Saturday, August 19, 2006

the Innocents Abroad | by Jay

Speaking of travelogues, this morning I took a spin through some of our opponents' newswires to catch up on the latest tidbits leaking out of practice. I've been meaning to do this for about a week now, but as Twain said, "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow". I have been following that mantra like a pro.

Georgia Tech. The injury bug is biting hard. The offensive linemen are dropping like flies. Starting guards Nate McManus and Matt Rhodes came out with injuries at Tuesday's practice, joining starting RT Mansfield Wrotto and top backup Jacob Lonowski on the sidelines. Two defensive linemen have been switched to the OL. "It's extremely hard [to practice], especially when you went into the season thinking [the offensive line] was a strength, and now all of the sudden we're really scrambling," Gailey said. "We've got guys playing in that second offensive line that have been in the offensive line for two days." No word on whether these are long- or short-term injuries. Other bits: the younger defensive backs are reportedly looking good in practice, and Reggie Ball is very inconsistent but much better when Calvin Johnson is in the game.

Penn State. Lions are feeling confident despite breaking in an almost-completely new OL and new QB. "We have to get some offensive linemen to grow up in a hurry," Paterno said. "They have a lot of ability, but they haven't played. With the blitz schemes that are available these days, as clever as they are, it's up to our offensive line to pick them up. And whether we can handle that will make the difference."

Michigan. The skunkbears lost two OL to injuries, Justin Boren and Mike Kolodziej. While neither were starters, Kolodziej was battling for a starting RT spot and Boren was hoping to compete for playing time and avoid a redshirt season. New defensive coordinator Ron English's schemes are being well-received, while new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord is emphasizing "dramatic changes" in the Wolverine attack. Meanwhile, QB Chad Henne is feeling very confident and a lot tougher now that he's year older at the reins. (He also got a new tattoo.)

Michigan State. Quarterback Drew Stanton has been getting all sorts of raves nationally in anticipation of his senior season, but offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin believes that Stanton still has room for improvement. Baldwin has been stressing to Stanton the value of hitting receivers on shorter, safer routes, as the Spartan quarterback has a tendency to work too much downfield, something that he believes contributed to Michigan State's late-season nosedive. "This offense is not about the quarterback making big plays," Baldwin said Monday at MSU's annual media day. "It's about letting the offense work for you." To that end, Baldwin, Stanton and the Spartan offense have focused more during the offseason on throwing outlet passes to runners slipping out of the backfield. Given the fact that Stanton completed nearly 67% of his passes in 2005, the notion that he could become a more complete quarterback by tempering his maverick ways is a little scary.

While ND continues to sort out its shaky placekicking competition, Michigan State is still undecided for more positive reasons. In Tuesday's scrimmage, freshman Brett Swenson connected on all five of his field goal attempts (long of 49), while sophomore Todd Boleski was successful on kicks of 50 and 52 yards among his three attempts. Coach John L. Smith asserts that the two are neck-and-neck and hinted that he might use both kickers, with Swenson taking extra-points and short kicks and the strong-legged Boleski handling long-range attempts. The Spartan coaches have come to a decision on restocking their offensive line, however, as senior Kyle Cook will be the new starting center and junior Peter Clifford takes over at left guard. The other three positions will be manned by last year's incumbents.

Purdue. Joe Tiller seems to be excited about most of his offensive unit, going as far to say that he hasn't had an offensive line as talented as the 2006 group since the Boilers' trip to the Rose Bowl back in 2000. Purdue also returns a promising young tailback (Kory Sheets) and a capable mix of proven production and young talent at receiver. But in Tiller's offense, it all comes down to the quarterbacking, and he's put all his eggs for 2006 in third-year sophomore Curtis Painter's basket. Painter threw 3 touchdowns against 5 interceptions and completed passes at only a 52% rate in a five-game stint as the starter to close out the 2005 season, but Tiller and co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ed Zaunbrecher were very pleased with Painter's development in the spring session. Further commentary from the staff since fall camp opened regarding their young quarterback's performance has been noticeably absent, but it's clear that he needs to improve significantly in 2006 in order to put the Boilers' offensive weapons to good use.

