I apologize for my absence after a flurry of early camp reports, but as Amieable’s and my time comes to an end here in Pullman there is a lot to do. I happen to believe that there is nothing more important than Cougar football, but Amieable thinks that having a job and a place to live when we get to Logan, UT is just as, if not more important. Yeah… women are all kinds of crazy like that. Of course, Amieable is also obsessed with how our linebackers and running backs are coming along, so in addition to packing, job hunting and house hunting every day, she also continues sending me up to practices. I have been too busy to write about them, but at the half way point of Fall Camp, I want to give you all a summary of what I think we can glean from all the practices I’ve witnessed. Keep in mind, there is a LOT of camp left before we take the field against Idaho State on Labor Day weekend, so this is in no way a final summary of Fall Camp, but rather what I believe we know… so far. Last week our own Tommy was raked over the coals by more than a couple commenters for having the audacity to suggest we may have decent depth this year. So as you weary commenters sink into pessimistic despair… I will come to Tommy’s defense and reprise my role as the blogoptimist with the football version of Puppies and Rainbows.
Read on for more…
Fall camp has proven to be especially fruitful for cynics the past few years. A certain amount of skepticism is completely reasonable, and I realize I have been guilty of fueling it by providing reports from camp that are chalk full of optimism, but I just can’t help it. I am an eternal optimist. But I will say this, while I was encouraged by what I saw in camp last season, as I sat at the Page the Friday night before our opener with Montana State a friend asked me for an honest to goodness gut feeling for what the upcoming season had in store. I told him quite frankly that we would be much improved, way more competitive, but that I just didn’t see any wins on our schedule, though I was sure we would steal one somewhere. Of course, I also thought we’d roll Montana State. In other words, I knew our team could do things they could not do in 2008-09, namely, complete passes, score touchdowns in the 1st half and occasionally hold an offense to a punt, or create a turnover. I also knew that we had a schedule full of teams that did all that stuff with much more regularity and ease than we did. Now as the 2011 season approaches, I find myself once again praising the development and potential of this team. But there is a difference. This year, I expect this team to win games. Please allow me to explain why, or, as the skeptics and cynics amongst you might say, allow me to blow some crimson sunshine up your keesters.
You have heard it over and over again, from coaches, players and scribes like me; there is vastly improved competition in practice every day. This, I can tell you, is true. Not only is there much better competition for individual positions, but there is much better competition between offensive and defensive units as a whole. But I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. There are ways that you can make these judgments for yourself. Intra-squad competition is a tricky thing to gauge; does a good offensive performance just mean that the defense is bad, or visa versa? Here are some things to look for that can help you draw some informed conclusions:
Are players “winning” their position battles, or losing them? Are the coaches scrambling to find anybody who can fill a spot? To answer these questions it helps to see practice first hand, but you can glean a lot from coaches’ comments about position moves as well. This year, if you are following position battles closely, you will find that almost every player has someone breathing down their neck for playing time and that those who are running with the 1’s and 2’s are arriving there by promotion due to their stand-out play, rather than being moved up due to the demotion of the man in front of them. In other words, the coaches are putting players on the field they are excited about, rather than they are just less worried about than the other guy.
Are units bouncing back from getting “beat”? Most of the camp has been dominated by the offense, which begs the question, “Is the offense good, or the defense just bad?” When I am watching intra-squad play, I like to see one unit or the other get a very clear upper hand, but I also want the other unit to respond, either later that practice or after regrouping the next day and make their own statement. Thus far, the defense has shown me that they have some fight in them and after a bad day, they usually respond with a much better performance. Recently, the defense has started to assert itself more and more and have had the upper hand themselves in the last couple scrimmages. A lot of people talk about this defense still being “a year away”. While they may be a year away from playing their best ball, the players who are going to do it are now here and playing and getting better every day.
The Sound and the Fury
One thing that has struck me since the start of this camp is how much different this team sounds then in years past. When the 1’s face the 1’s, there is a glorious sound at every snap… collisions. Pads are cracking like they should at this level. This may sound funny, but I guarantee you it indicates an entirely different level of aggression, strength and speed on this team. Think I’m crazy? If you get a chance to see a practice in person, close your eyes and just listen. When the scout teamers line up and snap the ball, that is what practice used to sound like. Close your eyes and listen to the difference when the 1st teamers go at it. It won’t be subtle. I’m not the only one to notice this. At the scrimmage on Wednesday as the scout teamers were on the field, you could hear one of the coaches constantly yelling “That’s too soft! I didn’t hear any football!”. He didn’t yell this at the 1st and 2nd teamers.
In 2008 I reported from Paul Wulff’s first Fall Camp on the number of “walking wounded”. In fact, I believe I compared the team to the French army. It was not meant as a compliment. In the first few days of camp in 2008, before any meaningful contact was even taking place, there were dozens of players loafing about the practice field in those walking boots. This year, until the real hitting started and “real” injuries began to occur, there was hardly anybody held out of practice.
There is speed all over the practice field for the Cougs that has not been there the past few years. Eady, Mason, Galvin, Simmons, Carpenter, and Mizell are all legitimate “burners”, and that’s just to name a few. Every single position on the team has had its speed upgraded significantly (except kicker, where Andrew Furney brings many attributes, but speed isn’t one of them). Vince Grippi is usually pretty reserved in showering praise on this team, but even he has been very blunt about just how much more speed the Cougs are putting on the field this year.
Looking back at the last couple years, it is more and more clear that this team had a conspicuous lack of on-field leadership. The best players in the program were young and either red-shirting, or still learning the ropes. Well now a few of these guys are all grown up and are asserting themselves as leaders in the locker room and on the field. Alex Hoffman-Ellis, Jared Karstetter, Tyree Toomer and Nolan Washington have all stepped up as vocal leaders and leaders by example, but nobody has taken the reigns of this team like Jeff Tuel. So far, he is everything you want in a QB, out front, leading, hollering, pushing everyone and all the while you can tell that everyone respects him.
I can think of only 3 starting positions this year that will be filled with players who have yet to start a Pac-10 game (Galvin, Pole, Knight) and in each case they are either backed up, or splitting time with a player or players who have. Last year Kaufusi, Mizell, Bucannon, Washington, Rankin, Jacobsen, Gonzalez, Fullington, Lintz, Wilson, Barton… all started their first Pac-10 games. I probably didn’t even name them all. We aren’t a “veteran” team, but we aren’t inexperienced either. In comparison to last year we are vastly more experienced. Also, not just our players, but out coaching staff is more experienced. With the additions of Chris Tormey and Todd Howard, we now have a staff chalk full of proven and experienced D-1 coaches.
What does this all add up to? For me it adds up to a team that is ready to win games now. I understand the wait and see approach of those who have been burned too many times by getting their hopes up, but this year I am brimming with hope. Call me a fool all you want, but this isn’t a blind, or ignorant hope. It is based on countless hours of watching this team over the last three years. So go ahead, have some expectations this year and expect them to be met. At the least, this team will be on a fair footing with its Pac-12 competition so these players and coaches can fairly be judged by the results.
And now, just as it is all about to begin… just as all the toil, misery and heartbreak of the last 3 years is about to pay off on the field… Amieable and I are packing up our wagon and moving to Utah. So long Pullman, but don’t worry, I have a feeling the Cougs will give us plenty of reasons to come back for a visit this Fall.