Open practices are like workroom donuts for the football soul. You have to indulge even if they leave you feeling a little ashamed.
But hey, they don't really count... right?
Two things I've learned from my share of practices over the years. First, don't overestimate individual athleticism on display: we've had plenty of players over the years who balled in one-on-ones only to contribute almost nothing in the season. Second, the scrimmages are telling but only if you pay attention to the big picture things you are seeing: not just the big hits and big catches.
I've already read a few good reports out there that have detailed some of the individuals who shined on Wednesday and Thursday. I won't add too many of my own thoughts other than to re-iterate a few things that stood out to me the most about personnel and groupings. Since you are as desperate for football as I am, I know you'll forgive the sporadic nature of my thoughts.
On the Defense
The physical and athletic presence of Kheetson Randall and Keenan Robinson surprised me. Both of these guys look like they have made the transition from very good athletes to scary football players. Aaron Williams and Sam Acho are obviously bigtime playmakers for our defense this year, but I think 91 and 1 are the guys who are going to take over games.
Vaccaro's ability to play the slot in our nickel package is a shocking revelation. That personnel grouping is physically intimidating all over the field... and absolute punisher against the spread.
The physical talent at the defensive end position is silly. This is well known. But watching it in person you almost feel ashamed. You start to think about opposing offensive linemen and how they are gonna try hard not to be shell-shocked and then they will try hard to hold on for dear life and finally they are gonna try hard to keep up with fresh legs for 4 quarters. I dunno. I felt like I should call their families... warn them somehow... something.
Overall, the lasting first impression of this unit is one of intimidation. I think last years' defense was slightly more athletic in the starting 11. However, I think the size, aggression, and depth of this unit are going to be a mental pressure cooker and a physical whipping. I think a lot of offense's are going to play scared against us.
On the Offense
Gilbert is not a question mark in any sense to me. He moves well in the pocket. He's not just an accurate passer, he makes good decisions about where to place the ball when he does throw into coverage. He throws a great deep ball... maybe the best we've had in the Mack Brown era. From what I can see he is also aggressive. We absolutely need him healthy this year and we need to set him loose in the offense from the beginning.
Chiles does indeed look very good. Obviously, if he can be a player for us in the slot this year, that makes a world of difference on third downs. In order for our shotgun sets to be viable we absolutely need him to perform at this level in season.
I don't think that there's a magic answer at tailback but I am most impressed with Cody Johnson at the position. He moves very well in traffic... he constantly adjusts his pad angle and he brings enough speed to hurt in open spaces. Whittacker and Newton are better options in the shotgun... but it doesn't matter because we are still shooting blanks there. If this couch coach had his druthers we would build our core offensive identity around versatile H-Back sets with Cody Johnson and play-action passing.
Speaking of play action: we are initially run blocking our play-action from under center and things are going to open up deep for us as a result. We also ran a real draw from multiple formations. Both are highly welcome additions to our offense.
Our offensive line protected very well last night and looked good in the running game. We are not creating huge holes but we are getting vertical movement. I left feeling optimistic that we can get some attitude and physical presence from the starting offensive line but really concerned about our depth there.
Overall on offense, I am hopeful in the short term but remain non-plussed on the long view. We featured a number of new formations. The two most prominent examples were the 3-Wide single back and the H-Back Twins. We ran extensively out of both formations and showed a willingness to trap and counter and to attack the weakside A and B gaps. Those things make me very happy. However, it doesn't appear we have really changed our approach to our Shotgun sets. We have included the tight end and this brings back the counter-3, so there's that. But if we haven't changed our running game in those packages and that means that teams can continue to cheat with numbers in the secondary against us. We haven't fixed anything, we've added new stuff. I think the new stuff looks pretty good but I know the boon will be short term. I definitely harbor concern that we will struggle to find any identity in an offense that has such disparate approaches. I worry that we end up with packages in 6 different formations: each package very defensible on it's own.
I know that my thoughts may read like I'm a giddy schoolgirl about our defense and a begrudging miser about our offense. That's about right.