Valentine's Day Practice Notes (Part I)
First off, shout-out to my wife for moving our V-Day dinner to Thursday. A coach named Lovie decided to start spring practice on Valentine's Day, so off to Champaign I went to spend some time with my second love.
I have lots I want to talk about. So many thoughts I want to type out and I already know I'll fall asleep before I get to them all (and finish in the morning). It usually works best if I just go with categories...
The main thing I wanted to see were the four early enrollees: offensive lineman Hojo Watkins, defensive end Owen Carney, linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips, and wide receiver Carmoni Green. Let's go in that order:
Of the four, he's the furthest from the depth chart, but you knew that already. Green, Phillips, and Carney were brought in to play immediately; Watkins was, like most offensive linemen, brought in to learn the system, gain the strength, and find the field in a few years.
He was at left (quick) guard, but I don't think that means much. They're going into the spring with ten healthy offensive linemen, and they have to fill out a first string and a second string, so while he might head to a different position in a few years, right now we need a left guard on the second string.
There's really not much to say here. Like 90% of all offensive linemen, we really won't know much about him for 24 months. He has so much growing (and learning) to do.
Promise you'll stay with me. Just read to the end. Deep breath, stay with me.
I wrote all of those words during the fall and winter about our need for defensive ends. And how, with five defensive linemen graduating, some of these freshmen were going to play right away. And then, when Carney signed, how huge it was to get one of those defensive ends enrolled early so we have six months to prepare him for a season where he's probably going to have to play.
And then you watch practice and you remember that linemen are linemen and there's so incredibly much to learn. Corey Liuget was ready immediately, but that's about the only freshman defensive linemen from the last 10 years who was ready game 1. It just takes so much time.
Go back to Whitney Mercilus as a freshman. Nowhere near ready. Dawuane Smoot had to play as a true freshman and he wasn't ready. There's such a long climb. And this was practice #1.
So... all of that to say... he has a long way to go. All of the pieces are there - size, speed, burst - but he has a long way to go.
Which means it's now on the speed of that development. Perhaps he gets better each of these 15 practices and accelerates right into the lineup this fall. Perhaps it's a 24-month thing where there are stops and starts and then the light bulb comes on spring of 2019. It will be fun to watch that development for all of the freshmen defensive ends (once they all get here).
For now, though.. he has a long way to go. And I think we all knew that but a practice like this helps remind me that this whole thing is a (long) process.
At football practice, it's hard to get a read on linebackers. You watch defensive linemen in position drills and you can watch them burst off the line and hit the blocking sled. Watch receivers and they're running routes and catching balls. Watch linebackers and they're usually going through a walk through. With trash cans. Where the LB coach (now Hardy Nickerson) is walking them through 150 different reads. Slowly approach this blocker, keep your left hand on him to position yourself here, keep your eye on the B gap between those two trash cans, do this, this, and this if these three things happen.
So there's not much to really "watch". It's not like they're live and you get to see Phillips shed a block and go tackle someone. They did run 11 on 11 for... maybe a dozen plays? And during those moments I tried to watch Phillips (if the ball came his way). They don't tackle in 11 on 11, so again, it's really hard to get a read on how good a linebacker can be.
I did watch one play that had me encouraged. You know when you play Ohio State and their linebackers are all these tall athletes who seem to run low to the ground? Like, they can run full-out but stay low so they can unload on someone? Phillips seems to run that way. I'll call it the Linebacker Run. He has a good Linebacker Run. It's not really a "run" as much as it is "stay low watch the play develop stay low watch the play develop stay low watch the play develop EXPLODE."
Beyond that... we're not going to learn much until they go live. Which is basically the Ball State game.
I had no idea.
I watched his film and, against shorter high school cornerbacks, he popped off the screen as a pretty physical guy. That's always deceiving - a "big" high school wide receiver will show up on campus and be a "small" receiver when facing college competition. So that might be part of my surprise but... I had no idea he was this quick.
Not just fast, but quick. Quick in and out of cuts. Quick little DeSean Jackson side-steps to let the tackler fly right by and then hit the jets. No, I am not comparing him to DeSean Jackson. I just had no idea he was this kind of wide receiver.
He was easily the most exciting player I saw on the field. Before driving home, I tweeted his name five times because I was having this "CARMONI GREEN!!" moment. I always get way too excited about one player (you long-timers will remember my excitement about Chandler Whitmer's arm strength), and this practice it was definitely Carmoni Green.
My mind is still racing. Will he return punts? Can he seamlessly take over for Malik Turner after the 2017 season and fill that role? Why was he only a three-star on the majority of scouting services? How is it that high school football players from Florida arrive on campus with so much polish? This kid looks like he's had great coaching for 5+ years.
Yes, there's a long way to go between here and there. The comp that immediately comes to mind is Jarred Fayson, a former 5-star wide receiver who transferred to Illinois from Florida under Zook. He had this same kind of quickness. And, really, he didn't put it together until his senior year (38 catches). There's a long road between "so incredibly athletic and quick" and "catches 40 balls in Big Ten play". Similar to what I was saying about Owen Carney, there are so many little things to learn.
But mercy. This kid looks good. Best thing about the practice.
OK, I need to get to work so this will have to be a two-parter. So many more words to type out. Maybe I can find time at lunch.