We're now four practices into spring ball and much of the basics of the new offensive and defensive systems are installed. Mike Leach and his coaching staff have been hard at work laying the foundation for this coming season, putting players through their paces for upwards of three hours per practice. With the first scrimmage set for Saturday, let's take a look back at the first week of practices.
I wasn't at Thursday's workout -- work got in the way -- but you can read Christian's notes over at SportsLink.
Related: Players to watch | Day 2 Recap | Day 3 recap
As always, the goal of spring practice is to stay healthy and avoid major injuries. Thus far, only Jake Rodgers seems to have suffered a significant injury, though it appears to have looked worse than it actually was. Plenty of players have been off to the side working out, but none of their injuries appear to be long-term -- though we have no idea either way.
The second goal is to get the basics of the systems -- on both side of the ball -- installed, then rep them to death. Phase one -- the install -- is essentially done with, which means we're on to the "rep it to perfection" portion of the proceedings. Leach values the simplicity of his offense because it allows him to practice the same things over and over to work out all the kinks.
After the jump, a bunch of bullet points from the notebook.
- If you haven't yet noticed, I'm a big fan of Darryl Monroe and think he can step right in to fill the void left by CJ Mizell's departure. Monroe certainly looks the part of a middle linebacker -- big and fast, with the ability to take on and shed blocks. If Monroe hadn't torn his Achilles last season, I have little doubt he would've filled in for Mizell, who was dealing with his own injury issues. Did I mention how amazing it is that Monroe is back and fully participating in practice six months after the Achilles injury? Pretty impressive.
- Eric Oertel has also been a standout at linebacker. He looks like a guy that'll be coming off the edge -- opposite the "buck" linebacker -- Travis Long, Ian Knight, Logan Mayes or Jordan Pu'u-Robinson -- and seems to have a knack for bursting through an open hole on a blitz. Oertel could be a guy to keep an eye on as the linebacking corps comes into focus.
- Speaking of injuries, the new strength and conditioning area off to the side looks like the worst thing ever. Previously, injured players would ride an exercise bike over by the shed on the CUB side of the field. Now, there's a whole strength and conditioning area over by the library parking garage. The bikes are still there, along with sets of thick ropes (for arm workouts), a sledgehammer and giant tire (again, arm workouts), and the sand pit (grueling leg workouts).
The purpose of the strength and conditioning area is two-fold. The obvious use is to keep an injured player in shape, as well as helping out with their recovery. The other part? It discourages sitting out with soreness. If a player isn't feeling it one day and wants to sit out with a sore muscle or whatever -- again, not a serious injury such as head trauma, ligament problems or significant muscle strains -- they'll think twice. The work done in the strength and conditioning area is absolutely grueling -- way less fun that practice itself.
- The offseason conditioning was strenuous, as expected. Strength coach Jason Loscalzo put the players through their paces and many have come back slimmed down as a result. They ran, then they ran, then they ran before. And yes, the running has continued in practice.
- Leach won't say when, or if, Connor Halliday will be back this spring, instead deflecting questions like he does for all queries about injuries. Halliday has been watching practice, following the quarterbacks around and keeping an eye on everything while learning by watching. But at this point, it doesn't seem like the coaching staff is in a rush to get him back on the field. The risk -- another stray helmet to the side -- just isn't worth it right now as Halliday continues to recover from his liver injury.
- This seems like a good place to remind everyone that Leach will not discuss injuries, ever. We know who's sitting off to the side in practice, and in some cases the injury is obvious (Jake Rodgers in a boot, for example), but we're in the dark.
- We've mentioned special teams every day, but it's worth pointing out again: there's a clear emphasis on the third facet of football at practice. As Christian noted, Mike Bowlin is always doing something -- like a kid that can't sit still. As the offense and defense are on one field going through team drills, Bowlin is typically punting, practicing kickoffs, or kicking field goals.
Previously, the special teams unit kind of wandered through the desert like it was lost. As the team practiced, the kickers, punters and snappers would head down to Martin Stadium and kick the ball around a bit. Now, with multiple coaches boasting special teams experience, the specialists are always at work. If they're not practicing during the special teams segment of practice, they're off to the side working. They're also used as extra bodies in certain drills, either simulating a defensive lineman with their hands (big pads) up, or working as scout teamers.
- The offensive playbook is installed, and has basically been since Tuesday. The coaching staff doesn't mess around, and expects the offense and defense to quickly get the basics down. Leach has been pleased with the offense, saying they picked up the first two days pretty quickly before kind of hitting a wall on the third day. Still, it shows how prepared the players have been thus far -- helped by the pre-practice walkthroughs.
- The depth chart is still extremely fluid, but rest assured everyone, from the incumbent starter to the walk-on at the bottom of the list, is getting reps. There are, essentially, two practices going on at once, with both fields in use. It's an efficient way to operate and a common thing to see during the spring.
- Leach also mentioned the tennis ball machine he's been using, saying they've got one right now and probably need a couple more. Tennis balls have been a big part of the drills focusing on fundamentals because they help with hand-eye coordination and force players to catch with their hands, not their bodies. If you can catch a tennis ball, odds are you'll do fine with a football.