Arguably the deepest and fiercest battle right now is at the wide receiver position, and the first practice of this August camp showed Monday that Luke Powell was unquestionably the top dog. Well Tuesday's practice demonstrated to everyone in attendance that Nick Sebes is going to be a hard man to beat for that #2 starting receiver spot. Sebes was making plays all over the field, catching the ball in the flat and taking it up the sideline, running crossing patterns, and snagging comebacks. And he showed consistent confidence and presence in where to go with the ball after the catch. Without question he was the top performer of the practice, and that stands on top of an already impressive day Monday.
"I felt pretty good," he understates. "It's not that I feel anything different this fall. I'm just trying to make the most out of every play that I can. You look at how many guys we have competing at the position right now, and you feel the urgency to make plays when you get your chance. I'm also trying to give an all-out effort on all my plays, even if I'm not the one catching the ball. There's a block downfield or an extra screen you can set, and those are the things we need to all do to be a successful football team. That's the attitude we need."
There certainly is a confident and productive attitude about this redshirt junior, but there also is an aura of wisdom and accumulated experience that is paying off for him. "With every year you get a little older and a little more comfortable with what you are doing," Sebes explains. "And physically I feel better this year - a little stronger and a little faster. But it's pretty much attitude. You have to have a little something extra pushing you."
The attitude and effort is also being shown by J.R. Lemon, who put in another great day on the field. When a shakeup occurred before camp with available jersey numbers, Lemon told head coach Buddy Teevens that he wanted to wear #9. Teevens told him he could have it, but he wanted to see the redshirt sophomore tailback earn it. He wanted to see fire and productivity. Lemon is delivering, with big bursts up the field both running and receiving. But what probably lit up the coaches' eyes the most in this practice was the blocking some 30 yards down the field by Lemon for Brandon Royster. Royster had caught one of the few truly deep balls of the day, and Lemon was blocking T.J. Rushing to help get his offensive teammate in the endzone.
Another tailback who grabbed everyone's attention was freshman David Marrero. He had some very smooth catches out of the backfield, and on one play during 11-on-11 action he put an incredible move on a defensive back about 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. After that, Marrero was gone to the promised land of paydirt, and there were squeals of amazement and approval from his offensive teammates. A lot of talk of "ankle breaking" on that play.
Two more freshmen who delivered today were Michael Okwo and Evan Moore. Both had some ups and downs Monday adjusting to the speed of the upperclassmen, but both made noticeable improvements Tuesday. You could hear the cheers of approval from their coaches.
The quarterbacks are still a mixed bag, with nobody yet delivering the real goods. Ryan Eklund and T.C. Ostrander are probably trailing the other three, with Eklund getting picked off too many times and Ostrander throwing behind receivers now that the game speed has picked up.
On the offensive line, I noted a continuation of some of the experimentation I noted Monday. This time, there was more of it. Jon Cochran played up with the first string O-line first, though on his normal right side rather than the left. Then Drew Caylor moved up to first string center, and finally Matt McClernan moved up to first string left tackle. Brian Head also worked out some at right guard when Caylor moved up. For sure, this was not an indication that the depth chart is changing. Instead, OL coach Steve Morton is taking advantage of the many snaps they have in practice to play his players with different combinations. There will be exhaustive film evaluation in the evenings to assess what is working with whom, and I'll be paying close attention to the line these coming weeks.
Speaking of the offensive line, there already is some very favorable talk on David Long. True, he's got a little too much weight on him (reportedly at 330 pounds), and it looks like he's got the proverbial tire around his waist. True, he is not going to move as quickly as smaller tackles. But in the one-on-one drills against the defensive linemen, Long is showing great recovery. He's making it really tough for ends to get around him, utilizing his good and fluid footwork. He's still a project at his size, but in two or three years he could make a real impact for this offense with pass protection.
On the other side of the line, Teevens had to step in and settle down the rabid DL during scrimmage work. With only helmets and shock pads, the players are supposed to be playing at "strip speed," which means that the defensive linemen make their initial move against the OL, but then stop. Don't go all out through the guys, and if a running back comes by you with the ball in your lane, you can take a swipe at the ball. But guys like Casey Carroll are already going full bore, and Teevens had to grin as he reminded them of the speed of these practices. This tells me that when full pads come on Friday and full contact is allowed, some serious helmet crashing will be coming.
A few assorted plays of note:
- Gerren Crochet caught a very nice backside screen, which he then took and exploded through his blockers for a big gain. That is an excellent play to utilize Crochet's straight-line speed and one we'll hopefully see this fall
- Evan Moore used his big body to help move Leigh Torrence off the spot on one play, and got himself a yard of clear separation for a nice comeback reception
- Brandon Harrison recorded an interception off classmate T.C. Ostrander
- T.J. Rushing displayed his vertical leaping ability to go up and snag a Ryan Eklund pass for a pick
In depth chart news, Casey Carroll is again running with the first team at defensive tackle alongside Babatunde Oshinowo. Amon Gordon is second team with Scott Scharff. That may generate buzz among fans, but the coaches say that all four will rotate heavily and find themselves playing about half the game. In the defensive backfield, Trevor Hooper swapped spots with Timi Wusu at the first string strong safety position. That is a close battle and one to watch.
Special teams received a fair amount of attention Tuesday, with the focus this practice on kickoff returns. Plenty of coaches were involved, with Wayne Moses instructing the return men; Dave Tipton instructing the wedge blockers; and both Tom Quinn and Buddy Teevens worked with the front line. A lot of technique and assignments are being handed out, and this is an area that will improve with repetition. But it was also interesting to look at the personnel. For example, how would you like to run behind the first team wedge of Cooper Blackhurst, Alex Smith, Brett Pierce and Casey Carroll? Woof. You would feel pretty good running behind the next group as well, with Julian Jenkins, Louis Hobson, Taualai Fonoti and Matt Traverso leading the way.
With Ryan Wells now graduated and departed, and his years of kickoff return production gone with him, there is a pretty wide open competition for the return spots. A few of the main pairs that ran today were Nick Sebes with T.J. Rushing, Kenneth Tolon with Marcus McCutcheon; and Luke Powell with David Lofton. Gerren Crochet and Leigh Torrence were also in the mix. The permutations and combinations are seemingly endless, and it will be a tough task to sort out who are the truly best options on this roster. And we have yet to even explore some of the explosive freshmen like David Marrero.
In the vein of special teams action: though Michael Sgroi didn't kick any balls Monday, he already is stepping up his load with several shots in Tuesday's practice. He took six field goal kicks from a standing position, and then eight regular kicks approaching the ball. The balls were strong and sure. After practice, Sgroi said that his back was fine. "I feel great," he beamed with a big smile.
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