Image by Hilary Scheinukvia of Lsusports.net. See More images from the Open Practice HERE
Ed.- Thanks Andrew!
I’ve got to admit, when I found out that LSU was opening up a spring practice to the students, I was a little skeptical. I knew it’d be an interesting experience, but at the end of the day I just assumed it was a chance for the Tiger Athletic Foundation to convince a bunch of 18 to 22 year olds to respond to all those email requests for donations.
Once the practice started, though, I was sold.
This was not a publicity stunt, nor was it an attempt to pry money out of anyone’s hands. This legitimately seemed like an organization reaching out to its fans to say "thank you." The team and the coaching staff were very gracious to the students and seemed pretty happy that so many of us showed up (Michael Bonnette estimated that there were over 400, I would have guessed the figure was a bit lower). The team paid its employees to stand across the field and make sure nobody was walking on to the field or interacting with the players. My point? The athletic department spent money on this event. It was a very gracious effort on their part to reward the fans.
What struck me about the practice itself was the simplicity of what the team was doing. I hadn't been around any formal football practice since my junior year of high school, when I played offensive line. Immediately I started comparing my own experiences to what was going on with the drills I was seeing. Structurally, it all seemed familiar: each unit went through some individual drills to start things off. The lineman had their shoving contests, the quarterbacks worked on their form as they threw short passes to receivers and running backs, and the kickers and punters went to work on a separate part of the field where stray kicks wouldn't interfere with anyone. Gradually, the units came together and ran some simple but genuine plays. The focus was on some pretty basic stuff: play action passes, screen passes, runs up the middle, etc. Fans who hoped to see the early stages of the next River Left or watch Drew Alleman run into the end zone on a fake field goal or two would have left disappointed. None of the unique exercises we’ve heard about or seen from media accounts of spring practice were run, either. There was no sign of the famous Big Cat or Corey Raymond’s recent gauntlet drill. I was a little surprised that a college practice could be as simple, if not simpler than some of the practices I went through during high school, but this made sense later when Coach Miles told the students that the team was taking it easy for their final practice before the spring game.
Observing the coaches was one of the coolest parts of the experience for me. I was surprised by how quiet Miles was for the majority of the practice. In video we’ve seen of him from the locker room, he seems to have a larger-than-life, commanding presence. I was expecting him to be all about volume, but during this practice he was relatively quiet, sticking to running the plays and giving some occasional feedback to the quarterbacks. It was a pretty unexpected contrast. The volume was left to defensive coordinator John Chavis and offensive coordinator Greg Studwara, the latter of who probably could have been heard from Skip Bertman Drive. What I managed to make out from the coaches tended to be pretty uninformative. For the most part, it was merely the coaches stressing fundamentals.
After the team stretched and wrapped up their practice, the staff selected 20 students to come compete in some drills. Miles had a lot of fun with this, jokingly telling some of the students to hustle and work on their form. The team really cracked up at seeing some of the less athletic students struggle with the obstacle course (especially P.J. Lonergan, who laughed like he was having the time of his life). The students who participated seemed good-natured about it, and were rewarded with free t-shirts.
The outdoor portion of the event ended with Miles calling the students that had stuck around in for a huddle. He gave us a speech about how much he appreciated the passion of the student section and wanted to use the last football practice to reward us. One portion in particular made me glad I’d showed up. I haven’t been able to find a transcript of what he said, but I’ll try to quote it from memory.
"Before every game, when I come out of that tunnel, the first thing I do is look over my right shoulder and see you guys. We play for you, whether you realize it or not."
