Fish Report: Competition Day
Duck Sports Authority would like to thank Charles Fischer for providing the following fan view of Saturday's action.
Today was not a scrimmage, but one of several "Competition Days" of fall camp. What is that? Well you have the coaches keeping track of all the semi-scrimmage plays and awarding a point to the offense if it succeeded enough to the coach's satisfaction, and if not, then the point went to the defense. A manager with a portable loudspeaker would blast out the scores such as "61-55 defense". (which meant that the defenses was in the lead) This score was tallied with ALL the offenses and defenses going against each other, and while the defense had the lead, it wasn't until the final series of downs that the defense "won" the competition day and earned the right to wear the black jerseys at the next practice. The players seem to take it serious and the mood was urgent by both sides to WIN; we love it!
Hearing quite a medley of youthful music blared out was a nuance that required quite an adjustment from me. At times the tone and upbeat atmosphere added to energy on the field; at other times it was a distraction from my concentration and lowered the entertainment value of the practice. For the players it HAD to help their focus as if they were in a hostile stadium working the audibles and signals to carry on with. I was looking around marveling at the blue skies, and the low eighties temperature which was tempered by a perfect breeze to lower it further to the low seventies. I shook my head thinking of how players would endure the harsh heat and humidity in the south compared to this ideal football weather. As I mused it all-- the music switched to U2 and "A Beautiful Day", and I huffed a smile at the timing of it.
Since this wasn't a scrimmage, and none of us can see this Tuesday's scrimmage, today served as a replacement report to offer further impressions of the 2009 team. Thus without actual scrimmage conditions we lack the ability to report the progress of the running backs and the smacks by the defenders in the running game. Pass plays were full speed, and tackling on both passing and running plays was primarily by "touch". So with those constraints applied I STILL learned a lot about this team and how it's jelling. Often the first team had Weems, York and Cody going up against the number one defense, hence it's hard to determine progress for either side of the line until we get into a game. However, if the offensive linemen have improved in one year as much as some of the returning receivers, then we should do extremely well.
I have been impressed between the spring and fall with the obvious step-up of the veteran WRs of Maehl, Dickson, Davis, and Cavaille. They seemed to have notched a 20% to as much as 50% improvement (Maehl) from game time last year, and we will need it going onto the blue turf where the Broncos will expect our usual running game. The communication and expectations between WRs and QBs has noticeably improved as well when we see plays break down and completions made despite the difficult scenario. I watched one play occur right in front of me as the QB was being flushed out and Maehl came back to him. As the pass was thrown off ?balance I could see immediately that it was going to bounce on the ground in front of Jeffrey, so he planted his left (outside) leg to stop and then he lunged forward with a massive jump. He caught the ball in the breadbasket about three inches above the ground for a first down. The crowd at the fence (only about six feet away) were roaring their approval, but this wasn't the only big play for Maehl today! He is much more aware of where he is on the field and what he needs to do to get open. Masoli was in the pocket going through the progression and as the seconds ticked past it was becoming desperate for someone to break open. Then we saw Jeremiah throw a beauty over the middle to an open #23 (Maehl) who broke open on his skinny post. If the O-Line can give them time, then we WILL see some extraordinary plays from those two connecting this fall!
The few punt drills showcased an astonishing leg by Jackson Rice, and he DOES place it often near the sidelines. I couldn't count the final yards on one, but it LOOKED like somewhere between 55-to-60 yards. It just BOOMS off his foot and frequently cuts through the air nicely because of him placing a spiral on it! At first last week I thought that it was happenstance or the occasional spiral; nope, as today there were too many of them to assume a lucky kick or two. While it isn't in Proverbs, a FishDuck bible would tell you that, "a good punter is a blessing", and we might have four years of a dandy. He even LOOKS the Bidwell part as he stands 6'3" and 225 lbs just like Josh!
The coaches will have a tough decision on punt returns as LJ or LaMichael James, shows real potential if he can overcome the dropsies. He flat out blew one catch that was recovered by the punt coverage team, and on another he dropped the jaws of the group surrounding me on the sideline. First we saw LJ catch the ball in his chest and we saw it bounce out and upward. Then we see him hop over in a flash and catch it. Then in an instant he was whooshing outside of the blocking wall and down the sideline for an obvious Touchdown. How did he do that? Someone in our group muttered, "are you fricken kidding me?" We still don't know HOW he blew past all those defenders so fast, and it reminded me of when Onterio Smith did a kind of shapeshifter type of move out of the crowd on a kickoff return in scrimmage a few years ago. Special players DO stuff like that! LaMichael has the size of Tony Cherry of the early eighties, with the build of Derek Loville of the early nineties, yet he has the speed of a Sammie Parker it seems. No surprise he's a TAZER.
What a hoot to see the managers trotted out with these frames connected to the bodies with the "Samurai" flags several feet above their head to duplicate the limited passing lanes that occurs with onrushing D-linemen. You had to feel for them as the looks on their faces shouted, "I didn't sign up for this."
