The first practice open to the public is in the books and ready for breakdown. It also happened to be the first practice with live tackling. There is certainly a long way to go but there were some bright spots.
First to the news. Michael Rector did not participate in today's practice due to a disciplinary issue. Head Coach David Shaw would not elaborate on it other then to say Rector would miss some more time.
Aziz Shittu went down with what appeared to be a knee injury at the end of practice. It was a scary moment for a player that is just returning from a knee injury at a position where the Cardinal absolutely need him at full strength. The good news is that Shaw says he was just kicked in the knee and it was nothing major. Shaw said if practice were to go another half hour, Shittu would have returned. But since he only had three snaps left, there was no need.
So, I'll break this down group by group. But words of warning first. Take it all with the old grain of salt. The observations are based on today. While we all want to jump on them as fact and assume all is as seen, I haven't seen the rest of practices. So was this just a good day for someone? A bad day? All it really is is what I saw and thought at the time. Okay, enough with the silly disclaimer. Here we go:
Kevin Hogan is the starter. He looked like Kevin Hogan. Now on to the question all are concerned about. Who is the backup? Keller Chryst seemed to get more of the second string snaps although there was a fine line between second and third strings. From the naked eye Ryan Burns started out better with some nice deep throws in warmups. But when they started playing 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 I though Chryst looked sharper. The key difference I noticed is Chryst looked more comfortable in the pocket. He would stand in there and try to force the ball to a receiver. Usually he was successful although one interception came when Dalton Schultz bobbled the ball and Blake Martinez made a great play taking it away. Burns would drop back, look around, and then go into scramble mode. And a lot of that was happening during 7-on-7 drills.
"They are both doing things better than they did even last spring," Shaw said. "But there is a lot of things that both guys need to improve on. We're taking baby steps with each one of those guys. We're logging and cataloging everything they do. We're not ready to put it in an equation yet. I think we are still collecting data. Both players are better than they were in the spring but neither guy is where we need them to be to truly be a backup quarterback."
As he warmed up, Chryst showed better accuracy of the two overall. But again, but made some nice plays and some not so nice. Long way to go for both.
Christian McCaffrey was the best player on the field. He was just too fast for the defense. He was elusive, and when he needed to, he even ran with power. He did not get too many carries, but he did have two plays for 40+ yards and he had a 70-yard run called back by holding. As McCaffrey goes so will the offense?
Shaw likes all his backs this year. "I'm excited. I'm been pleased with both Cameron Scarlett and Bryce Love. Our three guys (McCaffrey, Barry J Sanders and Remound Wright) are ready to play. I have a lot of comfort with that group right now because I think we have three legitimate full time running backs, not just part timers. I'm cautiously optimist about the whole group."
Love really stuck out. I was just writing in my notes about how he was a standout player when he fumbled the ball. So no one is perfect. He is small at 5-10, 184-pounds but he ran with speed, showed good hands catching the ball, and he was able to lower the shoulders and run between the tackles. He really did stand out as one of the top performers behind McCaffrey.
Not a lot to judge here. No Devon Cajuste who is still recovering from an ankle injury. Rector was out so there were lots of snaps for others, but most of the plays seemed to go to running backs and tight ends. Francis Owusu had a couple of nice catches and runs. He seems to be the most talented of the rest and there is real opportunity for him.
"I've told myself, the little details are what will make you great," Owusu says of what he is personally working on. "I'm working on top of the routes, getting in and out of my breaks. Coach Pritchard is doing a great job with us and making us work on that stuff."
Owusu likes what he sees from the entire group. "We're feeling good. As a whole I think we're looking good. We have some young guys that are ready to step up to the plate. The older guys are ready to lead them."
Owusu said Trenton Irwin has looked good but he did have two drops early today. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is big and looked like he has some potential. It will be interesting to see how they both develop and whether that is for this year or next.
