Show Me Something!
We're about two weeks away from the start of spring practice, and the Columbia coaches must be beside themselves trying to cram in as much as possible during the quick two-week session.
Focus, Focus, Focus
The Ivy League's strict rules about practice time are intended to keep the young players' minds on their studies, especially during the spring semester when there is no football. But like so many rules, this regulation seems to have the opposite effect. Most players and players' tell me it's easier to focus on classes during the season when they have to be much more efficient with their time. The more relaxed spring semester often leads to a lack of focus, and you know what the devil does with idle hands. Perhaps the fact that spring practice wraps up so close to final exams is an advantage instead of a distraction.
And there will be no time for distractions as the Lions will need to use these practice sessions and the intrasquad spring game on April 21st to answer a number of questions and address several problems that will need fixing sometime before the opener at Fordham on September 15th.
In the past, a lot of spring practice has been about identifying the rising sophomores and juniors who have improved the most and will most likely make an impact on the varsity in the coming year. But so many freshmen and sophomores made a huge impact on last year's squad, that much of the mystery is already taken out of the equation. Freshmen Andy Shalbrack, Justin Masorti, and Austin Knowlin were all big stars for the team in 2006, as were sophomores Drew Quinn, Phil Mitchell, Jordan Davis, and Jon Rocholl.
That said, there were a few freshmen and sophomores who made smaller contributions last year who will need to step up in 2007. I think the players who need to make a good case for themselves in practice next month are:
RISING SOPHOMORES -- OFFENSE
1) Quarterback: M.A. Olawale. No matter how quickly senior QB Craig Hormann recovers from his ACL tear, (and I keep hearing great things about his rehab), the chances are good that Olawale will have to step up and play a lot more this season. I've been watching Ivy football for 20 years, and I have never seen a QB as fast as Olawale was in the brief playing time he had last season. Olawale is clearly very talented, but he's the exact opposite physically than the slower, non-scrambling Hormann. That poses some tough questions for the coaching staff. Should they retool the entire offense to match Olawale's running skills? If so, they'll need to start preparing for that right now. It might be easier to have Olawale and the other QB's mimic Hormann's play for now and then introduce a new offensive playbook in summer training camp depending on how well Hormann is coming along by then. Remember that spring practice is often a lot more about getting these players used to football after a five-month layoff. It might be wise not to confuse them with anything too new right now.
But Hormann or no Hormann, Olawale's quickness is too valuable to keep on the sidelines. Columbia must find a way to get him on the field more in 2007 either as a flanker, kick returner, or whatever. Real speed is a rare commodity in this league, and calling his number on just a few plays a game could make a big difference. All this means M.A. Olawale will probably be the most-watched Lion in spring practice. One certainly hopes he will rise to the challenge.
2) Wide receiver: Taylor Joseph. Joseph only started making a real contribution later in the season, but I liked what I saw. He grabbed 12 passes for 154 yards and a 15.4 average per catch. Joseph looks like he might fill the shoes of short-range target Nick DeGasperis and he could do much more than that. I think the #2 wide receiver starting spot for next season is Joseph's to lose right now.
3) Fullback: Pete Stoll. Stoll seemed to really make an impact in the final two games when he served as the blocking back for Jordan Davis. While it would be great to see him reprise and perfect that role, you have to wonder if Stoll will get the chance to shine as a ball carrier in his own right. Perhaps we'll get a chance to see what he can do in short yardage and goal line situations as Columbia needs to improve on the four rushing TD's it scored in 2006.
4)Running Back: Ray Rangel. Rangel impressed the coaches in training camp last summer, but a high ankle sprain kept him off the field for much of the early season and he finished 2006 with only five carries. Rangel needs to show what he can do when he's healthy, especially before some of the freshmen backs start upping the ante this summer. The coaches seemed to want to use Rangel a bit as a receiver coming out of the backfield on screen plays, so it will be interesting to see if we see any of that in the spring game.
5) Offensive linemen: Moose Veldman, John Seiler, and Evan Sanford. It's really unrealistic to expect offensive linemen to contribute much at all as freshmen as it is clearly the most difficult position to take from the high school to the collegiate level. But there are only five offensive linemen in the rising sophomore class, and at least one of them will need to step up and contribute this season. I'm putting the spotlight on Veldman, Seiler and Sanford because they seem to have the best body types and overall size right now.
And for those of you who think Mr. Veldman is the first "Moose" in CU football history, I direct your attention to this article from the NY Times in 1946:
NY Times, (incidentally, Columbia DID win that game against Navy, 23-14 and went on to a 6-3 record that season).
RISING SOPHOMORES -- DEFENSE
1) Defensive Lineman: Matt Bashaw. Bashaw was that rare freshman who made an impact as a defensive lineman. He played in nine games, had two tackles for a loss, including one sack, and forced a fumble. With two out of the three starting defensive linemen graduating, Bashaw needs to prove he's ready to go as a starter himself. Bashaw is the only rising soph with game experience on the line, so it's up to him to represent the class of 2010 up front.
