On Tuesday, a large emphasis was placed on converting inside the Red Zone. Today, one of the team drills focused on covering at the goal line, with the ball placed at the 3-yard line.
A couple of the big plays in the drill was a pair of touchdown passes, one from junior quarterback Bo Wallace to junior wide receiver Donte Moncrief, another from senior quarterback Barry Brunetti to redshirt freshman tight end Matt Brown. On the other side of the ball, redshirt freshman defensive end John Youngblood dropped into coverage and intercepted Brunetti.
Another part of this drill was the shift from a base 4-2-5 defense with the Huskie position, to a base 4-3 defense with the Wolf linebacker, where junior Keith Lewis got first-team reps, along with senior Mike Mary at middle linebacker and sophomore Denzel Nkemdiche at Stinger linebacker.
"I see him having a big role on this defense," linebackers coach Tom Allen said of Lewis. "Keith is one of those guys who from a size-speed ratio has the best combination of that and does an excellent job. I want to see him be a big third-down linebacker for us and be on all our money packages in situations like third-and-long.
"I believe he's a very good inside linebacker and can play in all our packages. He's going to be a guy whose role I see expanding and be able to make plays for us on Saturday."
A freshman All-American last season, Nkemdiche started all 12 games at Stinger linebacker and led the team with 82 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and three interception. Allen said he looks for Nkemdiche to improve with his leadership, preparation and being the total package.
"Last year, I think he was a guy that just made a lot of plays on Saturday, and he did that consistently, but I would like to see him be the guy that leads our defense, on and off the field," Allen said. "His energy and effort is never in question, but just making he eliminates mistakes. Leadership is part of that. And off the field, being a guy who we look to as a model of doing the little things right every single day."
In the base defense with Huskie position, Lewis slides to middle linebacker on the second team, and junior Serderius Bryant has gotten second-team reps at Stinger linebacker. Allen said Bryant has probably made the biggest jump from last season to this season.
"I think his knowledge has really improved," Allen said. "And he's one of the guys who changed his body and committed to the program, in the way he takes care of himself, and it's showing on the field. He's a step quicker. He's always been talented athletically, but with his knowledge of what he's doing now, as well as being physically better, it's showing up on tape."
Senior D.T. Shackelford has missed the last two seasons due to knee injuries. He returned in the spring and has mostly worked with the second-team and third-team defense in fall practice but got some first-team reps today. For Shackelford, Allen, said it's more mental than physical, specifically reacting split-second on the field and confidence in his knee.
"We met last night at length, and he feels good," Allen said. "He feels like that his knee is strong, and when you watch him moving around, you can tell he's better than we was in the spring. But it's a process with him, and we're trying to bring him along."
Early Look At Special Teams
Through six practices, all four special-team units -- punt, kickoff, punt return and kickoff return --have gotten work. Senior punter Tyler Campbell and senior kicker Andrew Ritter both redshirted last season, and Allen is pleased with their performance in fall practice.
"Right now, we're in the beginning stages of the process of putting in all of them schematically," Allen said of special teams. "I'm please with our kickers. Tyler is a guy who's very talented, and Andrew Ritter is doing a really god job for us.
"We have a lot of guys back from last year that played as freshmen and sophomores. So we're getting them ready, the depth chart set with coordination with our travel squad is the challenge right now. I feel like we're making progress and we're trying to work on it every practice and getting better."
In kickoff coverage drills, from left to right, not including kickoff specialist Ritter, the first-team unit consisted of freshman running Kailo Moore, sophomore cornerback Quintavius Burdette, junior linebacker Serderius Bryant, sophomore linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, junior Keith Lewis, freshman Huskie Tony Connor, redshirt freshman Temario Strong, sophomore safety Chief Brown, sophomore wide receiver Cody Core and sophomore Mike Hilton.
On Tuesday, senior running back Jeff Scott, senior wide receiver Korvic Neat and sophomore safety Trae Elston all got reps as the deep men in punt return drills, and Allen said, right now, Scott is their starting punt returner for sure. The competition at kickoff returner is more wide open.
"Jaylen Walton is very talented and he's gotten himself physically bigger and stronger," Allen said. "I'm excited about I'Tavius Mathers and what he can do. And Kailo Moore, he's a threat back there. There are going to be a few other guys competing for that spot, but we got some speed back there that give us a chance to get a good return."
Senior offensive tackle Pierce Burton participated in team drills and got first-team reps at right tackle, so freshman Laremy Tunsil got second-team reps at left tackle, with redshirt freshman Robert Conyers at right tackle.
In the team competition, the offense won 13-12, with the offense winning the decisive point by drawing the defense offsides.
Some of the highlights from the team competition: For the offense, freshman quarterback Devante Kincade had a pair of touchdown passes, one to freshman Laquon Treadwell and another to freshman Quincy Adeboyejo. For the defense, junior safety Cody Prewitt and sophomore safety Trae Elston each had an interception.
In that same drill, Kincade got some reps with the first-team offense, including a nice sideline throw to junior wide receiver Donte Moncrief and the touchdown pass to Treadwell.
Freeze, on sophomore safety Trae Elston: Trae is really athletic, really solid. We expect him to have a great year. He kind of got his nose bloodied a little bit last year as a true freshman. He got a lot of experience, so hopefully he has a great year."
Elston, on the cornerback position: "I think our twos and threes are doing very well. It will be better when Charles and Senquez come back, so we're just trying to get better.
Elston, on freshman safety Derrick Jones and freshman cornerback Bobby Hill: "The freshmen are looking very good, very quick and fast, learning very quicly. DJ is a good athlete. Bobby is a physical athlete. They're both very good."
Allen, on the linebacker position: "I think several of them have improved themselves physically, in the way their bodies are shaped, and that excites me. I think the knowledge of what we did in the spring, building off of last season, and having so many guys back, I think we are able to move forward and not take steps backward."