I had the opportunity to attend practice today thanks to Chas. He emailed Senior Associate AD EJ Borghetti to see if I could and EJ was more than willing. I have a ton of notes on practice, coaches, and I’ll add some quotes from Gabe Roberts, Adam Bisnowaty, and Coach Chryst himself as well throughout. Before I get into that, I want to extend another public thank you to EJ, who is quite possibly the nicest person I’ve ever met. For a man with all of his responsibilities to not only take the time to acknowledge me, much less introduce me to people and take me on a tour of the facility, is amazing. I’m a blogger and he made me feel like a VIP.
There was a ton of noteworthy stuff at practice…well at least to me.
After some introductions, I headed over to where all of the real journalists were (Chris Peak, JerryDiPaola, Sam Werner, Josh Sickles etc). Even better, those guys were nice to me. They weren’t even fake nice to try and trick me into heading to the 9th green at 9. The first thing I noticed as I walked over? Isaac Bennett was having his right knee looked at by a trainer. Later on it was wrapped in ice. He did not practice. Other players who didn’t participate were Jason Hendricks and K’Waun Williams. Chryst said after practice that injuries are “hopefully nothing serious but we knew K [CB K'Waun Willams] wasn’t going to go today and Jason hopefully just wanted to take care of it [the injury] a little bit but nothing should be serious there.” Chryst didn’t specify what Hendricks was suffering from, but did say that it wasn’t his foot, an injury that kept him out in the spring.
I’ll start off with random observations from the position drills before some team drills.
1) The RBs were doing an agility drill and I immediately noticed that James Conner is a monster. He looked comparable in the agility drills to the smaller Rachid Irbrahim and Malcolm Crockett. I was highly impressed. More on Conner later.
2) The QBs and WRs were doing a simple pass and catch drill. WRs were doing some type of curl or hitch route and the QBs would hit them as they turned around. Only one WR got the ball late: Tyler Boyd. Why? He’s faster than everyone else. It’s good that he’s that fast and hopefully the QBs can adjust to it so passes aren’t late. From talking around with people most seem to agree that Boyd is probably the 2nd best WR right now.
3) There were waaay too many drops. I saw Street with 1 or 2, Orndoff with 1, and a few others.
On to team drills!
They did a few types of team drills, 7 on 7, 9 on 9, then full squad, early on with light hitting but no tackling then more aggressive later. With Bennett out nursing his right knee, James Conner took most of the first team reps and he seemed to be the best RB out there today. Crockett and Ibrahim were about equal behind Conner and I can see why they weren’t getting the ball as often. Conner has some good wiggle in the hole and combined with his size, he’s tough to bring down. After practice, Chryst stated that he “loves the way he’s [Conner] approaching everything. He did some good things…as he understands what’s going on in front of him that’ll help. He’s certainly earned the right to get more reps.” With an OL that struggled at pass blocking (both the 1s and 2s), we’ll need a good rushing attack to keep the burden off of the passing game. If you read between the lines with Chryst, he wants to get Conner more touches. If he can read his blocks better, look out; he’s going to be dangerous in the open field.
Boyd is getting the most reps at WR after Street and I got a glimpse as to why. Savage threw him a bullet about 20 yards down the middle, and even with a DB hitting him as he caught it, he held on. Granted, it wasn’t a full speed hit, but still an impressive catch. There were 2 designed WR reverses where Boyd went in motion and took a quick handoff from Savage. Both plays were blown up by true freshman Ryan Lewis. Not sure if that’s Lewis knowing the play or an issue with the play itself. Something that will be critical for Boyd if he wants to get playing time will be run blocking. I got a good look at one play where Boyd had his man 5+ yards downfield and locked up. Amusingly, I complimented him aloud without realizing that Boyd’s mother was standing right next to me. I had a nice little chat with her afterwards about Tyler and she introduced me to the other Clairton moms in attendance.
A play that worked perfectly in the spring game did so again today: the TE screen. Voytik rolled right off of play action and hit Orndoff in the flat for a solid gain. The athleticism of our TEs will be a huge strategic advantage for this offense. NFL LBs and Safeties struggle with athletic TEs. College players will get stomped. Holtz, Garner, and Orndoff are all going to be a huge part of this offense. Even if the OL struggles, short passes to TEs are a great way to nickle and dime your way down the field. With 2 TE sets where both TEs can catch, it forces the defense to play you straight up; they can’t key to the run or pass. I expect to see a lot of 2 TE formations this season. In fact, it’ll probably be the base offense.
Savage is still taking most of the 1st team reps and the only time I saw him with a really bad throw was on a deep pass to Street with some pressure in his face. A properly thrown ball is an easy touchdown, but Street had to slow down and come back and he dropped it too. Voytik had his moments, but one area he seemed to struggle with was touch. When he’s throwing the ball straight to a target, he’s fine. His arm isn’t as strong as Savage, but the ball had some zip. If Voytik had to arc the ball or throw it softly, it was overthrown. He missed high on throws to Tinker and Boyd during a red zone drill.
The pressure Savage saw on the underthrow to Street was not uncommon enough. I mentioned in my OL column earlier this week that I was concerned about pass blocking and it was a problem today. I did notice in 11 on 11 that runs off of the left side (behind Bisnowaty and King) were working the best. I’d expect to see a lot of runs to that side throughout the season. I was also concerned about Gabe Roberts, a RS freshman, with regards to making the calls at the line.
After practice he admitted “I screwed up a little bit and got pulled out.” The most common mistake, according to Roberts, is “taking the wrong step.” He added later that ”sometimes you want to do something and it’s the not the way you should do it at all…there are a lot of plays, as a center, you’re reading blitzes. I know Artie [Rowell, fighting for the center job], me and him go over stuff and yesterday I read the safeties wrong a few times and that kind of messes everybody up and kind of makes us soft throughout the pass protection so if we’re stepping wrong it kind of messes everybody up and it’s not all on the center but once you get down on the plays it’s all about the technique.”
The OL is talented but inexperienced and it’s fair to be nervous. How quickly they come together will be a huge factor in determining how successful this season will be. One thing is certain: if this OL fails, it won’t be due to a lack of effort from Coach Hueber. He’s constantly coaching, critiquing, and yelling when necessary. Adam Bisnowaty stated that “we all know what he’s done in the past…whatever he tells us is what’s best for us. Everything he has told us has worked and you ‘re like wow, it’s sort of like a light bulb goes off. Wow that actually does work.”
Practice ended with some good old fashion red zone drills. 11 on 11, full contact. There were 2 sets from the 5 yard line, first and goal. The first set was 3 James Conner runs. First play he was stopped for no gain. On 2nd down he got 4 to the 1 yard line then punched it in on 3rd down. The second set had Malcolm Crockett in at RB and he punched it in on his 2nd attempt after getting 3 yards on 1st down. The coaches were apparently pleased with this and they ended practice a little early. EJ said practice would probably end at 1 or maybe a little later and they started post practice stretches at 12:40.
I hope this wasn’t too convoluted, it was my first practice and I had a furry, 11 pound distraction, making things difficult as well. I’ll hopefully be attending the scrimmage on Friday. I’d love to be there every day, but Chas has greedily not offered me 6 figures to do this daily. Feel free to tweet him about it.