Training Camp 2017 XIII: The Freshmen
I talk about the youth. I say things like "youngest team in college football?". I write posts about the incoming freshmen and how Lovie might use several of them right away. And then I watch practice and we're leaning on the freshmen even more than I originally thought.
I know I sound like a broken record, but it's just so insanely young. I chatted with Jeremy Werner on the sidelines and he was putting together a list (I'm assuming for an article he's writing) about which freshmen are certain to play and which might redshirt. And as I listened to his list, he's totally right - are the _majority _of the freshmen in this class going to play right away?
So as I watched the rest of practice, I kept thinking about our conversation. Defensive backfield - is Bennett Williams going to start? Maybe even Tony Adams? Defensive line - I think at least five of the freshmen will be in the two-deep? Offensive line - will we start TWO true freshmen? Wide receiver - will Green and Smalling be in the top four? Tailback - how do you not give Mike Epstein carries?
Like, I've been approaching this as "will Lovie go to his freshmen as a way to jump-start his rebuild?", but maybe I need to be looking at it as "are the freshmen simply better already?" In talking to Garrick McGee (interview here), he noted how "fortunate" we are to have this many talented freshmen. And I don't think he was just putting me on. I don't think it was coach speak. He seemed to indicate that these freshmen are making so much noise that it's impossible to keep them off the field.
Now, that's both good and bad. Good in that they're really pleased with the class they brought in. Bad in that any team that leans on double-digit freshmen will struggle on the field. We knew this, and we know this, and this fall we'll probably KNOW this.
Bottom line - I came in talking about this and now it's all I can think about. Lovie was hired to overhaul this football program, and that overhaul appears to be immediate. In 2013 (Beckman's first full class), I believe he played eight true freshmen - Bailey, Day, Mosely, Clements, Cazley, Dunlap, Smoot, and Schmidt. Lovie might play... 15 of his freshmen? 18? I suggest you go find Jeremy's list because I think he was going to break it down player by player.
Anyway, it's really topic #1, 2, 3, and 5 at camp. Which leads me to my first little plus sign...
+ The "starters" tonight (hard to tell who would be "starting" but this is a best guess given the first string they ran with most of practice):
Offensive backfield: junior, freshman
WR/TE: Freshman, senior, sophomore, freshman
OL: Sophomore, freshman, freshman, junior, senior
DL: Freshman, sophomore, sophomore, junior
LB: Sophomore, junior, sophomore
DB: Sophomore, senior, freshman, sophomore
So that's 3 seniors, 4 juniors, 8 sophomores, and 7 freshmen. 7 upperclassmen and 15 underclassmen. 10 days into camp and we've somehow gotten even younger.
I don't know why I'm so obsessed with this. I guess it just boggles my mind so I'm attempting to put words around it so I can make sense of it. This is the ninth camp I've "covered" as a blogger and I can't remember anything like it. I thought I was going to see something similar to 2013's camp (second year of Beckman), but this is so much younger than that.
+ Much better stuff from the offense today. I missed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday's practices (and I hear Monday was similar to Saturday in the defense owning the offense), but they must have done some good work because the offense was much more crisp. I only saw two interceptions - one in 7 on 7 on a ball that bounced right off the chest of the receiver (not the QB's fault) and one where Jeff George Jr. left a screen pass short and DE Christion Abercrombie reached up and plucked it out of the sky. Crouch looked more comfortable, the offensive line was opening up running lanes - it was much improved.
Including one play that was a certain 70 yard touchdown for Mike Epstein. As I've noted before, you don't really know how many yards a running play would have gained because they're not tackling. It's "bump drill" where the tackle is simply contact with the ballcarrier (which mostly just consists of the defense trying to punch the ball out). Would the ballcarrier break that tackle or would he still be running? We don't know.
But some plays are so clean - no defender even lays a hand on the ballcarrier - that you know they'd be touchdowns in a game. And Epstein had one (maybe three) runs which went untouched to daylight. The good news: the OL is coming around, especially in run blocking. The bad news: we struggled to stop the run.
+ Linebacker Jake Hansen continues to make plays. It's bump drill, so "make plays" means "he's standing right in the hole as the ballcarrier enters and Hansen makes contact with the guy but doesn't tackle him because there's no tackling". He seems to be a "right place every time" linebacker, which is why he's currently locking down the starting Will Linebacker spot as a true sophomore.
There's still a long way to go, of course. "Right place every time" is fairly easy in practice, but switch up the offense to, say, what Western Kentucky runs and he might get confused fairly quickly. He's just a second-year player, so there's a lot of growing to do. But Hansen and Tre Watson seem to be growing more and more comfortable next to each other, so I think that's your starting core at WLB and MLB.
+ It seems like they're spending even more time on special teams technique than they did last year. And they spent a lot of time on it last year. This year it's very technique-driven: kickoff coverage guy, do this when the first blocker approaches you, do this when he does this, and so on. We're young, which means special teams are probably going to be a work-in-progress (just like everything else), but they're certainly spending a lot of time on the littlest of things.
+ My annual mailbag practice will be tomorrow (Friday). You can email me if you want (firstname.lastname@example.org) or hit me up on Twitter. You ask, I watch and report back. Let's do this.