1. Changing the Game with the Run
Last year’s run game was silly. Four backs averaged 5 yards per carry yet none of them were ever subjectively consistent, showing flashes of greatness at different points in the year. The runs were primarily power sets out of a full house/pistol formation with the offensive line drive-blocking.
The backs have improved, but much of their success comes from a change in strategy. The field is much more spread out, giving them more space to make plays. Misdirection has also become more important, using zone blocking schemes and pulling guards instead of trying to win ‘mono y mono’ battles in the trenches. It gives the backs more freedom to make people miss, making big plays much easier. Boom will likely be the starter, but Dawson will be sharing the wealth and running the ball more often.
The hottest topic for the common fan is the Quarterback position. Shannon Dawson has given his QBs additional responsibilities; instead of having the whole team look to the sidelines for calls, it’s all on the QB now. There’s a lot more deep balls being thrown, even though they aren’t too efficient…yet.
Patrick Towles looks great after bulking up in the offseason and has become much more accurate in the short game. More importantly, 3rd and long is no longer impossible because Pat is excellent with 8-15 yard routes. He seems comfortable with the added responsibilities, making last-second adjustments against blitzes with ease. Barker doesn’t look like a young pup anymore, staying composed in the pocket on the field, while improving his composure off the field.
A starter will not be announced until the Fall, but I highly doubt Towles will let Barker take his job.
3. C.J. Conrad is an immediate difference maker
It isn’t just the coaches who are impressed with the early enrollee. From Patrick Towles to Mikel Horton, all of the current players are impressed with his early progress. He catches pretty much anything you throw at him, regardless of how many hits he has to take. He will be a valuable asset in the middle of the field and in the red zone.
He isn’t the only new guy turning heads. Big George Asafo-Adjei might be Stoops first freshman offensive lineman that is not redshirtted. Horton said that every player arriving early is far ahead of last year’s early enrollees. That says a lot, coming from a guy who arrived early last year.
4. Jeff Badet has gotten faster; the receivers have become more physical
Jeff Badet had to miss all of last season because of injury, but rather than missing a step, he’s gained one. Cornerbacks simply can’t keep up with him. The constant threat of the deep ball helps him get open in the medium-distance routes, getting DBs on the toes before planting his foot and breaking em off.
Many of the young guys that saw a taste of greatness last year – Blake Bone, Garrett Johnson to name a few – have matured, becoming more physical downfield. All too often they let the defense dictate their positioning. Now the tables have turned. Bone’s length makes him a valuable red zone threat. Johnson might be the biggest difference-maker with his ability to play inside or out.
5. Dawson has a 330-pound fullback/noseguard
The Cats have more depth at every position, except fullback. To fill the need the pride of Clay County, Jacob Hyde, has moved into the backfield. He’s explosive, opening holes “big enough for him to run through.” He’ll be featured in Jumbo packages, but don’t think when he comes in that it will be a run. The first two plays he was in during the first scrimmage were passes…he even caught one yesterday.
6. Flannigan and Forrest lead a solid, but thin linebacking group
Josh Forrest had never been a middle linebacker until last year. He was great, leading the team in tackles, but was not consistent enough to satisfy Stoops. Now he knows the defense well, and has become a leader for the unit. Ryan Flannigan was also behind last year, a late arrival that was never comfortable with the nuances of the defense. He’s become a formidable force, securing a spot at Will linebacker.
Replacing Bud and Z will not be easy, but new outside linebackers coach Andy Buh is in the perfect position to make a swift transition to Denzil Ware and Jason Hatcher. Hatcher has put on 10 pounds of muscle and is prepared to start playing like an upperclassmen after spending his first two years splitting time. Ware’s length makes him a valuable pass rushing asset, but it will take some game reps before he can become a true threat.
7. The Safeties are great, but the corners have work to do
Stoops has always made sure his face is seen regularly in the secondary group, but even more so this season without a specific coach for the safeties. “We’re playing excellent in the safety position. If I could just get those corners straight,” he joked about earlier this week.
Most of the credit is due to the players. A.J. Stamps was excellent last year as the free safety and Marcus McWilson has continually improved at the strong position. Mike Edwards and Darius West were essentially out of all football activities in the Fall because of injuries, but the highly-ranked recruits have stepped in seamlessly as #2’s on the depth chart.
Determining the depth chart at cornerback, however, is much trickier. Depth has improved, but no one has asserted themselves to secure a starting spot. A player to keep an eye on – Jaleel Hytchye.
8. The biggest takeaway: This offense will be really, REALLY good
We’ve been thirsty for big numbers since Neal Brown brought the Air Raid back, but the offense failed to consistently score. After watching just a few practices, I would be shocked if this team didn’t average at least 30 points a game. They’ve only been in this offense a month, but the players’ confidence is exponentially higher.
Patrick Towles has all of the tools and intangibles to be the best QB in the SEC East. The receivers have depth and are not being pushed around by their defenders. I can (and will) talk about the running game’s improvement for posts on posts on posts. Dawson is spreading the wealth to as many players as possible. He’s also spreading out the defense, giving his players more room in open space to make defenders miss.
It’s truly amazing to watch their improvements just over a few weeks. What’s going to happen after Fall camp? Lots of sirens. Lots and lots of sirens.