Once again, Luke Falk was the first onto the practice field followed steps behind by Marcus Mariota. Mariota looked sharp by threading a few passes down the middle of the field and couple of long gains. Mariota struggled in the red zone though as he threw multiple times into windows too tight for a completion. Fans should expect to see accuracy in those tight windows increase though due to Mariota widening his base when throwing which offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur address prior to practice.
LeFleur also spoke quite a bit about his young wide receiving core which has seen a lot of mixing and matching players in different places so far which has led to everyone catching passes from the starting quarterback rather than just the returning players. Deontay Burnett made a number of catches up the middle, and Tajae Sharpe continues to impress in his first full offseason, making some great catches in the back of the endzone, and he created good separation all day long with some quick, hard cuts.
Undrafted free agent Akrum Wadley out of Iowa lived up to his college title of “the shiftiest runner in college football” by showing off some agility in open field one on one tackling drills. Anthony Firkser showed flashes of ability to make moves in the open field as well.
The biggest take away from the offensive end is the continuing high level of play from tight ends Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith. Pro Bowler Walker found open space to make catches all practice long which is a testament to his route running as much as it is to the route tree designed my LeFleur. Smith is showing great improvement from his already solid rookie campaign and sticks out as a player that could make a large impact in the offense this coming season.
Defense: Perhaps the highlight of the day was how well the defensive backs played, both as a unit and individually, with Leshaun Sims, Malcolm Butler, and Kevin Byard all making a few exceptional plays. The unit looked strong and showed some of the depth that it has heading into the season.
What looked to be the favorite drill of the linebackers and defensive backs was an open field tackling drill. When things got rolling during that drill, the energy levels shot up and players were fired up, chirping and heckling their teammates as they went one-on-one. Tajae Sharpe drew some oohs and ahhs as he froze a defender with a quick stutter step and flew past him, but the defenders held their ground for the most part. Undrafted free agent Robert Spillane out of Western Michigan excelled in this drill and is making his presence known to the defensive coaching staff. Jayon Brown in his red, Keith Bulluck style, gloves also displayed great footwork when closing the distance on the ball carriers.
In the 11vs11 drills, the speed of the defense stood out. Jayon Brown, among others, seemed to be in the backfield before the QB could even hand off the ball.
Special Teams: Kickoffs were a focus early on in the day. With all the new rule changes to both sides of the ball, adjustments needed to be made. A lot of the rule changes were made to change what blockers are allowed to do, so that was a point of interest today, making sure everyone knew how to play under the new system.
Ryan Succop is trying to build off a strong season last year in which he hit a career high 35 field goals. He spent some time splitting the uprights today, making things look easy as he nailed a 47 yarder with plenty of room to spare.
Punter Brett Kern may have added a new weapon to his arsenal. When practicing end-over-end punts early in practice, the ball tailed to his right rather than his usual left angled motion. During the ball’s downward flight, it had the unpredictability of a knuckle ball to the returner which could present issues for opposition this fall.