So, we've reached the midway point of Spring drills with the football team and the tone is noticeably more positive. Part of that is truth and part of that is spin from a coach trying to breed confidence in young players and spark some excitement among the fan base. Based on what we've been hearing from folks with feet on the ground and among the big donor base it looks like the progress is definitely real…..the expectations just need to be tempered. I don't think a lot of people are talking bowl games next season who have been observing the team but there will be players and moments to get excited about and build off of over the course of the season. What I hear continually for a best case scenario is something similar to Jason Gesser's first full season in which the team went 4-7 with a ton of really close losses. I'd take that in a heartbeat this coming season and I think that would be plenty to keep Paul Wulff and staff employed. Lots of downside risk in that number though and depending on the health of freshmen and sophomores over the course of a season in which they will play eleven straight weeks is a potential recipe for trouble ahead.
There is a LOT of time and growth before the trip out to Stillwater, OK in September and lots will change but we've bucketed some of things we've learned into some creative groupings. It's impossible to build concrete conclusions in the Spring. The team is playing against each other after all but there are things that we think you should be happy, sad, and confident about and those are listed below.
Let's take a look:
Be Happy (you should feel good about these storylines):
Hallston Higgins- The movement and middle linebacker has created an opening for Higgins and he's been playing pretty solid football. He might be a special teams guy in the Fall if Bland is all the way back and Ledgerwood is healthy but he's shown that he'll be an asset for special teams and possibly in the middle.
Aire Justin- He's successfully held off the challenge of Nolan Washington all Spring. The encouraging part is that it hasn't been because of poor play from his challenger. Justin has stepped up and played consistently well all season. Corner could be our best position by the Fall if these guys continue to progress.
Tyree Toomer/LeAndre Daniels- Safety is another position of developing strength and Daniels and Toomer are leading the way.
Dave Ungerer- A combination of credibility in the new coach and widespread recognition from Wulff that special teams is an issue that needs to be addressed has led to greater emphasis in practices and increased productivity in their reps. We should expect to see excellent progress this Fall on special teams and Wulff was wise to hire in Ungerer. Special teams is an area that can be improved quickly and in a big way for this team come September.
JC Tackles- The struggles of the oline have continued in the Spring but not to the extent of the past two years. Much is attributable to new schemes and rotation of players. One thing has become clear though. The new JC talent that arrived in January is going to be able to help. Expect to see at least one starting by this Fall and possibly both.
Be Sad (you should be concerned about these storylines):
Chantz Staden- I'm sorry but Chantz Staden is an occassional 3rd down back and special teams player. The more you read about him starting, the more you should be concerned about the health and depth of our running backs situation. This becomes even more concerning when you consider the emphasis put on improving this area from the staff. We need a healthy Carl Winston, Logwone Mitz, and Marcus Richmond if we want to make strides here.
Marshall Lobbestaell- We've chronicled the body of Lobster's work over the past several seasons here. Yes, it's reasonable to expect improvement. No, he's not a player that should be taking reps from Jeff Tuel. The only reason he should be taking snaps with the 1's right now is because it's still very possible that Tuel won't finish next season healthy with the uncertain status of the o-line.
The receiver situation- Ok, we've seen the spin on why it's "great" to have four guys get the majority of the reps and learning from Levy. It's silly. Levy had no problem coaching the Fab Five and the guys developing behind them. There has been no emergence of a gamebreaker and no breakaway depth has developed. When you hear the staff talking about true freshmen contributors or starters at receiver it's a source of concern. Let's hope they stay healthy and that we catch lightning in a bottle with the JC guy coming in or a freshmen receiver. Otherwise, this is going to be a unit that's troublesome all season even though the four current scholarship guys are solid to really good.
Be Confident (these are areas you can count on in the Fall):
Brandon Rankin- The real deal. He's going to add ten pounds this Summer and he's going to get stronger. He has helped shore up the dtackle situation and should show up all season long for us. He's going to be fun to watch. Think more Rien Long than Jeremy Williams.
Defensive End- Depth and speed. We are going to have players at this spot in the Fall that teams will have to game plan around. That's going to make our outside linebackers better and our secondary better in coverage.
So, there you go. Not a comprehensive list by any means but a grouping of topics or players that we've learned a bit more about over the course of eight practices. Let's hope for seven more healthy and high energy practices to close out the Spring session!