I think it’s a safe assumption that those of us who stayed until the end of practice and were rewarded with Miles’ speech weren’t exactly casual fans. I saw at least 40 people leave within the first half hour, and overheard more than a few people make comments like "why did we come down here, again?" To be honest, I thought this was pretty understandable. If you got an opportunity to watch your favorite band rehearse, you wouldn’t find it nearly as entertaining or watchable as seeing that same band play a concert. Rehearsals are pretty boring, especially for people who aren’t in bands themselves or don’t play instruments. Even if they wound up playing your favorite song, it’d be a pretty rough version and might have a few pauses to talk about how the bass playing needed to be more in time. This is exactly what watching your favorite sports team practice is like. It’s nothing like watching a game. There’s no entertainment between plays, no stadium-like atmosphere, and no opposing players to cheer against. The Spring Game has been described by ATVS’ own Billy Gomila as just being a glorified practice, but at least the narrative of it being Team 1 versus Team 2 creates a little excitement. The fans that came expecting to be entertained rather than to observe and learn about what it’s like to play football at the college level were pretty disappointed. But for fans like me who are really into watching the behind the scenes type stuff, it was a great experience, and I was glad to be a part of it.
A few scattered observations about the practice:
- Zach Mettenberger looked good, at least for the first three quarters or so of the practice. What concerned me is that he seemed to wear down towards the end, winding up throwing a few inaccurate passes and an interception to Tharold Simon (who, admittedly, made a pretty impressive play). Stephen Rivers and Jerrard Randall looked very much like the works-in-progress they’ve been reported to be. Accuracy was a concern for both of them, particularly Randall in the first half of practice before he seemed to settle in.
- The amount of passes thrown at the tight ends could be described as "minimal." I saw Tyler Edwards catch one, but that’s about it. Later, during the autograph session, the woman in front of me asked Chase Clement whether or not the team finally had a quarterback that was going to pass to tight ends. His response: "We’re waiting to find that out ourselves."
- Tyrann Mathieu looked like Tyrann Mathieu. No crazy turnovers to speak of, but he did bat a few passes away from Odell Beckham, Jr. and looked pretty confident throughout the whole practice.
- The linebackers did not look good. There were several occasions during their drills when they didn’t seem to know their formations and got chewed out by Coach Chavis. This might be another long year as far as they’re concerned.
- It was basically impossible for me to evaluate how the running backs were doing, as the linemen all seemed to be playing at far less than 50 percent, mainly working on memorizing their blocking schemes. I had to rely on what I could hear the coaches saying to them to tell if they were performing well or not. No negative feedback about any of them to report. Alfred Blue and Jeremy Hill seemed to get more praise than others.
- As much as I love Russell Shepard, I didn’t see anything to indicate that his senior year was about to mark the big turnaround we’ve all been expecting from him. At his best, he seemed adequate, catching a few simple screen passes. At no point did he blow me away, though. He had a few key drops, especially on some of his longer routes. I’m sure that a lot of fans are expecting him to flourish with (presumably) improved quarterback play, but I wouldn’t encourage anybody to get their hopes up. Paul Turner also seemed to struggle at times, but the rest of the receivers looked pretty good, especially Odell Beckham, Jr.
About the autograph session after practice:
- The players were really nice and were completely willing to take pictures. I got to meet my favorite Tiger, Eric Reid, which had to be the highlight of the whole event.
- The first player that the students lined up to see? Brad Wing. The first guy who was in line asked for a picture, and obviously asked him to do the taunting pose from last year’s Florida game. I asked Wing if he had been getting those types of picture requests a lot. He responded with the funniest sigh I’ve heard in a long time.
- Shea Dixon mentioned on twitter that the line to meet Sam Montgomery was longer than any other. Sam’s one of my favorite Tigers, but I feel like I have to mention this: it wasn’t because of his popularity. It was because Sam Montgomery signs autographs slower than any other human being I’ve ever met.
- Jerrard Randall doesn’t know what the Bluegrass Miracle is. I have no idea why the woman in front of me wound up asking him about it, but he didn’t know what it was. When I got to him, I told him just to tell people that he knew what it was, and that he thought it was awesome. He just shrugged and said "I’m from Miami, man."
- James Hairston was pretty mad when I couldn’t figure out who he was at first.
- To make up for my criticism of Russell Shepard, I feel like I should mention that he’s a REALLY nice guy.