Friday, May 24, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Devils showcase depth

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville football team only got nine practices in during spring drills, which allows for 10 in a three-week period. But head coach Rick Russell says it was still a very productive spring that culminated in a Red-White game on Wednesday.

“We accomplished a lot, got a few questions answered with our depth chart,” said Russell. “We made a lot of progress with our spread offense and really came a long way in getting our defensive package for the spread put in.”

The scrimmage game revealed just enough highlights from each unit to make Russell happy about the team’s progress. Teams were divided evenly instead of by starters versus backups. The new spread offense had long drives and a few big plays, but the defenses got their share of stops as well.

One of plays that stands out most to Russell was a 50-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Terrell Moore. It was just a 5-yard underneath pass, but what impressed Russell most was the downfield blocking.

“The receivers are doing such a great job of blocking downfield,” Russell said. “On that play we not only got blocking from them, but we had Brandon Tooms, an offensive linemen, 30 yards downfield blocking. Terrell did a good job of reading his blocks, making the right cuts and he had to beat a man one-on-one for those last two yards. He just lunged the ball in. It was great effort by everyone involved.”

The starting rotation on the offensive line was set with college prospects Cory Harrison and Tooms at each tackle position. Jordan Belew is the starting center and one of the players that has made the most progress since last season.

“Jordan has just blossomed this offseason,” Russell said. “He’s gotten so much stronger and he plays so hard. He really gets after it.”

Sophomores Keith Purvall and Jalen Tatum will fill out the rest of the line. There’s also good depth.

“It’s lateral depth,” Russell said. “The backups are all going to be playing defense, but we feel like we have enough to make up two good offensive lines.”

Russell expected to be strong at the skill positions since offseason began, and he’s even more convinced it will be a strength now.

“We have the deepest group of backs and receivers as we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Russell said. “And it’s quality depth. We have so many players that I feel totally comfortable and confident putting the ball in their hands.”

The one Russell bragged about after Wednesday’s scrimmage was senior Carlin Heard.

“There’s another one like Belew that works so hard and gotten so much stronger,” Russell said. “He’s put on about 10 pounds, which for someone his size, is like 30 pounds for someone else. He’s increased his lifts tremendously. On the field he’s got great instincts. He really knows how to read his blocks and make the right decision. And on defense he’s so special because he’s great at talking. We call it ‘recognizing out loud’. When he’s in there at outside linebacker, he does a great job of recognizing the offense and communicating that.”

Senior Reggie Barnes continues to hold the top spot on the depth chart at quarterback, but Russell also feels good about the depth at that position. Sophomore Brandon Hickingbotham has been impressive since he joined the team at the end of baseball season. Russell said juniors Caleb Price and Kerry Knight have improved tremendously in the offseason and spring.

“Across the board we’re going to have a little more depth than we’ve had in several years,” Russell said. “We’re still not where you want to be. We can’t afford to lose anybody. But we’re better off than we have been.”

There is still one position that Russell doesn’t have a good idea of who will start.

“We’re still looking for that solid strong safety,” Russell said. “I’ve got a couple people in mind, but I’d like for someone to step up and show they want and deserve that position. I want them to decide who that starter is instead of the coaches.”