A veteran Oregon Football observer made the comment to me that he felt that, "Diante Jackson is the best freshman receiver ever recruited by Oregon." Since I had not seen Jackson play yet, this bold statement peaked my interest as my natural response was, "better than Hartley or Dee Williams?" "I doubt it." Well, I may have to eat my words. First off, he is physically READY right now for Division 1 football. His size and build resemble a Junior in college who has put in the time in the training room, and looks like it, such as Dickson last year. Then I was surprised at his speed and ability to get open! Lots of good catches in traffic brought about by wise separation in his pattern breaks. At the end of one session we see Masoli throw up a "hope" ball down the sideline and we see this new raw freshman go up and over the defender to catch the ball! As they fall, the defender pops the ball out but Diante grabs it in mid-air and pulls it into his body as they crumple onto the turf. WOW!! The offense was yelling and hooting as players and even Assistant Coaches were doing the high "jump-bump" with him! That play was a wakeup call to all of us seeing him for the first time.
Coach Frost was warming up throwing the ball with Coach Neal and I was amused at how his over-the-top wrist flick motion was the same as at Stanford when we played him/them years ago. After getting enough heaters on his hands, Coach Neal told him that he was "warm." Scott smiled an almost knowing smile as he is realizing that he potentially has a blockbuster group of wide-outs, that while short on game experience, have tremendous talent and speed. It appears to be a superb blend of experience balanced by some hungry newcomers that are making plays. The Jordans and Tuineis of the group are beginning to crowd out the Lewis' and the infusion is making them all better. It was great to see Davis make at least three major plays in the semi-scrimmages, and on one play we saw Drew cruise into a hole on the sideline, take the catch and burst for six points. CK himself came over to applaud his recognition of the opening, along with the catch-and-run. A "way to go" from Coach Kelly means a ton to the newbies!
This receiver corps is BIG as well! At the beginning of one play I noted the huge group of Jordan, Paulson, Jackson, and Gaines, standing in formation and these guys are MONSTERS compared to the almost petite 5'10" groups back in some of our other glory days. It's gotta help in SEEING them downfield as JM surveys the field and leads Ed Dickson down the sideline with the football as he making separation. Ed side-stepped for an instant and let the ball hit him in the numbers as he gathered it in before going out of bounds. A sweet 25 yard gain! I was struck at how Tyrese Gaines ran in a smooth effortless way, yet he made his break and the 15 yard laser from Costa was gathered in, and he took off and accelerated quite well. I was surprised that my impression was that he was, "polished", even though he had not much time with the offense yet and this was my first time watching him. His skills and speed SHOUT that aura about him, thus ANOTHER new wide-out to watch!
On defense, I did not see as many picks as prior years, but I saw a TON of balls that were fought, contested, and stripped from receivers to stop the play and score the point for the defense. On one play we saw Lavasier Tuinei make an incredible catch over the cornerback, but as he came downward we saw Willie Glasper rake that ball out to prevent a touchdown. I saw LBers, and DBs do this much more often than I recall in the past, and the drills they do seem to duplicate the mass of bodies in pass coverage, thus it makes the QBs better at threading a needle, it makes the WRs better at making tough catches, and it makes the DBs better at defending with their body and stopping the play with offsetting the hands of the receivers. On one play where the ball was popped up due to superb play of Thurmond and intercepted by a safety, we see John Neal running toward to sidelines toward US the crowd! He has an astonished look on his face and his arms open wide and he's shouting, "how about some love for the defense? The offense doesn't make ALL the great plays!" We laughed and cheered the defense, and he DID make a good point; success this year will depend upon big plays from our defenders as well.
I LOVE how our QBs are looking! I haven't been this excited about three QBs at the same time since we had Akili Smith being backed up by AJ Feeley and Joey Harrington. (talk about Quarterback "U") Thomas is looking more confident, with better throws, and doing it with some added bulk. JM and Nate are seeing the field better and passing the ball BETTER than any time I've seen them in scrimmage situations in the past. Even when things break down as they did for one play for Costa, we see Davis come back and to the middle as Nate sprints to the sideline and releases a sidearm strike to Drew for an easy first down. Another time we see the pocket collapse on Masoli and he breaks for the sideline, stops on a dime, and nails Ed Dickson in the middle who then proceeds downfield on his delayed post pattern. This is certainly the NEXT level that I didn't see last fall or spring and the work in the offseason along with their experience and seasoning is becoming evident in the passing game. I'm trying to curb my excitement, but these clues make it hard!
I could swear that I saw a "half-wing" formation out of the pistol shotgun. (figure that one out) I also thought I saw a variation of the wishbone BEHIND the shotgun. Did they run option, pass out of it, or merely fake us all out? Not telling. Perhaps the reasons for a totally closed Scrimmage Tuesday ARE warranted? Tom Petty was right; "the waiting (for THIS game) is the hardest part."
Is this team ready now? No. However they are clearly pulling elements together in all phases of the game to lead me to believe that they are right on track with a week and a half to go. It feels like we are going to score a ton of points this year in a much more balanced attack, with the temptation to pass more often than we actually do. I also get the gut feeling that this defense is going create more turnovers and short fields for the offense than we usually do. We don't have the Nick Reeds, Byrds or Chungs on the field, but turnovers will come with a disciplined, but ATTACKING group. We will continue to win by outscoring teams in 52-31 type of games we've grown accustomed to, but I believe the defense will contribute more to helping us score that much. With all the young-guns on the offensive line and receivers, we will lay the base for huge success in the mid-season and a future that we should dream about and not mention now.