We cruised past the halfway point of spring practices last week, meaning it's time for a progress report. Thus far, the Cougs have had 7 practices and 2 scrimmages. This is finally enough of a sample size to start to draw some conclusions about how the team is practicing and what players are responding well to being back on the field.
The spring practices have been a tale of two units heading in opposite directions. The offense is stuck in reverse while the defense appears to be stepping up and competing. Again, remember that this is spring practice and one unit will typically shine while the other looks less than adequate. It's a normal part of the process and it's hard to tell how the team will perform against real opponents when they do nothing but practice against each other. The cause for concern on the offensive end, however, has been the razor thin depth at the skill positions, compounded by injuries to nearly all of the running backs.
After the jump, a look at the good and the bad thus far, a scrimmage recap, some audio (we strive to give you the best in technology), and some notes about football.
If you'd like some stats, Grippi has his recap here, as usual. Instead of running through the stats, I'll be looking at who seemed to play well and what can be taken from the scrimmage.
This last Saturday, the Cougs hit the field for a scrimmage. The goal for these scrimmages is to work on execution, scheme, and play-calling. Ideally, the team gets through them without any injuries and minimizes mental errors as much as possible. This was almost the case last Saturday. Aside from some dropped passes and a personal foul on Brandon Rankin, the team played more or less mistake free. The Brandon Rankin-Wade Jacobsen skirmish, by the way, sounds like it would've been worth the price of admission (OK, it was free but still). Those two are big boys that are showing some fire this spring.
As usual, the scrimmage pitted the first team vs the second team on each side of the ball. Due to injuries, the first and second team offense looked very similar. So similar that the only difference was really a quarterback switch and a shuffling of the offensive line. The Cougs had two healthy running backs (Mitz and Brooks) and the four wide receivers, which has been an issue all spring. The defense, on the other hand, is wide open and very competitive. Casey Locker and Jamal Atofau took the field with the second team at safety and showed a propensity to lay the hammer, which makes me smile. The depth at linebacker also allows the defense to mix it up with the rotation and allow a lot of guys playing time. The thing to take from this all is that the defense is deep and there's a healthy competition going on for playing time, while the offense is thin everywhere and there is little competition at this point.
The only scary moment of the afternoon came when Andrew Roxas, the heir apparent to Kenny Alfred's spot, went down after being rolled up on. Spring is a time to not get injured, especially with any long term injuries that may be nagging throughout the season. It looks like it just ended up being an ankle sprain, but it was something that nobody wanted to see.
Now, it's time to move on to a look at who has stood out so far in both good and bad ways. These are names and groups that keep popping up for all the right.
The defensive line: This is where I have to eat some words. In my spring preview, I thought this would be a position of weakness. I was wrong, but I couldn't be happier. Yes, the depth on the DL is an issue but the guys we do have are playing well. Travis Long is bigger and better this year at the end spot. Brandon Rankin is the real deal and looks to be everything we hoped for. Kevin Kooyman is holding down the end opposite Long admirably and Anthony Laurenzi has stepped in on the interior and made some plays. Bernard Wolfgramm seems to finally be healthy and moving around well again this spring. If anyone on the line gets injured we're in trouble, but right now they're looking good.
Hallston Higgins: The whispers about his playing being much improved have turned to roars. If there's one player that's taking advantage of his opportunities, it's Higgins. With Louis Bland out and Mike Ledgerwood on the shelf for a while, the MLB spot has been wide open this Spring. Higgins has taken advantage and filled in quite nicely. So nicely that he may have played his way into the rotation while adding depth to a key position. The award for most improved probably goes to Higgins right now.
The defensive backfield: The theme with the DBs has been competition. Nolan Washington and Aire Justin are going at it for one corner spot and neither is backing down. Washington is a playmaker and coming into the Spring session it was thought he'd make a push for the starting spot. Justin has stepped up top prevent that and will probably be in the lead going in to the fall camp. Chima Nwachukwu, LeAndre Daniels, Tyree Toomer, Casey Locker, and Jamal Atofau are all playing strong at the safety spot. If you like fast, big hitting safetys, you're going to love watching these guys play. They've been physical and flying around all Spring and could be some fun to watch this Fall.
Gino Simone: I feel like I need an offensive player in here, so here's Gino. He's still a quick possession receiver with some slick moves and a good rapport with Jeff Tuel. Simone didn't help himself by having a few drops during the last scrimmage, but he should be a playmaker this season. We're going to need it with how depleted our WR corps is.
The offensive line: If the defensive line looks good and they're competing against their own team, then which personnel group has to look bad? The offensive line gets to be the goat this spring in what could be another "here we go again" moment. Steve Morton is working on getting his blocking schemes in and getting the line to gel, but it just isn't happening. Between injuries and guys missing practices for class (yes, they are students), the line just hasn't come together yet and it's leading to protection and blocking problems. But the defensive line looks good!
The skill positions on offense: Yes, all of them. All of our running backs have missed time due to injuries. It was so bad, that they were running with Mitz (who has missed a bunch of time) and walk-on Leon Brooks as their only backs at the last scrimmage. The receiver position has also been thin and has really done nothing to elicit more than a shrug this spring. If you don't think it's bad at that spot, than hearing Wulff talk about how the incoming freshman receivers are going to compete for, and maybe win, some of the starting spots should tell you all you need to know. Nobody is really stepping up at this point and it's a cause for concern right now. If the offensive line doesn't perform and our WR and RB spots aren't productive, it's going to be a long season.
The kicking game: This one should also sound like a broken record. Nico Grasu, who apparently was the only kicker good enough to kick in the last scrimmage, went 2 for 7 on field goals. He also missed a 27 yarder, 3 extra points, and tripped over the tee practicing kickoffs (Fine, I made the last two up). Wulff is bringing in two
scholarship kickers in the fall (Edit: one of whom is more of a punter). Do your best accurate kicker dance and hope one of them has a strong leg for kickoffs and the other can at least hit the broad side of the barn. If not, the people sitting to the left and right of the uprights at games next year should probably bring their hard hats.
Some notes in bullet point form:
- Quayshawne Buckley is in town trying to find a job and taking some online courses. If he can't find a job, he's moving back out of Pullman for the time being. If you need a large offensive lineman who may be a flake to do some handywork for you and you live in Pullman, Buckley is looking for a job. If you're wondering if he'll qualify, my magic eight ball said ask again later.
- Paul Wulff may be the most optimistic guy on the planet. T-shirts that say "roses" and breaking huddles on "roses" seems a bit much. Then again, breaking on "4 wins" just doesn't roll off the tongue.
- Does signing two kickers to scholarships seem like overkill to anyone else? I know we're having trouble there, but isn't there a few other areas we can work on? We need to get in range to score points first. Edit: Woops, they're walk-ons! Guess we didn't give scholarships to two kickers. It would also help if I noticed one was a punter, too.
There will be another scrimmage this coming Saturday andThe Spring game will be Friday the 24th at 5:30 PM. A 5:30 crowd in Pullman could lead to some hilarious results. I thought we were banned from nighttime activities after the Idaho Thursday game debacle while I was there. Don't give college students an excuse to pre-funk a weeknight football game.
- My spell checker absolutely hates our defense. I need to make hotkeys for guys like Nwachukwu because having to look up his name to copy and paste it is time consuming.
Finally, some media to stimulate the mind.
Both of these come from Ian Furness' site. If you like them, give him a listen and support a fellow Coug.
Paul Wulff on Ian Furness' show
Kenny Alfred on Ian Furness' show