While several other positions have questions galore, the linebacker position has the experience and…
Spring Practices Promise to be Competitive
Basically, even though each kid has already been evaluated based on the past, the present will dictate who plays in the future. That is, of course, until next fall when more new faces show up to add to the competition.
'Competition' is the key word here, and if you believe the NFL scouts they will tell you that the most competitive practices in this conference are held at USC. They used to tell us that. They used to tell us that we got more out of our kids during a practice session simply because coach James was so damn organized. Now it's the Trojans. How you practice is how you play.
I don't want Steve Sarkisian, to be Pete Carroll, but I sure hope as heck that he brought all the secrets to preparation and those things that make USC so competitive. That, and how to think right, are probably his two biggest concerns as he tries to rebuild a program that has been a mess for over five years. Thinking differently is as critical to his mission, as is the actual physical preparation.
This coming football season starts with spring practices on March 31st, and I will bet nobody has a lock on their spot going in with the possible exception of Jake Locker, Daniel Teo'Neshiem, D'Andre Goodwin and a couple of linebackers. I don't think any of the experienced players will be doing anything other than competing their hearts out to impress the new staff.
Certainly linebackers Donald Butler and Mason Foster probably showed they will be leading the defense with Te'o-Nesheim, and offensive tackle Ben Ossai has started for three years. Other than the long snapper, Danny Morovick, all the specialists' spots are probably wide open as well.
The most intense and interesting competitions to me would seem to be at all the skilled positions: Spots like running back, receiver and the secondary. There will now be two coaches working the back end of the defense (Demetrice Martin and Jeff Mills) and a third set of eyes if you count Nick Holt, so you can bet there is going to be great competition there.
I don't think any of the returning running backs separated themselves from the field over the past year. Paul Homer has been solid at fullback and is actually rated as one of the top returning fullbacks in the country. Austin Sylvester showed a little promise when he was moved there last fall but none of the tailbacks showed anything of a sustained performance level.
Brandon Johnson has the most experience and the youngsters who were forced into duty last year all got hurt. That has been a glaring problem for the past six years or so; too many young kids have been forced into playing too early and have not been physically ready to take the pounding at this level of play.
Look at what happened to Chris Polk, David Freeman, and Terrance Dailey. All three were asked to start as true freshmen and all three got beat up because they hadn't developed their tendon strength and muscle mass to take the hits that come in the Pac-10.
Willie Griffin ended up starting and playing simply because he was durable, although nothing special seem to happened when he played. He showed quick feet but not the raw speed that others showed.
I really thought that Polk showed a special quality in camp but didn't get past the second game, which was a good thing if you are going to get hurt because he was able to get his year back. Still, he appeared to have a second gear and looked like he would be really good until he ran into the defenses of Oregon and BYU.
Freeman hurt not one ankle but both, and Dailey showed a flash or two but he too broke down. Johri Fogerson was moved to safety and Demitrius Bronson ended up greyshirting, so even though they brought in five running backs last year, they ended the season with one, and he was hobbled.
I think a true freshman can help at running back, but asking him to be your starter is asking an awful lot. Even Napoleon Kaufman and Greg Lewis were only used sparingly their first years. Asking an 18-year old to be your starter is really a tough thing because the speed of the game is so different and there is so much to learn, and most are almost always questionable blockers. It's always good to get experience but getting broken down early in your career can really set back your long range development. It's tough to get bigger and stronger in the weight room when you are rehabbing a shoulder or knee.
When Washington starts red-shirting more kids each year then we will know the program is starting to come back. Truth is, when you play kids as a rookie they will make rookie mistakes and they tend to break down. It happened the year before with Brandon Yakaboski, who has never really made it onto the field because he never has held up physically.
Bronson adds a bigger back to the mix, and the return of Curtis Shaw, who has great speed, further adds to the competition - that means a lot of kids for the coaches to look at. I would suggest that ball leverage better be important to these kids because fumbles are a great way to fall in the depth. Whatever happens, new running coach Joel Thomas is going to have great competition.
The wide receiver position will be really competitive, with close to 10 kids who have shown they could be in the mix. D'Andre Goodwin leads a group of eight or so pass catchers who have at least gotten playing time. Alvin Logan brings toughness and blocking ability to go with his big body and I think Jermaine Kearse has really big-time potential. Of course Cody Bruns got more noticed for simply playing than any freshman who did.
I don't think there is any question about Bruns being able to compete, and Jordan Polk proved he has high end speed, and though tiny showed great toughness. Running indoor track in the winter has only helped him. The two freshmen who red-shirted - Anthony Boyles and Vince Taylor - are both bigger receivers and saving a year is what should have happened to Bruns.
Walk-on Tony Chidiac has always had steady hands and made some nice catches last fall, and the one new kid they signed, James Johnson, looks like he will have to be considered as well based on athletic ability alone. We won't know on him until fall but I'm betting "drops" will be counted every day and you won't see as many lazy routes run either. That's competition, and that's what is exciting about this spring.
Competition in the secondary will be highly scrutinized because I don't think any of the returning players played well enough to be penciled in as an automatic starter. The best I think was safety Jason Wells, who after missing all of last year and rehabbing from a knee, recently suffered another major setback when he hurt his achilles and will be out until fall.
Safety Victor Aiyewa broke down all of last year and Nate Williams needs to tackle better if he is to hold on to one of the safety spot.
Quinton Richardson played the whole season as a starter but was exposed by USC on the corner and later against the Cougars in the Apple Cup. He made obvious progress, as did fellow corners Matt Mosley and Vonzell McDowell, but none have shown the necessary consistency you want in a starter. McDowell is another classic case for red-shirting kids. He and Aiyewa were both forced into duty well before they were ready to play at this level. Both will be juniors athletically instead of sophomores had they been able to take a year getting bigger, stronger and faster.
The back end of the defense will probably not shake out until fall camp because they signed six new kids and two JC players, Dominique Gaisie and David Batts, look like they may be ready to play right away. The whole secondary has to be wide open and that promises for greater competition.
Somehow that word - competition - just keeps coming back and hopefully by next fall the whole team will become just that - more competitive.
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