When I actually got to the field, I learned that the team had been there since 6:30 or so. I should have known that showing up five minutes early to a Coach Carroll practice was the same as showing up 25 minutes late. Let's just say that these new guys aren't lacking for motivation or desire.
The drills began with a few walk-through repetitions so that the new guys could get a feel for it, but when I say "few," that's exactly what I mean. These guys were ready to go. Pads won't be popping until Monday and the coaches orders are still, "Stay on your feet," but there were more than a few collisions and scrums during the course of the two hour session.
As far as the incoming freshmen are concerned, this class might be a collection of the most talent that a college football team has recruited in a long time. And as the season progresses, time will tell if you can replace that "in a long time" with "ever."
During the practice, several of the new freshmen stood out by displaying great coachability, natural instinct and flat-out otherworldly talent.
The first guy who is going to stand out is Travon Patterson, and you're not going to just hear that from me. If you need it to play wide receiver at the college level, chances are good that Patterson has it. His track speed transitions to excellent football speed and his hands are very good. But more than that, it all seems so easy for Patterson. His fluidity on the field is really something to see. He got the 7-on-7 portion of practice kicked off by taking a quick slant and outracing the defense to the end zone. Trust me; that won't be the last time you hear the words "quick slant," "outrace," and "end zone" in the same sentence following Patterson's name.
On the other side of the ball, Allen Bradford, Shareece Wright, Vincent Joseph, Taylor Mays and Alfred Rowe form an absolutely tenacious secondary. Taylor Mays looks like a man among boys on the field and especially in the secondary huddle as he towers above players and coaches alike. Vincent Joseph intercepted a pass after stepping in front of Patterson and he, like the rest of these guys, has great instinct with the ball in his hands.
It's not so much that these guys are so talented. It's that they're all so talented – as freshmen. And even more than that is the fact that they're all so talented as freshmen – in their first collegiate practice. Color me an optimist, but these boys can play, and they can play now.
I'm still a staunch supporter of experience over raw talent, so I'm not purporting the idea that I was watching the first team offense and defense out there this morning. But with guys like Patterson, Derek Simmons, Stafon Johnson, Anthony McCoy, and Bradford (the list goes on and on) ready to make contributions sooner rather than later, it's getting fun to think about how Coach Carroll and the rest of the staff can use these new toys.
In addition to the freshmen, several veterans were out there taking part in practice. Thomas Williams was the most experienced and acted as something of a player coach to a few of the younger linebackers. He also showed that he's still got the same intensity that made him one of the Trojans' best special teams players and one of the Pac-10's biggest hitters. On one play during a "light" contact drill, Williams caught Stanley Havili coming in front of him on a crossing route and gave him a little pop after Havili caught the pass.
After practice Williams talked about being back out there for practice and the shape of the team heading into the 2006 season.
"It was fun being out there again," he said. "You work hard; you do rehab in the off-season and this is what you look for. You get to come out here, run around, sweat and joke with the guys. You get to go back into the locker room sore from the practice and things like that. It's all the stuff that you miss out on when you're hurt and take for granted when you're not."
Asked about his role as the veteran during this particular practice, Williams said, "It's fun. It definitely has its perks: setting an example, being in the front of the line, doing different things like that. And also, I remember when I was in their situation and didn't know where to go or how fast to practice. So today I could set the tempo and do a good job of leading so they could follow."
The Trojans' depth at linebacker is something that will get a lot of attention this season, as finding the best of this group will be like choosing a final three for Miss Universe. "Oh it's incredible," Williams said of the unit. "I've never been on a team with so many great linebackers. I mean, we've had our fair share with guys like (Matt) Grootegoed, Lofa (Tatupu), Champ Simmons and all those guys, but now we have a solid three-deep. If the first-string guy goes down, we know the second guy is going to step up. If the second-string guy goes down, the third guy will step up. And everybody is so smart mentally that they know all three linebacker positions. It's going to be a heck of an opportunity to compete and the best three, or four, or however many they decide to put on the field will play."
But even with taking into account all the departed talent, new faces at crucial positions and one of the toughest schedules in the nation, the Trojans' mission remains the same. "We want to win the Pac-10 and go to the Rose Bowl," he said. "If they let us go to another bowl, great."
I think, as a Trojan fan still suffering the effects of the first post-practice high of the new season, the infusion of talent that these freshmen will make the Trojans better both directly on the field and indirectly through position battled. And I think Thomas Williams' "other bowl" may turn out to be not a bowl at all. After all, they're just calling it the "Championship Game" this season.