Training Camp 2017 III: Expansion Team?

Aug 03, 2017

Woke up with this thought and it's the thought that's going to be my thought all day long: What I witnessed last night - my first practice at Training Camp 2017 - it was more like an NFL expansion team than anything else. I'll attempt to explain.

At one of the practices I attended in the spring there were 39 players participating. I believe at the time we had 47 returning scholarship players (seniors were gone by then) and a half-dozen or so walkons, but there were something like 16 players being held out for one injury or another that day (rehabbing from offseason surgery, twisted ankle at practice, etc.), so there were only 39 players participating in practice.

Last night, there were, I believe, 95 players participating. And that doesn't count the 6-7 players held out for minor injuries. 26 new recruits, maybe a dozen players back from injuries that caused them to miss the spring, at least 15 new walkons… you can see how we get from 39 to 95.

So this practice barely resembles that practice. As I mentioned last night, there are more freshmen and redshirt freshmen than there are sophomores, juniors, and seniors combined. Which means that when you watch practice, there are more players you don't know than players you know.

Perhaps I should pause here and talk about how practice works. All players get reps because all players need to be trained in the system. You need players that understand everything in your playbook because you're going to use those players, even the walkons, in practice situations to prepare for opponents. Those players must know every ounce of terminology the coaching staff uses because they'll be very important at practices down the road.

This means that all walkons will work through the reps with the starters. If it's a gap drill for the linebackers, each scholarship linebacker will run through the drill followed by all of the walkons running the same thing. They're generally run in depth chart order, so the starters go first, then the second string, then the third string, then all of the walkons. For a practice like last night, by the time they're finished, you're scrambling to find your roster. You recognized the first six or seven guys to go through, but who are these other five? That was the experience for me with just about every position group. Even quarterback, where there are two returnees (Crouch and George Jr.) and then a freshman and three walkons.

Combine all of that together, and I mean that literally: put the three strings together in 11 on 11 drills and you feel like you're watching an NFL expansion team. Those 39 players from the spring practice I watched? For the most part, they know what they're doing. So do many of the players who were held out due to injury in the spring. But the other half of the roster? They really don't know what they're doing yet (nor should they), so all you see is a lot of confusion.

That's what I meant when I wrote "that's probably the worst practice I've ever watched" last night. There's just this massive learning curve for the 26 newcomers and all the new walkons. Even in special teams drills, Coach Ligashesky kept sending players off the field because they didn't understand what they were supposed to be doing. It's going to take months. They have 4 weeks until Ball State.


There's clearly talent on that field. There's clearly athleticism. At the same time as you're watching and saying "these guys don't know what they're doing yet", you see Carmoni Green catch a pass or Bobby Roundtree speed rush a left tackle or Larry Boyd stop someone dead in their tracks and you realize that there is a lot of talent on this field. In the category of "how do the freshmen look going through the drills", 2017 >>>>> 2016. There are maybe three times more freshman standouts this year than last year. It's clear to anyone watching practice.

And it's not just the freshmen. Watch Malik Turner or Nick Allegretti and you see that there's some upperclassman talent as well. It's not a complete set of talented upperclassmen ready to take on the Big Ten, but there are pieces there. There's more to watch than just "wow, check out these freshmen".

It's just not in any way together yet. It hasn't yet begun to congeal. If the goal is Jello, it's currently in pure liquid form. There's nothing resembling what it's supposed to look like when it's finished.

Which, I suppose, is what an expansion team might look like. When the Las Vegas Golden Knights take to the ice for their first NHL training camp next month, I imagine it might look somewhat like this. Young talent here, lots of experience over there, but a long way from resembling a team.

In professional sports, especially with the expansion drafts being more and more kind to the expansion teams, sometimes a team can be assembled quickly. Back in the late 1990's the Jacksonville Jaguars went to the AFC Championship Game in only their second season. If the talent is there, a good coaching staff can assemble all the parts quickly. This is not a "strap in - it's going to take a really long time" post.

I'm simply saying that after watching one practice, I get an expansion team vibe. SO MUCH is new. There are so many players who don't know what they're doing yet. There are so many units on the team currently being overhauled with younger players. This wasn't the case in the second year of Beckman or even the second year of Zook - those practices looked different. There wasn't this much change this quickly.

What does that mean? I don't know yet. I'm one practice in and have seven more to watch in the next two weeks. Maybe my thoughts will change. Right now, I'm just trying to learn all of these new numbers.


illiniranger on August 03 @ 09:59 PM CDT

Sounds like we just need to see improvement this year as fans and not worry about W-L record. Free football

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