Disclaimer: this is long. I apologize for those who lack the patience to read (I'm guilty of that too), but it isn't too bad when its all said and done.
So we've got about 3 weeks until the opener. Camp just opened, depth charts have been released, we got a look at the new unis, the turf and got to hear from some of the players and coaches. The picture is becoming more and more clear as to what we can expect from this team this season. Unlike the year prior, it seems as though the players on this years squad seem to be a lot more motivated, and the sentiments RE mentioned about players finally buying in and understanding what's expected of them. What I really liked hearing is that it seems as though RE, and the players, have heard what's been said about them in the media, and are approaching this season with a serious chip on their shoulder.
But that's the sentimental, rah-rah stuff. I'd like to get your thoughts on what you expect in terms of coaching, scheme and actual play-making this season. My two cents after the jump
I want to start off with the defense, simply because I feel that of the two units, this seems like the unit that is at a greater advantage in terms of earlier success with their switch to the 3-4 from the 4-3. To those of you who aren't familiar with the difference, the 3-4 emphasizes the linebackers compared to the defensive linemen, where the defensive linemen to essentially take up space and "block" for the linebackers behind them, allowing for a more complex blitz scheme and creating mismatches with offensive linemen due to the increased athletic ability of linebackers in this day and age, as if creating an attacking facade that is meant to confuse and demoralize the offense.
Looking at the depth chart and the personnel, I believe that this team is a lot better suited for this type of defense compared to the 4-3 because there is simply more talent at linebacker on this current squad than defensive line. The switch allows for guys like Francis/Bowers (assuming he's the starter) and Monroe to be space eaters on run plays (as well as Vellano), freeing up Tate, Hartsfield and Drakeford and creating a more stout run defense overall. Switch in a guy like Justin Anderson for passing downs, and we could really have a dangerous pass rush. We all know that Vellano will make plays as he always does, but I think the guy who could benefit the most from this switch is Kenny Tate. Many people were disappointed when he wasn't back at safety, especially considering that he might force a perfectly capable player in Alex Twine to sit on the bench, but I might be in the minority that thinks he should stay at LB. If you watch his style of play when he played as a safety, you'll notice that he spent a lot of time either in the box or closer to the line of scrimmage compared to "conventional" safeties. Also, his cover skills as a safety at the collegiate level were average at best, so to say it was where he belonged is a bit of a stretch. Now, he can focus on doing what he does best, which is sitting in the box near the line of scrimmage, and using his athletic ability to hunt down RB's and QB's. Ideally, the position change becomes a formality, and he goes back to being the play maker we all know he can be, and I believe this can be achieved under a guy such as Brian Stewart, who coached players such as DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys and helped him succeed in doing the very same.
Rotational depth with guys like Twine and Farrand will help, as well as any contributions from younger guys, but the core of the front seven could really cause some damage. My optimism is furthered by the presence of the aforementioned Brian Stewart, who successfully ran the 3-4 with the Dallas Cowboys and had a pretty high level of success while doing it, especially when looking at sack numbers and the relatively low number of rush yards he gave up, both in the NFL and at Houston, his previous job. There's no doubt that anything was better than the meltdowns we saw last season, but I think the improvement this year from this squad will catch a lot of people by surprise. I have no doubts that Stewart will be able to play to the strengths of these players, and the system (better than Bradford anyway, I still want to punch something when I hear the term *STAR*) especially by emphasizing the linebackers we have. The secondary does scare me, and if they aren't stopping the run or getting to the QB, then were in for a long day, but in all honesty, you could have the best secondary in the nation and still get carved up if you aren't doing those to begin with. I think we can stop the run effectively with this front seven, creating 3rd and long situations, and making conversions difficult, which will ultimately take pressure off the secondary and hopefully hide any deficiencies they have.
This is where things really need to come together. To those of you who have been living under a rock (sorry if that offends anyone), were supposed to be running a pro style spread courtesy of the new OC and recruiting GOD Mike Locksley, which is essentially a lot of plays lined up from the shotgun. It's not the conventional spread featured by teams such as Oregon, as it still emphasizes the run game similar to what professional teams do. What's lost is the 3-5-7 step drops of the quarterback, but in the college game, its been known to work quite well.
