Oregon practice day 4: what the pro reporters learned peering over the fence

helfrichkvalThe football monopoly in Eugene is just beginning. By turning the entire sports press corps into a knothole gang, the Ducks have succeeded, as they do in so many other areas, in dominating the competition.

Even so, a few insights and glimpes of what’s actually happening inside the unfriendly confines are seeping through to the public, thanks to the throng of dedicated journalists who scramble for scraps on the concourses and pathways outside the Hatfield-Dowlin Football Performance Center.

You said that already: Duck coaches had better come up with a few new cliches, or it’s going to be a long year in the reporting game. (KVAL.com photo)

On Friday the Ducks practice in pads for the first time, which means there will be some live hitting and the opportunity to truly assess the progress of highly-praised (so far) newcomers like tailback Thomas Tyner, receiver Devon Allen, linebacker Danny Mattingly and Tyree (#2, defensive back) and Tyrell (#19, linebacker) Robinson. Saturday is the first day of two-a-days.

Today’s practice will feature a full-live, full-contact, 11-on-11 period, and for that 10-12 minutes practice reps will indicate a lot more than who looks good sprinting with a handoff in shorts. Coaches can measure recognition, reaction time and execution in a controlled environment that’s much closer to a football game, more telling about a player’s readiness for a full stadium and a lit-up scoreboard.

In July the PAC-12 conference issued new rules on full contact in practice, guidelines to protect player safety that are more strict than those set by the NCAA. Conference teams are limited to one practice a day that involves live hitting, after the mandatory three days of practice without any contact at all.  From the official announcement, here are two appropriate sections of the rules, briefly:

B. Definition of “Full-Contact”—The Pac-12 will define “full contact” as any live tackling, live tackling drills, scrimmages or other activi-ties where players are generally taken to the ground.  “Full contact” shall not include “thud” sessions or drills that involve “wrapping up” where players are not taken to the ground and contact is not aggressive in nature.

D. Preseason Practices—For days in which Pac-12 institutions schedule a two-a-day practice, full-contact shall only be allowed in one practice (the other practice is limited to helmets and shoulder pads). If full-contact practices are scheduled consecutively around one of the two-a-day full-contact practices, only one of those practices shall be more than 50% full-contact.  By way of example, if a morning session of a two-a-day practice is full-contact, that morning session practice or the preceding one-a-day practice would be limited to no more than 50% full-contact.

So the intensity of practice is about to ramp up for the Webfoot varsity. Players who are “getting it” will have the opportunity to separate themselves and make moves up the depth chart. For newcomers, it’s an entirely different level of test.

Mark Helfrich told A.J. Jacobson of Duck Sports Authority he was really pleased with practice through Day Four. “Our effort is good. Our install process and progression is going well on both sides and special teams. That is all you can ask for is to make a general uptick each day. I thought our intensity was really good today. There are always mistakes out there but nothing that isn’t encouraging in a way.”

Asked about the newcomers, he noted they were doing a good job of keeping up as offensive and defensive coordinators install “the first wave” of the packages the Ducks plan to be executing flawlessly in another month or two.

Jacobson also talked to defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who told him he really liked the Robinson brothers, that after four days they’ve really stood out in drills and simulations. “They are fast and they are quick so they are athletic,” Aliotti said “They don’t know where they are going quite yet but they are fast and quick. It has taken me 30 years but I usually can see that. So with those 30 years I figured out that they are fast and quick and therefore athletic.”

The Robinsons’ progress is good news, because the Ducks need to find some depth at outside linebacker (Tyrell, 6-4, 201) because Dion Jordan is gone and cornerback (Tyree, 6-4, 200) because NFL-bound Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrence Mitchell soon will be. Athletes who can step in and fill roles right away allow the Ducks to continue their blistering tempo, keeping the plane filled with healthy, able bodies who know what they are doing. 

Mattingly’s development is especially important, because the Ducks have some minutes to fill at the inside linebacker positions, where the depth chart is written in pencil after Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick. Mattingly is 6-5, 222, a 4-star prospect from Spokane, Washington, physical and smart.

About 20 snaps a game are up for grabs, if he acclimates quickly enough and has gained enough weight and strength to complete his transition from the preps. If not, linebacker coach Don Pellum will have to get creative, perhaps sliding 6-3, 233-lb. outside linebacker Boseko Lokombo into the middle, or even Derrick Malone, a converted safety who can run and hit, but undersized at 6-2, 219. 

#34 Rahim Cassell is another young player making a bid for playing time. The redshirt sophomore from Lakewood High School in Lakewood, California had 19 tackles last season and 7 in the spring game. In interviews, veteran linebacker Boseko Lokombo praises his effort and improvement, and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu told Comcast Sports reporter Jen Beyrle that Rahim is also “one of the funniest guys on the team.” Every locker room needs that.

It’s not as worrisome as you think–the Ducks have had great success in their blitzing, pursuing defense employing linebackers who were on the light side. Michael Clay, Spencer Paysinger and Eddie Pleasant all played in the vicinity of 220.

Whoever wins those coveted jobs in the heart of the defense, they have to be comforted by the physical presence in front of them. At goducks.com Andy McNamara was marveling at the sight of “Arik Armstead (6-8, 280), Deforest Buckner (6-7, 286) and Christian French (6-5, 244) in the same front 7 during 11 on 11. It’s one thing to read their heights and weights on a roster, but quite another to see them with shoulder pads on at the line of scrimmage.”

It’s been since, well, never that the Ducks have had a defensive line that was this deep, fast, strong and quick. Especially since McNamara’s tableau didn’t include Taylor Hart (6-6, 292), the acknowledged leader of the d-line, or shut-up-punt-and-sit-down nose tackles Ricky Havili-Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi, 6-4, 305 and 6-3, 295 respectively.

McNamara added Bralon Addison made “several nice catches” on Thursday, and that “the weather was ideal with occasional sun breaks and a nice breeze.”

Ernest Hemingway said it was always important to mention the weather.

From goducks.com here is some video of practice. Unfortunately it’s of practice four months ago, but you can at least get the idea: