With a ring of snow surrounding the artificial turf on the practice fields south of Moby Thursday, the Ram football team was still out en force for their 10th spring practice, all leading to the annual spring game on April 19.
Gusts of wind were hitting 32 miles per hour by the end of practice and the temperature was near freezing, but head coach Steve Fairchild seemed right at home. A stint with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills is bound to thicken the skin, a fact Fairchild was quick to offer.
“This is like July 4th in Buffalo,” he said facetiously. “You’ll take this (weather) and run – I might plan a picnic.”
The weather was not for everyone, though. The casual fans that lined the field last Saturday were tucked away inside their homes and offices, leaving only a handful of shivering reporters, media relations personnel and team administrators to witness the team’s 10th spring practice.
On the field, the warm-blooded Rams struggled a bit at times in the weather. Bad exchanges from center to quarterback, under-thrown balls into the fickle wind and passes bouncing off cold hands disrupted the usual flow of practice, all things coach Fairchild expected and wanted the team to have to work through.
“I liked our effort today,” Fairchild said. “I thought our tempo was average, in between plays and getting from drill to drill. Getting in and getting back to the huddle was a little sluggish. We’ve got to improve on that.”
Bad weather or not, Fairchild said that they were going to practice today – outside.
“We were coming out here no matter what,” he said.
Even if the new indoor practice facility (breaking ground in August) was ready?
“We would’ve been out.”
The weather did seem to bode well for the defense, which was often on the positive end of offensive slip-ups. In particular, the corners were disrupting and intercepting poorly thrown balls throughout the team’s (short) scrimmage period.
A position that has suffered heavy losses to injury this spring, the handful of healthy corners that are left are stating to work their way into serious consideration for the job next fall. Cornerbacks coach Tim Duffie said that they are working hard to impress, and that the race for the position is pretty even right now.
“I see willing kids.the guys that are able to come out and play are trying to get better everyday. That’s all a coach can ask for,” Duffie said. “We’ve got a long way to go but I think that with time these guys can be pretty good players.”
Fairchild said that he liked the athleticism that the corners bring to the field, adding that he thought they were significantly further along (in terms of football development and readiness) than their offensive counterparts – the receivers.
“I like the way that they’re competing. They understand that we’re not giving them a good enough look right now at receiver to really challenge them, but I like what they’re doing there,” Fairchild said.
The secondary has been working in a cover two set for most of the spring and are starting to keep the ball in front of them well, Fairchild added.
Ten practices into the spring, redshirt freshman Brandon Owens and junior Nick Oppenneer are running with the first team defense, a fact that coach Duffie attributes to their experience and smoothness on the field.
“Of course, with youth there’s always some inconsistency from day in and day out,” Duffie said. “But both of those guys (Owens and Oppenneer) have played corner before, that’s what I notice. You can see they’re a little bit more fluid than some of the younger guys.”
Owens said that he and the rest of the corners have learned at least 75 percent of the defense so far and are feeling more and more confident with each practice.
“We’re feeling a lot more confident now because we’ve had a chance to get a lot more reps in with all of the injuries. We’re feeling good,” Owens said.
In terms of injuries to the position, two key players have been forced to sit this spring. Sophomore, DeAngelo Wilinson suffered a shoulder injury and redshirt freshman Elijah-Blu Smith broke his right foot early in the spring season.
Between the injuries and the rest of the competition constantly improving, no part of the depth chart (cornerbacks or otherwise) is etched in stone yet, both Duffie and Fairchild reiterated.
“Those two still know, and I tell them every day, that they’ve got a long way to go to be where we want to be in the conference,” Duffie said.
To keep the pressure up, Fairchild said that changes to the depth chart are happening daily, and sometimes even more often than that.
“I’ll move them in the period of a practice,” Fairchild said.