Personnel wise, is there any one in the country that can benefit from this better than CJ Brown? This offense, especially Locksley's really flourishes when headed by a running QB, and we might have one of the best "runners" at the QB position in the entire country. I mean look at this kid go:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V__g7goMdpQ (word of caution, ignore the guy in the number 5 jersey, still a touchy subject for me...)
But seriously, Brown's got some speed, running past defenses type speed. This is important for this offense since it prevents the defense from being complacent, due to the threat of a long run. If teams stack the box, match ups become more favorable for the pass catchers, and vice versa. QB options begin to come into play, as do bootlegs qnd subsequent play action. In terms of what the finished product can look like, here's a clip of a game between Illinois and Michican from 2007, when Locksley was the OC there.
The QB in this clip is Juice Williams, who was similar to Brown in terms of his style of play. Also mentioned is a guy by the name of Arrelious Benn, who is a highly regarded true freshman WR from the DC area that was heavily recruited before signing the dotted line for Illinois, courtesy of Mr. Locksley (sound familiar?) . Well, lucky for us, we have a similar talent with a guy by the name of Stefon Diggs. Now I'm not saying that he'll be as successful, but come on, can you blame me for hoping?
Here's some more highlights of Williams:
These are all highlights, which is a result of everything clicking on all cylinders, but its also a testament to what the ceiling for this offense is. Now I don't expect Brown to be the next Williams either (I think Williams' arm is better) but the playing style is undoubtedly similar, which is using your legs to create plays, and making correct, quick, and accurate throws when they're open. Let's be honest, Brown isn't going to sit back there and carve a defense for 400 yards and 4 touchdowns, but he can easily emulate some of the same skills that made Williams successful, especially in the Locksley offense. Granted, the talent level at the skill positions aren't as advanced as that Illinois team, and the terps were notorious for ill advised drops, but if this offense can at least build and work towards being what that Illinois team looks like, you have to like our chances. A poor mans version of that Illinois offense, would be enough to make this team really competitive regardless of who they line up against, and that's a realistic expectation in my honest opinion. The backs will be better, especially Justus Pickett, and the future is bright at the position with the likes of Wes Brown and Albert Reid (who's speed could really be a factor). If the line can stay healthy (a big if), and can manage to keep Brown upright long enough to get off a throw or run out of bounds, then we have a good shot. We're better off from a coaching standpoint, and that improvement should net us some gain as well.
Now who's to say that some head hunting jerk won't try and take Brown's head off? Nothing, and frankly you should expect it. Every game, every snap. But that doesn't scare Brown, and its the circumstances the team is faced with. If Brown does miss time, we'd be in quite a spot. I'll probably start the basketball season countdown at that point, because it'll go downhill. Fast. But injuries happen, and will probably happen to this team.
That being said, I am optimistic, though cautiously so. A distracted, divided team last season managed to put Clemson, WVU and NC. St. on upset watch last year. A few plays go our way, and we might be looking at 3 more wins during that season. The 2-10 was tough for all of us, no doubt about it. And the jury is still out on Edsall, as it seems that the trolls are just as many in number as the supporters. But considering the season we came off of, we could be a lot worse off. Rockin Randy has definitely lightened up a bit, we have a MUCH better coaching staff, and excellent recruiting class considering the season we had and are creating serious noise among recruits within the DMV, something the Fridge never seemed to do. The pride movement is working, the new field is crisp, as are the new unis, all that's missing is a winning team. Now I don't know if Edsall is that guy, but I think he deserves this season, as well as the next, before a decisive decision is made. The step back he took in becoming more of a CEO should allow Locksley and Stewart to really coach up the players we have. The players that didn't transfer believe in the team, and come into the season admitting they have a chip on their shoulder. No one expects much from this team, even terp fans, but I think they can surprise some people this year. 6-7 wins is a realistic possibility, especially if the NCAA comes down on UNC. That aside, I really do believe that we have the talent to reach that win total IF the team stays healthy and the talent comes through and plays at the level they are capable of. That many wins would be HUGE, momentum would really get rolling, and we might just see the program that fans have been wanting for years now. It's possible, there's a chance, albeit a small one, but a chance nonetheless. There's a lot hinging on these next few months, and I may be drinking the kool aid, but I do like the steps that the program is making to establish itself a bit more within the college football landscape. Lets see if it plays out as we hope.
What do you think?