It sure feels like Tight End U is back. Austin Hooper was out working through an injury. Shaw expects him back full go on Monday. Greg Taboada had some very nice catches. He showed more speed on the deep outside then I remember him having last year. He caught everything that came his way. Dalton Schultz also stuck out. He had the one bobble previously mentioned but it seemed like he caught everything else and a lot of those were short routes in traffic. Eric Cotton showed he could play last year yet today he seemed more like the third stringer. As a group, these guys haven't taken a step back.
Here are the starters for today left to right: Kyle Murphy, Josh Garnett, Graham Shuler, Brendon Austin and Casey Tuckery. Before live hitting, Nick Davidson was rotating in with Tucker at right tackle, but Davidson is not 100% yet. The second string line was A.T. Hall, Jesse Burkett, Johnny Caspers, Brandon Fanaika and David Bright.
Caspers did play right guard when Austin got a bit banged up and sat out a few plays. Given all there was to watch, I can't honestly say anyone stood out really good, bad or indifferent. As a group they did some nice things. Individually they did get beat a time or five.
Garnett and Murphy are the clear vocal leaders. During "Oklahoma" drills they were both yelling at their offensive line teammates and their defensive foes. Neither is shy, and both like to hit. Having talked with both I can tell you they are true gentlemen off the field, but they both seem to have a bit of nasty edge to them today. Just what you want from your offensive linemen.
This is the group everyone wonders about. So far, so good. What I saw today corroborated what I had thought preseason: This unit will be better than expected, but it is ultra thin and one or two injuries and it is big time trouble for the defense. Shittu going down was a big scare. He had looked pretty darn good during practice.
"They are a united front," Shaw said. "They are playing well together. They are communicating extremely well. they are pushing each other. Aziz has been outstanding. Harrison Phillips has been very good. Brennan Scarlett has been giving us some added juice that we needed. Solomon Thomas. We have been waiting to see this guy play. Coming back live, he is bigger, faster and stronger than he was a year ago. He has been outstanding. I think we have a really good group of front line guys. And some competition for playing time behind those guys. It's nice to see with our biggest question mark on the team, feeling good about the guys in the room now."
The top group held its own all day. Nobody in the secondary groups stuck out. Again, depth is an issue here and while the top four guys are obvious, to complete the six man plus rotation, there are spots available.
I felt like this group really stuck out to me at spring ball. Not so much today. Kevin Anderson was very good and made some plays on the outside. Blake Martinez did his thing. But looking for the youngsters to step up, nobody did.
Jordan Perez started next to Martinez. Anderson and Peter Kalambayi started on the outside. Looked like the backup four included Kevin Palma, Bobby Okereke, Joey Alfieri and Mike Tyler, but there was so much rotation it was really difficult to tell who would be considered the actual second team.
Anderson says he's been very happy with the defense so far. "We've been flying around. We've had so much energy. Someone brings it every day and gets everyone else going if others are down and tired. Between Ronnie Harris, Aziz Shittu, Blake Martinez, they are getting everyone riled up."
Anderson is very fired up for the season in front of him as well. "I feel pretty good. I'm in the best shape of my life. I'm excited to try to translate that into football."
Freshman Casey Toohill made a couple of nice plays in 7-on-7 including an interception.
The starters today were Ronnie Harris, Alijah Holder, Dallas Lloyd and Brandon Simmons. But two plays later we were into the nickel that included bringing Terrence Alexander and Taijuan Thomas into the scrimmage. The rotations just got fast and furious from there.
Athletically this squad just looks the part. For the most part nobody went scampering through the secondary wide open. There were a couple of nice picks. Maybe my judgement is colored by my conversation last week with coach Duane Akina, but I think this unit will be fine because there is so much solid competition. Kodi Whitfield was still not participating due to injury.
The best way to make an inexperienced defensive backfield good, is with a pass rush, so the true development here may just depend on the front seven. But there are clearly some players here. Who will they end up being? Check back on this one.
The kickers were not featured today. "We're really going to ramp that up as we get into next week," Shaw said. "The guys need to get used to snappers and holders and the rush. Coach Pete has only had them for four days so we have to make sure they are doing all the right things before we even have them compete. It is early to truly compete."
I'll have more from coach Pete Alamar on the subject in a Q&A tomorrow.
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