Friday, April 15, 2016

A day at Fisher: position change, a chat with Coach T

Josh Davis is hands-on at his new position: wide receiver.

It was Practice No. 9, and it was a day of surprise at Fisher Stadium.

Lafayette football coach Frank Tavani couldn't keep the secret on Thursday. We talked before practice, and in the course of the conversation, he casually dropped the line: "You'll notice today that Josh Davis will be playing some wide receiver."

That was a shock to me for a minute because Coach T had talked before the start of spring camp how this was going to be an important year for the rising junior quarterback from California. While admitting Davis may have the strongest arm of all the QBs in camp and may be the best athlete, Coach T said the youngster just was not getting the grasp of things. This was going to be the year for him to show himself capable of handling the duty if his turn came around.

But on Thursday, Coach said, "No sense sitting an athlete like that at third quarterback and in a tough position. I felt he could run; he’s athletic; he knows the offense." And with that, he made the call to the guys in the equipment room to see that Davis had a maroon No. 12 jersey instead of the yellow practice shirts the quarterbacks wear to indicate hands off for the defense.

Later, as I stood on the field, Davis came jogging by, said hello, shook my hand and said, "a position change." And off he went -- with the wide receivers.

It looked like he was having fun making the switch and that the rest of the receiving corps was willing to take him in and encourage him. And when the receivers went to a drill in which a machine drilled balls at them with force that seemed strong enough that missing the ball could mean you risked bodily injury, Davis, in his first hour on the job, acquitted himself well. My photo at the top of the blog caught him in perfect position. He omnly missed twice.

It'll be interesting to see where this leads. Davis wasn't about to break the hold Drew Reed and Blake Searfoss have on the QB spot. He just might find more opportunity as a WR. Meanwhile, rising sophomore Mike Lewis stepped in as the No. 3 guy during practice. And of course, 6-4, 220-pound Austin McCrum from Saco, ME will be coming to Easton this summer as a highly regarded 2016 recruit.

Lafayette trainer Matt Bayly reminded me of another Leopard who came to Easton as a quarterback, changed positions and made out pretty well for himself. B.J. Gallis was moved to defensive safety, became an all-league player and wound up playing three years in the Canadian Football League. That was back during Tavani's days as an assistant under Bill Russo.

If there's one particular area in which Coach T is happiest this spring it's the blocking by the wide receivers. "That was the No. 1 emphasis for them for spring, to get better at their blocking, whether it’s the bubble screen or a run or anything else," Tavani said of the WRs. "It was the No. 1 weakness we had pointed out and the No. 1 strength we wanted to come out with. I’m already seeing positive things."

Shane Ferguson is the Leopards' new wide receivers coach, and Tavani said, "One of the most impressive things about watching the film he provided was watching his wide receivers block. That was a factor in his selection and he knows that."

Reed has noticed a difference, even if Lafayette is not doing a lot of the real physical scrimmaging this spring. "The receivers have been impressive all spring, not just catching balls, but getting downfield and making blocks. Our new receivers coach taught them some pretty valuable things and we’re blocking things a little different with guys on outside and that should help us turn some eight-yard gains into 30- or 40-yard touchdowns."

The Leopards are deep at WR. Reed mentioned Joey Chenoweth, who had 46 catches in an outstanding freshman year to lead the team. It's nice to have 6-4 Matt Mrazek healthy again, and you can bet Reed will use him a lot. He had 44 catches last year before being hurt. Nick Franzese made a couple of nice catches Thursday; Rocco Palumbo was, to these untrained eyes, the most confident of the receivers in the drill with the machine, and Tim Vangelas is looking forward to a complete senior season after missing five games in 2015.

Reed also gave a shoutout to his running backs, referring to DeSean Brown and converted wide receiver C.J. Amill as "a two-headed monster. Both are really smooth runners. You don't see them mess up. And both can catch out of the backfield. Tyler West and Rajhan Meriwether also have had good springs. We have a lot of excitement with our skill players on offense."

Tavani feels the same. He called the move of Amill "huge. You can see the competition level step up. You have playmakers back there and we’re getting the ball to the playmakers -- DeSean, C.J. ... [Kyle] Mayfield has stepped up as a fullback and maybe a single back with C.J. in motion. The offense is a little more concise, and believe me, there’s going to be an emphasis on the running game. We’re also going to do the other things that go along with it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to pack things in and try to slam the ball, but it means spreading people out and making space, too."

Another point of emphasis for the spring has been to keep people healthy. And from that standpoint, Tavani is delighted. A slight tweak of a knee by wide receiver Conner Goss is really the only injury to speak of. Other players have been held out of practices for minor things, but even then, some of them have been able to participate in parts of a practice under the new format. And when they're not involved, they're in "the yard," where they do a bunch of interesting strength-and-conditioning things like flipping a tractor tire or whacking it with a sledge hammer, riding a stationary bike or a variety of other interesting exercises.

No sitting around when you're sent off to "the yard."

Coach Tavani is already looking forward to the addition of the 2016 freshman class to his team this summer. Many of them will come to Easton for one -- some for both -- four-week workout sessions, one in June, the other in July. "We're out there with 58 or 59 guys in the spring, but we're bringing in a class of 25 and will have three or four other newcomers walking on. 

"I want to walk out to Day 1 of preseason camp and mark in the top left corner the numbers 9-0. That's my goal, even if it's only once. If you start with five or six less than that, you're under 80 before you can blink. I you can stay around 80 and keep people healthy, you're better off."

Tavani also said he's "nowhere near close" to naming captains for 2016, "and I'm glad I waited. This team is developing its own personality and we'll see in preseason camp who's going to show up to play football. Once the shells are gone and the pads come on, we go." He said he has seen players on both sides of the ball stepping up during the spring and hopes that the entire team will adopt the 2016 slog --  "Effort, Attitude, Accountability, Toughness (EAAT)" and carry that through. 

Draeland James is going to be a key component of the Leopard secondary after missing virtually all of last season -- he was injured in the opening game. I asked him about his senior year, and he gave what I think is a very thoughtful answer. "It definitely means a lot. I missed my whole junior year. I’d grown up with those guys during my time here at Lafayette. Matt Smalley and Jared Roberts and I had been playing together since I was a freshman. It will be an adjustment for me to play without them. I'll try to remember the lessons they bestowed in me and to do it my own way, to understand where we came from and not where we’re at now. We have to get back. We won a championship as a freshman and I remember the seniors and the work ethic they installed. I'll try to install it back. We kind of lost it somewhere, got kind of lackadaisical. I want to get back where it should be."  



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