2) Linebacker: Lou Miller. Miller lost his starting job to Justin Masorti in midseason, but he kept contributing all the way through. Miller needs to make his case for one of the three open starting spots in Columbia's five linebacker set, (Adam Brekke and Justin Nunez are graduating, and it looks like they're moving Andy Shalbrack from spur to defensive back). But Miller will have some added competition now that rising senior Bayo Aregebe is back on the team, (see below)
3) Defensive Backs: Drew Abeyta and Kirk Weller. Abeyta and Weller didn't get much playing time last season, but they still looked like the most promising rising sophomores in the defensive backfield. Even with Shalbrack's shift to DB and the return of senior Ryan Metee this coming season, this entire unit still looks a little thin. Abeyta and Weller can be a big help if they step up.
RISING JUNIORS -- OFFENSE
1) Offensive Linemen: Ralph DeBernardo, Mike Brune, Pat DeFazio, and Gene Kaskiw. One or more of these young men must step up to not only replace the graduating Matt Barsamian, Usche Osadebe and Daniel Palmer, but they must also eclipse them in some way. DeBernardo and Brune got a lot more playing time than most offensive linemen could ever dream of as sophomores. As juniors they need that experience to pay off.
2) Tight End: Troy Evangelist. Injuries kept Evangelist from playing as big a role as the coaches hoped last season. If he emerges as an impact player the Columbia offense could truly shift into a higher gear.
3) Running back: Jordan Davis. The starting tailback position is still his to lose, but he may need to pick up his game a bit even during spring practice before the freshmen running backs come in to raise the stakes this summer. Davis played pretty well last season, but now is the time for him to show the dividends of his extensive playing time as a freshmen and sophomore.
4) Fullback: Gary Mesko. Mesko came to Columbia in 2005 as a pretty highly-touted recruit. This may be the beginning of his last chance to prove what he can do.
RISING JUNIORS -- DEFENSE
1)Defensive Lineman: Cory Cameron. He has as good a shot as Bashaw to grab one of the open spots on the line. He was surprisingly effective as a backup last season despite weighing just 220 pounds. He still has a lot to prove.
2)Nose Tackle: Eli Waltz. He joins rising soph Matt Bashaw as one of the few returning players with game experience on the defensive line. It will be interesting to see if he has been able to add to his 244-pound frame.
3)Spur Linebacker: Clark Koury. With Shalbrack's move to the defensive backfield, Koury could make a run at one of those two opening spur positions. He only got into three games last season, but I liked what I saw.
And let's keep a close eye on rising junior kicker Michael Siebold. Obviously, Jon Rocholl is the incumbent for all the kicking jobs, but Siebold needs to show he's ready, especially when it comes to kicking off.
Just 13 seniors return to the Lions this coming season, and that includes the unexpected return of Mettee and Aregbe. (Hopefully this will be the last time Columbia ever fields fewer than 20 seniors).
Mettee and Aregebe will provide instant help as Mettee helps to shore up a depleted secondary, and you can never have too many linebackers like Aregebe in a 3-5-3 defense. Columbia fans will remember Mettee as the man who made an instant impact in his first game as a freshman in 2004 when he returned a blocked punt for a TD in Columbia's opening game 17-14 loss to Fordham at Wien Stadium. Aregebe impressed as a junior in 2005 before deciding to sit out last season.
Besides those two, there are two other seniors who need to use spring practice to boost their stock before it's too late.
The first is tight end Jamal Russell, who had an up-and-down, but mostly down season in 2006. He suffered from the dropsies in a few early contests, fell off the radar in the middle of the season, but then made solid contributions in the final two games of the season.
Another "on the bubble senior is wide receiver Tim Paulin. Paulin's speed and body type are still a plus, but he too had some trouble holding on to the football at times last season. Eventually, Paulin started losing playing time to freshman Taylor Joseph. Nevertheless, Columbia needs to establish a deep threat, and Paulin is uniquely qualified to fill that role. It will be interesting to see what he can show us next month.
RETURN TO SENDER
Was they anything sadder than Columbia's kick returning game last season? I guess the best you could say is the Lions didn't fumble away too many kicks. But I can't think of one effective kickoff or punt return last season. With an offense that still seems likely to struggle somewhat next season, field position will again be crucial. It will be interesting to see who gets a shot as a kick returner in the spring game and how they perform. I would list some of the leading candidates, but no one has emerged yet.
AND OUR MYSTERY HERO IS...
And finally, spring practice usually yields one complete surprise of a player who comes out of nowhere and emerges as an instant lock as a starter. Just about every player I DIDN'T mention above has a chance to be that surprise contributor this spring. Feel free to use the comments section below to make your predictions.