A solid crowd of fans, parents and student-athletes turned out yesterday at the practice fields by the McCue center to watch Virginia's first fall practice for the 2011 season.
While it was just the first practice of the year,and the players weren't even in full pads (just helmets, basically), the experience gave the crowd some new information and a few exciting moments to get them ready for the 2011 season.
As Coach Lazor had said would be the case, all four quarterbacks got a chance to show what they could do. While none necessarily separated themselves from the others, it is clear that progress has been made since the spring.
Several talented running backs got the opportunity to show what they could do - making this reporter wonder if the prediction of the one-two punch may have been a bit premature.
True first-years saw significant action on all three facets of the game. If there was any question about whether some of these talented players from the 2011 recruiting class would play this year, I think they got answered really quickly yesterday.
Let's dig in a little further after the break.
The First Years
Most people probably want to know about the quarterback situation, and I can't really blame them. It's certainly one of the biggest questions as we head into the season. But I'm going to start elsewhere - a place where I was hoping to see something and ti turned out I did: The impact of the 2011 recruiting class.
It took all of five minutes for the fans to get a taste of what the 2011 class has brought to this program. True first-years Darius Jennings, Demetrious Nicholson and Dominique Terrell joined Chase Minnifield as the rotation at the punt returner slot. Terrell was pulled from the field (with no apparent reason) during that drill, but indications are that it is not a serious situation.
With Terrell off the field, other true first-years had plenty of moments to shine. Nicholson (right, photo courtesy of CavsCorner.com) appeared firmly planted with the first-team defense for the entire afternoon, holding down the cornerback spot opposite Minnifield. It's only the first practice, so it's hard to know whether this was a "testing the waters" or "signs of things to come" type of situation. Regardless, Nicholson looked the part and aside from what could be described as some basic freshman issues, I would say he had a very solid first day of camp.
Two other true first-years got significant time on defense. Safety Anthony Harris and cornerback (and U.Va. legacy) Brandon Phelps both saw action and both looked promising. Harris had an interception and was involved in several breakups. Neither one looked quite as comfortable as Nicholson overall, but that doesn't really say much considering this is their first college practice. They both stand a chance of making an impact for this team.
There was no shortage of true first-years on the offensive side of the ball either. David Watford (who I'll talk about in the quarterbacks section), Darius Jennings and Clifton Richardson all saw plenty of action.
Darius Jennings lined up at wide receiver at least as regularly as any other player out there. With Kris Burd having a class, the wide receiver corps was obviously not what it will be when the whistle blows, but the fact that Jennings was that big of a part of it on day one is a positive sign. He very much looks like he'll be a special player.
Clifton Richardson didn't get as many "first team" snaps as some of his other first-year counterparts did, but when he got the ball in his hands, he looks very promising. He's obviously a bigger back than either Jones or Parks (standing 4 inches taller), so his running style is different. Frankly, I'm intrigued to see what the staff does with Richardson. Does this become a 1-2-3 punch instead of a 1-2 punch? We'll probably get a better feel for how the minutes will play out as we get further into camp.
One other true first-year to keep an eye on is Daquan Romero. Because of the lack of pads, and his position (OLB), I didn't get as good of a feel for him as some of the other newcomers. But it is obvious that he is a player that will be pushing for playing time this season as well.
Ok, ok, I know this is the section you wanted to read anyway. Unfortunately, I've got bad news for you. I don't have much to say. It's up to you to determine whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.
All four quarterbacks look better than they did in the spring. More comfortable, better touch on the ball, perhaps even some more velocity from a few of them. But we're still in a situation where none of the four of them really stands out as the clear winner.
Ross Metheny looked the most comfortable out there and had perhaps the best decision-making (as much as you can have in 7-on-7 and pad-less 11-on-11 drills). The other three were not far behind, however. Watford is definitely the most improved, but that should come as no surprise since he's a true first-year (and, in fact, it's only because he enrolled early that we can even really measure improvement for him). Michael Rocco and Michael Strauss both looked just fine for the first day of fall camp.
At this point, its still too tough to call and I would hate to be the coaching staff trying to make this decision as soon as possible. Perhaps something will show up on the film to them that makes it a little easier. For right now, I'm still sticking to my prediction that the starter will be Rocco. But I reserve the right to change that as early as this afternoon!
- I can't stress how much I enjoy watching our staff work with their players. Every single one of them is energetic and engaged. Sure, Bill Lazor's style and Dex's style are different, but just because Lazor isn't wearing an upside-down visor doesn't mean he's not all-in here. Its clear why the players - and the recruits - are very fond of this group of coaches.
- Keeping on the coaches theme for a minute, Marques Hagans is a very involved, active coach. During passing drills, he was out on the field talking to both the DBs and WRs about what had happened on each pass. It's great to see another of our former stars making an impact on the coaching side of things.
- I've always been a sucker for the special teams players - the kickers, holders and long-snappers who take a lot of criticism but rarely receive much credit. So I always enjoy seeing the technical drills that they go through. Watching the kickers actually try to hit the goal posts is always fun (even if the angle is terrible from where fans sit). But I do have to say, it's a bit scary to be replacing Danny Aiken with what appears to be one of two young guys (redshirt first-year Matt Fortin and true first-year Charlie Richards). Both looked ok during practice, though.
- E.J. Scott is a player to watch. He caught my eye on several catches that he made and routes that he ran during the day. While some of the other receivers seemed to struggle a bit, Scott looked like a playmaker.
- Speaking of wide receivers, it'll be interesting to see what happens with their rotation when all the players are there. Bobby Smith was on the sideline and not dressed all day. Kris Burd had class. And as I mentioned earlier, Dominique Terrell was pulled off the field early. Things will probably be shaken up immediately today with at least (I assume) Burd and Terrell back on the field.