Spring Football Update

Rocket Digest reporter Karl Rofkar went to the Glass Bowl today for his first practice look at the 2009 Rockets. While Karl did not get to see any actual practice time, he did talk to Coach Beckman before practice and got to observe a special guest speaker at the beginning of practice. Reado on for more on Karl's first practice report.

I went to the Glass Bowl today for my first practice look at the 2009 Rockets. Media is limited to the first 30 minutes of each practice, so I was prepared to take as many pictures and take in as much as I could in that time.

I left a little disappointed, because I wasn't able to actually see any practice. I did, however, have the chance to hear some of the talk by a guest speaker Coach Beckman had brought in, and that made up for not seeing any action. More on that shortly.

I was met by Coach Beckman as I came into the stadium 15 minutes before the start of practice, and he was kind enough to give me his thoughts on the preseason so far. I asked Coach to tell me what he was pleased with so far and what he wasn't so pleased with. The thing he is most pleased with may be the most important thing of all: "The kids have really bought in, that's the biggest thing. They've all played extremely well, and they're doing things that shows, as a coach, that they're fun to coach and that we can be successful."

Coach's guest speaker reiterated the importance of the players "buying in", of doing everything the staff asks of them. He mentioned another coach who told his players that if he told them all to go squat on the sidelines and pee, they'd do it, because they believed in their coach.

Of the things he didn't like so far, Beckman said "we still have too many mistakes. We're still teaching them the tempo and intensity we'd like them to play at. They're getting better and better every day, but you just wish it could happen overnight."

Coach Beckman reiterated that roster moves at this point are written in pencil, and the staff is still very much looking at moving people around to find the best fit.

We talked a bit about the offensive line, for instance, and that seems to be a great example of the experimenting they're doing. It's been mentioned that Kevin Kowalski is #1 on the current depth chart at center, for instance, yet Jared Dewalt was scheduled to play there some today. "We all know that right now, they're all going to be a part of every position on the offensive line. The more that the young men understand ALL the positions, the more successful we're going to be as a whole."

Defensively, Coach again mentioned Malcolm Riley as a bright spot this spring, saying "he's really stepped his game up." As for the linebackers, Coach said "We've been playing a lot of bodies there, different people, moving Archie Donald around, even moving Barry Church around a little bit. It's still, I think, one of the strengths we have defensively, but it's a position that needs to continue to improve, continue to learn what we're doing." Coach said that two freshmen are also doing well at linebacker, and reiterated the benefits of all the competition.

In the recent past, coaches have tried to keep the Rockets from sustaining any unnecessary injuries by limiting contact in practices, and that was cited occasionally as one of the reasons for the suspension of the Spring Game. Word has been that this year's squad is doing much more full contact in practice, so it gets pretty heated. "Last time I was involved in coaching football, I think football is pretty much a contact sport. So that's what we're gonna do. We're gonna be tough, we're gonna try to out-work people, and we're gonna try to out-physical people. It's amazing…people talk about ‘you're a spread offense'. Well if you can't run the football…you're not gonna be successful running the spread. It still comes down to running and blocking people, getting off blocks and tackling, so we've got to practice those things, practice them hard, and get better at every one of them."

I asked Coach Beckman if it was too early to be thinking about the opposition coming up in the fall, and to my surprise he said "No. As a matter of fact, we do it. Every day there's a different opponent we're playing against. Right now, we just happen to be in the first game of our Mid American Conference schedule, which is Ball State day, and we'll have two days of Ball State." Reminded about the Rockets' past difficulties at Ball State, Coach said they had talked about that a bit this morning, reminding the players that this is a new team.

Back at the Spring Media Day press conference, Coach Beckman said that the staff had over 1200 high school kids on campus to date, and today was no different. There were 30 players from Boardman High School over in Akron. Coach said their coach likes to take the players around to college campuses so the kids get a chance to see how a college team practices, then added that he will be doing the same with his players and pro practices. The idea is that "if that's where you want to go, you'd better go see how they practice."

The outreach going on with high schools, their coaches, the Toledo community, has been mentioned numerous times, and it's ongoing and expanding. One of our loyal readers, a former player, says that this is the first time he's been contacted since he graduated.

And Coach Beckman has said that the Spring Game this year will be coached by former players, "guest coaches". The lineup isn't complete yet, but Coach said that Jalen Parmele has been enlisted to coach one of the teams, and so far two other former Rockets are on board as well, one of which took me by surprise: Bruce Gradkowski and Wasean Tate. I expect that Wasean Tate's name being added to the mix is going to attract a lot of fan interest. Bruce and Jalen will be working with the Blue team, while Wasean will be with the Gold team.

"It'll be awesome to have these guys back," said Beckman. We'll have highlight tapes of the guys at halftime. This is all about them. This isn't about the current players. This is about the tradition of the Toledo Rocket football program. We hope every one of them comes back."

Today's guest speaker? None other than legendary Findlay coach and former Rocket assistant Dick Strahm. Coach Strahm talked with the players, including the kids from Boardman, for about 20 minutes at the start of practice. His topic, in a nutshell, was commitment to the staff, the program, and most especially, each other.

Coach Strahm has a biography, written by John Grindrod, called "Just Call Me Coach". Strahm said his book includes a story about legendary UT defensive lineman Mel Long Sr. The story is about Long as a player of course, but also touches on his time in Vietnam before landing at UT, and how he won the Silver Star. Long never talked about his service until after his final game, when he shared a bottle of scotch with Coach Strahm and told him the story.

I won't go into all that here, but I'd recommend you find the book and read it. Strahm used the story to illustrate to the players just what it means when they tell each other "I've got your back".



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