Meanwhile, George Hall, Purdue's starting middle linebacker the past two years, will have surgery over the next day or two related to "compartmental syndrome" in his leg and will be lost for at least the season opener, perhaps longer. Tiller commented yesterday that he hoped to have Hall back by the end of September but didn't know anything more at this point. On a defense already replacing seven starters from an underperforming 2005 unit, the loss of Hall's experience represents yet another hole that defensive coordinator Brock Spack will have to plug, if only for the first portion of the schedule.

Stanford. Starting QB Trent Edwards recently went three scrimmage sessions without throwing a single incomplete pass. True freshman running back Troy Gerhart is taking reps with the #1 unit with the other two running backs out with injury, and he's impressing the heck out of everyone. Running back was a weak spot for the Cardinal already, so if Gerhart can emerge as a legit running threat that's going to make Edwards even tougher to defend.

UCLA. Patrick Cowan is fighting hard to win the starting QB job; it's not necessarily Ben Olson's just yet. Two injured starting defensive tackles are back in camp, including 300-pound DT Kevin Brown who led the Bruins in sacks in 2004.

North Carolina. After a clean, turnover-free showing in their first scrimmage last weekend and steady improvement through fall practice, the Tarheel offense took a step back in their second test on Thursday evening. "I was disappointed that we didn't run the ball more effectively," UNC coach John Bunting said after the scrimmage, which was closed to reporters. "We had too many negative runs. We had a hard time throwing because of protection on a couple of occasions and because of improper throws on others. We had a touchdown called back because of an illegal formation. If you can name pretty much what the offense could do wrong, they did it." The starting quarterback position is still up for grabs between redshirt freshman Cam Sexton and junior transfer Joe Dailey, and coach John Bunting expects that the competition will continue for the remainder of camp, perhaps even carrying over into the regular season.

Junior Trimane Goddard, UNC's starting strong safety, likely will miss the 2006 season after breaking a bone in his left foot. Goddard started the final six games of the 2005 season at strong safety and led the team with three interceptions, also finishing with 53 tackles and five pass breakups. In the interest of avoiding a similar pitfall, the Tarheels have limited Ronnie McGill's participation in fall practice and scrimmages. McGill, North Carolina's incumbent starting tailback, missed camp and the first four games of 2005 due to a torn chest muscle, later returning to post 530 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns on the ground. Commented Bunting, "I don't need to see Ronnie McGill scrimmage a lot. He needs to scrimmage some so that he gets used to the speed of the game when we play on September 2."

Southern Cal. It's still Sanchez versus Booty for the starting QB spot, although Booty has struggled in scrimmages thus far. The Trojans also switched 5-11, 230-lb safety Allen Bradford to running back, and so far the reviews are great. "He's like the other No. 21, only with more violence," said running backs coach Todd McNair, referring to LenDale White, USC's career touchdown leader.

But the juiciest piece of news out of the Trojan camp might be from this post on the wildwest message board, referencing the dumbing-down of the Southern Cal offense. The last remnants of Norm Chow have been swept away:

USC has completely thrown out the Chow playbook and is pretty much running a standard, boring, play-action offense that could just as easily be the domain of Jimbo Fisher or any other average SEC coordinator. Fewer formations, less trickery, less motion, fewer rollouts, deeper drops and more play action and it all means not as many receivers open and a tougher margin of error for the QBs. But mind you, this is at this point in camp before potential new wrinkles are not yet installed for Arkansas. Still, it does not bode well for the overall philosophy of the offense. More talent than any other team, but about as predictable as morning haze in Marina Del Rey. A talented defense will have a fighting chance--don't expect a team with comparable talent to be beaten down 55-19 anymore.