffic to get to Royster, who was running a slant. Observers watching the practice uniformly raised their eyebrows and dropped their jaws at the Edwards bullet, which reminded Cardinal fans of another heralded California quarterback from twenty-some years ago. You wonder if that laser left an "Elway X" on Royster's chest. Nick Sebes also showed why he is solidly in the top three at the receiver position with a couple excellent catches. We all know about his speed, but he showed on one play the timing and leaping to go up and get a tough ball against perfectly tight coverage by the cornerback. It was the type of body control and timing we loved about Troy Walters, and if Sebes shows that consistently, 2003 may finally be his breakout year.
Brett Pierce was nearly automatic running shorter routes. With Smith out of practice, that thrust Matt Traverso into first string duty in the many two-TE formations. Though it is a tragic shame to lose Smith for any number of practices, Traverso has the chance to benefit from the repetitions in much the same way that Smith came of age last fall while Pierce was lost for the season. Pierce, incidentally, banged up his knee in Wednesday's practice but did not tell any of the coaches or trainers because he didn't want to be taken out of any snaps or practices. You would never know from watch him work that day or Friday, and we only know because his father Duane was down from Washington state and carefully watching from the rail. Pierce needs to be prudent enough to stay healthy and not do himself any undo damage, but you have to love that warrior mentality. Play through the pain.
Edwards and the newly converted center Drew Caylor had multiple fumbles on the snap, which we have seen for more than a week now. Edwards was the sole quarterback that was experiencing this problem as neither Lewis nor Matter suffered from this affliction. Coaches have noted that the combination of a new center and a new quarterback has made for some miscommunication on the center exchange. Caylor has a tendency to pull the ball with him as he breaks to the side off the snap, while Edwards has a tendency to pull away from the center quickly to begin his drop. On a more positive note, all three of the quarterbacks who received reps were given the necessary pass protection needed to find receivers downfield. Observers and coaches agreed that it was a serious step forward for the offense Friday, though Teevens was equally disappointed with a few of the QBs' decisions. There were a couple passes thrown for picks that should have been thrown away, and this gets back to the core theme of protecting the ball that Teevens wants to ingrain into his signal callers.
Defensively, the star was linebacker Jon Alston. Alston deflected two passes that were plucked from the air by another defender for an interception. David Bergeron snagged the first of the batted balls on a dead run and sprinted down the sideline. Casey Carroll grabbed the second ball and rumbled a few yards before being tackled. In the winding moments of the scrimmage, Alston was able to get his hands on yet another pass, only to maintain possession this time for an INT of his own. It was a high ball that he plucked from the air at short range, one of the toughest interceptions for a linebacker. A great series of plays for Alston that can only help his confidence and that of his position coach, Tom Williams, in him.
Also big kudos to Leigh Torrence for the best play by a defensive back on the day, as he leapt for a perfectly timed play on the ball versus a receiver. Torrence arched his back just enough to get on top of the WR without committing pass interference, and came up with the ball as he went down to the ground. Fantastic play. One other note in the defensive backfield is that Grant Mason received the first string repetitions at left cornerback alongside Torrence (right CB). T.J. Rushing had grabbed that spot last week, but now it appears the battle is heating up. Rushing had a tough day with a couple of plays where he was beaten, but this competition will be great to watch over the final week of spring.
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