Rantoul2012 XIX: First Practice In Pads August 8, 2012
I totally just crashed. Turned on the TV for the first time in a couple days and fell asleep to the Hungary/Italy water polo game. I played intramural water polo my freshman year with a bunch of guys from Forbes Hall. I was the goalie. There was this bar under the water that framed the whole goal, and when the intramural official wasn’t looking, I stood on the bar. Treading water is hard.
The existence of this tangential thought means that my nap was necessary. I was on about a 48 hour run of go to practice, return directly to the hotel, type words for 6 hours, and either go back to practice or try to sleep. Around noon, right after I coded the audio from this morning’s interviews, I felt like I had nothing left in the tank. A nap, some food, and a shower, and I’m back. Overflowing with thoughts from this morning’s practice.
+ This was the last practice for the Blue squad (first and fourth string players) before the two squads merge tomorrow. It was also the first practice in shoulder pads – Monday and Tuesday were helmets and shorts. They’re still not in full pads, as that comes on Friday. But once the shoulder pads go on, the 11 on 11 drills become real football without the tackling. And sometimes with the tackling (i.e. “sorry coach I didn’t mean to but after the receiver caught the ball I couldn’t get my shoulder out of the way of his midsection”).
When this happens, I always watch the line play. There might not be tackling and hitting from the skill positions, but the offensive and defensive linemen get after it. It’s the first chance to see how, say, a freshman offensive lineman does against Akeem Spence. Some matchups I remember:
Justin Staples v. Ryan Nowicki
Staples had been reading the snap count that Nathan was using. I don’t think they’d switched up the cadance much. So on the snap – and I mean right on the snap of the ball – Staples took off for the corner. Nowicki didn’t know what hit him. He did his normal 5-step shuffle for a pass play, but it was too late. Justin Staples was already greeting Nathan Scheelhaase.
Vontrell Williams v. Joseph Spencer
Freshman center vs. freshman defensive tackle. The clear winner: Joseph Spencer (at least in the two battles I saw). In fact, one block Spencer put on Williams was my first “whoa” moment for any of the freshmen. Textbook stonewall from Spencer. With his solid performance on Monday and his blocking when they went live today, I might be ready to add Spencer to my “offensive linemen who might be ready to play earlier rather than later” list. PLEASE NOTE that this means 2014, not this fall. But Spencer looked really solid.
Tim Kynard v. Hugh Thornton
Hugh pulled into the lead for one of my camp awards today. I’m planning to go with yearbook superlatives this year like “most likely to succeed” and “best dressed”. Hugh is in the running for many awards. For 30 minutes this morning, he was just nasty. Hugh chips his guy and gets to a linebacker who has pulled up because hey, this is just shoulderpads and shorts? Hugh sends him flying. Offensive line drill yesterday where Robbie Bain is playing the role of linebacker, holding an orange pad for Hugh to make contact with? Hugh sends him flying. In my view, Hugh Thornton has taken to left tackle like Pat Fitzgerald takes to praising himself. He can’t get enough.
walkon DE Anthony Imanlihen vs. Ryan Nowicki
Imanlihen is wearing Glenn Foster’s old number (#47). So on one play, I saw Nowicki take #47 and just stonewall him. Drove him backwards. After 25 seconds of “did I just see Ryan Nowicki send Glenn Foster flying backwards?”, I realized the Foster is #91 now. Still a great block from Nowicki, but on a freshman walkon DE, not on Foster.
Glenn Foster v. Jake Feldmeyer
I did see Feldmeyer take on the actual Glenn Foster. Of the Mt. Carmel Glenn Fosters. And you know what? Feldmeyer held his own. One of the reporters (can’t remember who) was right when they noted during Beckman’s press conference that Feldmeyer looks pretty short in there with 6′-5″ Michael Heitz on one side of him and 6′-6″ Graham Pocic on the other side. But on the few plays where I spot shadowed him, he held his own. Well, except for…
Akeem Spence v. Anyone
Unblockable one on one. He’s such a beast. Most underrated player on this defense two years in a row? Probably. He’s not going to get penetration like Corey Liuget – Spence is more the nose guard type – but any time the offense said “let’s move the play over here and build a gap right there”, Spence said no.
+ Nathan Scheelhaase had his best practice, I thought. In the 11 on 11 especially. He’s still limited by the red jersey, obviously – escapability is his strong suit, and he can’t do any of that because touch sacks blow the play dead – but he made some great decisions with the ball.
They were running some third down situations, and he was performing well. Third and seven, reads the outside blitz from Ashante Williams and audibles his offensive line into position, steps up into the pocket, and fires a strike to Eddie Viliunas for the first down (and possibly much more – because of the blitz, Viliunas might have run a long way after the catch). Nathan hit Ryan Lankford on a couple curls, hit Viliunas another time, and generally made good decisions. Impressive.
And then on the final play of the 11 on 11, under heavy rush, he tries to make a throw off his back foot to the spot where Lankford was supposed to be. The ball fluttered and would have been picked off had it not sailed out of bounds. All of those positives, all of that progression, and then a backfoot floater. You’re an upperclassman now, Nate. Time to eliminate the backfoot floater.
+ Debbie Downer alert: I’ve been to the last five Camp Rantouls, and this is the first time I can’t remember being wowed by one of the freshmen. Corey Liuget was wow as a freshman. Darius Millines was wow as a freshman. Jon Davis had several wow moments last summer. But there haven’t been many wow moments this session.
It’s possible that part of the reason is because the freshmen are all paired with the first string. If Robbie Bain is going to produce a wow moment, he has to do it by blocking Akeem Spence. Same for some of the skill position players. If Devin Church wants to impress, he has to outrun Terry Hawthorne. That’s probably part of it.
But it’s also probable that this class doesn’t have many instant impact players. Given the Rivals and Scout rankings for this half Zook-on-his-way-out, half Beckman-with-a-month-to-scramble class, it’s possible that this just isn’t a very impactful class. Prove me wrong, gentlemen. (And I think it’s very possible that V’Angelo Bentley and some of the linebackers prove me wrong).
+ Biggest positive of this Camp Rantoul so far: the little things. No, those players don’t have stomach cramps. The coaches are working with them on proper falling-on-a-fumble technique. A little thing that I can’t remember Zook ever doing. They’ve also worked on how to grip a ball in a scoop-and-score situation. And other little techniques that I never saw Ron Zook cover with the whole team. Sure, the defensive backs worked on scooping up a fumble. But did the offensive linemen work on falling on one? Not that I can remember.
The biggest change by far is special teams work. As best I could tell, the only kickoff coverage work that Zook put the team through was, well, lining up and kicking off. I haven’t seen this staff do that once. They’ve worked on the technique of catching the ball on a short kick. And they’ve worked with their up-men on catching a pooch kick. And they’ve worked on how to avoid a blocker on coverage. And how to block a guy tearing down on you. But never once “just line up a kick it”.
Yes, I’m sure they’ll get to that before the season. But in camp, they’re not worried about the result just yet. They’re worried about technique. Hallelujah.