Training Camp 2017 I: Wednesday Practice Thoughts
It's not in Rantoul. It's not even Champaign. Training Camp takes place in Urbana this year on the Florida/Lincoln playing fields where I once threw for four touchdowns as Forbes 2 South defeated Forbes 3 South in the most heated game of flag football in history. The winning touchdown? A long pass to the pony-tailed kid three doors down who was such an astute student that he was testing certain hydroponic growing systems in his dorm room closet.
I have about 10,000 thoughts running through my head right now - this is my favorite thing to do in the world - so I'll just get right to the plus signs.
+ Was this the worst practice I've ever watched in the last nine years of blogging and "covering" training camp? Probably. Is that a big deal? Probably not.
First off, I had to use a cheat sheet. I never use the cheat sheet. I always memorize all of the freshmen's numbers before I get to camp. When they're passing them out on the sidelines, I always arrogantly decline, master of my football domain. Tonight I grabbed a sheet. With all of the new scholarship freshmen and freshman walkons there are THIRTY SEVEN new players on the field.
And when you have thirty seven new players, practice is going to be very rough. Combine the freshmen, the redshirt freshmen, and the freshman walkons, and there are FIFTY FIVE freshmen on these football fields. 55 freshmen and 47 sophomores/juniors/seniors combined. There are more players that don't know the plays than players that do know the plays.
This will probably be the theme of everything I write over the next few weeks, but it's hard to emphasize just how ragged a practice looks when there are so many players just now figuring out what they're doing. It's like the first rehearsal staging some Broadway play where all the actors slowly go through the motions while reading from their script.
Take a simple wide receiver drill. The four receivers who know the playbook (Malik Turner, Mikey Dudek, Dominic Thieman, and Sam Mays) will go through the drill, followed by TEN receivers (some scholarship, some walkon) who are likely running that route for the first time ever. Nobody really knows what they're doing yet.
Or take a pass rush drill. Five guys have been through the drill at least once, eight guys who have no idea what they're doing yet. Again, this doesn't reflect poorly on anyone - I'm not saying "OMG the freshman defensive ends are so clueless" - it's just that this is the third practice, the first time they can wear shoulder pads, and it just takes so much time to learn everything. They'll have to learn how to practice before they can practice before they can play.
That's not to say there weren't things to be learned. Such as...
+ Two true freshmen - Alex Palczewski and Larry Boyd - were running with the first string offensive line all night. Part of that was due to a few "precautionary holdouts" (experienced players with nagging injuries who are held out for precautionary reasons) like Christian DiLauro. With DiLauro not in pads, the first string line was Gabe Megginson at left (quick) tackle, Palczewski at quick guard, Doug Kramer at center, Nick Allegretti at right (strong) guard, and Larry Boyd at strong tackle.
As can be expected with true freshmen, results were.. mixed. In one on one drills (full lines line up across from each other but only one defensive lineman rushes against one offensive lineman), Palczewski both pancaked his man on one play AND got flat-out beat on another play that would have gotten his quarterback killed. Again, this is fine - he's a true freshman in his third-ever practice - but it's also scary given the fact that some of these guys might have to start.
Which means this becomes "how much can they absorb in five weeks?". They'll be twice as good on August 28th as they are on August 2nd, but that's probably not even good enough to be ready for the first game. But they might have to be. But they probably won't be.
So I can sense the theme for this entire camp already. "Hey, these players look pretty good as freshmen. They'll likely be really good in a few years. Oh crap we need them to be good this year."
+ My favorite thing all night: Blake Hayes' punting. COME ON AUSSIE! That should totally be the cheer from Block I when he boots one 62 yards. (Explanation here.)
They did a punt coverage drill and he booted six balls I believe. He was standing at the 5 and every single one got at least to the opposite 40. I think one got near the 30. All with great hang time. I mean, every single one.
Now, there's a big difference between punting on a calm night at practice with no real rush into a 0.5 mph wind and punting from the endzone at Wisconsin on a 37 degree day into a 37 mph wind. Hayes has a lot to learn just like all of the freshmen have a lot to learn. But man, that leg is golden.
+ Speaking of golden, redshirt freshman James McCourt kicked well tonight. There's a scissor lift centered behind the goalposts with two cameramen at the top. McCourt put two kicks up there in the lift with the cameramen (dead center). I still think Chase McLaughlin will be the kicker, but remember, we have two kickers on scholarship (McLaughlin went on scholarship this spring, McCourt was brought in on scholarship and redshirted last fall). Right now it seems pretty certain that McLaughlin is the kicker for two more years and then McCourt for the two years after that. Which means in 2019 and 2020 we'll have a kicker from Ireland and a punter from Australia. Cool.
+ Random players who stood out for one reason or another:
- Sophomore Tymir Oliver at defensive tackle. Second-year guy who looks to have done a lot of work in the weight room.
- Freshman Kendall Smith at wide receiver. A really fluid athlete. We talk about Green and Smalling a lot but maybe we should pay attention to Smith.
- Freshmen Ra'Von Bonner and Mike Epstein at tailback. Lightning and Thunder.
- Redshirt freshman Griffin Palmer at tight end.
+ This will be a slow-developing camp. Which means these will be slow-developing reports. It almost feels like the beginning of the first spring-ball for a new coach - everything seems new. Yes, it's year two, and the starters all know what they're supposed to be doing. But that's only 22 players, and the majority of the other 80-or-so players out there really aren't sure what they're doing yet.