Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Spring report: Add Meriwether to Lafayette's running-back picture

Warming up for Monday Night Football -- Leopards style.
Rajhan Meriwether came to Lafayette from Arizona with a high school highlight reel that had lots of peopleready to have him take over the running game that would soon be left all but vacant by the graduation of Ross Scheuerman.

But before he ever had a chance to really show anyone his potential, the Chandler, AZ, resident suffered a preseason camp injury that sidelined him for the entire 2014 season.

He is now a rising senior who, if he chooses to do so, could probably apply for a medical redshirt season that would allow him to play again in 2018.

If anyone fits the profile of the player first-year Lafayette Coach John Garrett is looking for, it might be Meriwether. His career undoubtedly has fallen short of whatever expectations he may have had when he accepted the scholarship in 2014. He has been slowed by injuries and has played in only 14 games and has carried the ball just 20 times for 59 yards and no touchdowns.




Perhaps a good share of the blame is his own. I remember former Lafayette Coach Frank Tavani telling me that Meriwether needed to stay in Easton for the summer of 2016 instead of returning home. I was told that in the previous year he came to summer camp without having adequately trained at home to stay in shape. He had to use preseason camp just to get in shape and that left him behind other players who had done the work over the summer.

But he was also limited to action in just five games in 2016 and carried the ball just 13 times for 33 yards. He wound up no better than fourth on the depth chart behind DeSean Brown, C.J. Amill, Tyler West and Mike Dunn.

All four of those other backs are returning, which makes for a crowded field. But in Meriwether’s favor is the Garrett philosophy of “no incumbents,” which means that if he can work harder and produce better than the others, he can expect to get a second chance to become a feature player for the Leopards this – and maybe next – year.

Garrett is not talking to me about individual players, but at Monday night’s practice in Fisher Stadium, the first time the offensive unit took the field, Meriwether was the running back.

I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that he has switched his uniform from his No. 5 of the past three years to No. 29 this year. In case you’ve forgotten, No. 29 was worn by a guy who had a couple of 1,000-yard rushing seasons – Scheuerman.

Meriwether has filled out nicely. He’s now listed at 5-11, 210 pounds. None of the other four guys carries that much weight.

But the big thing is that not only is he bigger, but he also looks faster. On the final play of the Monday night practice, he broke through the line and ran away from the defense for a long “touchdown.”

Could Meriwether be the no-nonsense back Garrett and offensive coordinator Rich Bartel and running backs coach Christian Pace are looking for? In addition to his running skills, he can catch the ball. His only collegiate touchdown was a 50-yard pass play. He has just four catches in his college career, but as a high school player, he had 62 catches and nine touchdowns.

Size, speed, power, hands. Four strong characteristics. Does he have the passion and love of the game to put in the work to reach his potential? We’ll see. If he does, and if that means he can make the rest of the Leopard running backs to up their games, too, maybe the team can reverse a trend and get back on the right offensive track.

QUARTERBACK UPDATE

That left-handed "QB" isn't competing for the position. It's Coach
Garrett taking part in a drill on Monday night. 
I’m not the only person who has been paying attention to Lafayette’s quarterback scramble. This position was going to be high priority this spring no matter who the coaches happened to be. No slate is any cleaner than the QB slate, where rising senior Josh Davis is the only candidate who has thrown and completed a college pass.

Coaches Garrett and Bartel are intimated connected with the position, with both having gotten paid to play QB at some point of their careers. Both know what they want to see in the lead man in the huddle, and from everything I’ve seen in a couple of practices, they are being faithful to the commitment to give every candidate a fair chance to show his stuff.

It looks now as though rising sophomore Austin McCrum and rising senior Davis have the inside track. In my opinion, for whatever it’s worth, McCrum, who is 6-4, 220, has the best field vision of the group, while Davis, who moved back to QB from wide receiver this spring because of Garrett’s “no incumbents” approach, seems to have the best feet.

Getting a firm grasp of the playbook was perhaps Davis’ biggest shortcoming in the past, and I think there are times when he throws sort and behind receivers on the long throws to the sidelines and sometimes throws long on the downfield bomb. McCrum has a real gun for an arm but has not yet had a chance to adjust to the speed of the college game because he got No. 3 reps last year and they were limited. I’ve also seen him throw a couple of interceptions on plays where I wondered if he misread the defensive back.

Davis had a high school season in which he passed for 2,000 yards and rushed for 1,000, and Blake Meyer ran for over 500 yards and six touchdowns as a senior. Mike Lewis, who also punts, was an all-state player at Palmyra High but hasn’t played in his two seasons at Lafayette.    

My feeling at this point is that while McCrum and Davis are likely to be 1-2 at the end of spring practice – one way or the other – the starter for the Sept. 2 opener against Monmouth will not be determined until the rest of the quarterbacks have had a chance in preseason camp.

So, if my name happened to be Reed Aichholz, Sean O’Malley, Cole Northrup or Brycen Mussina – the four Lafayette freshmen who will join the scramble in August – I would (1) request some kind of a playbook that would allow me to bone up on the terminology of the offensive scheme being considered by Garrett and Bartel, and (2) arrange for housing in the Easton area for the months of June and July in order to be able to join the rest of the Leopards for both four-week summer workout periods, which include lots of opportunity for bonding with receivers and learning their likes and dislikes.

I don’t think those four rookies are automatically ruled out of the running for the starting spot in September. How much time the Lafayette coaching staff will be able to devote to evaluating personnel during summer camp has to be somewhat limited by the fact that the team has to be ready to play from the very start. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

ASKING COACH GARRETT

Q: When you talk about changing the culture, how do you define that term?
JG: “Really, it’s just the way we want the program to look. That’s no reflection of the way it was.It’s just that this is the way we do things. We coach with a lot of energy and we want the guys to play with a lot of energy like they love football, do everything fast with great energy, passion and emotion, as well as great concentration on their execution.”

Q: Have you had any serious injuries in your first seven spring practices?
JG: “No serious injuries. Some minor things here and there, where guys have been out for a little bit. They’re working hard to get back and we haven’t had to change practice much because of it. We’ve really been fortunate that we haven’t had any serious ones.”

Q: Is it still too soon to talk about personnel?
JG: “We’ve got a long way to go. Some guys are doing a great job ... staking claims, so to speak, and some guys we need to respond better and more, but every day they’re improving, so I’m pleased with the progress. Everybody is getting a lot of reps. There’s really no first, second or third team. We’ll make those decisions coming up based on the guys earning it. I’m really pleased with the reps that we’re getting and the player development that is happening. That’s how you learn. You learn by reps. We’re teaching all the systems and guys are picking them up. Some guys are really embracing that faster than others. We have to get everybody up to speed because our message is that we’re moving. The train’s leaving the station. Don’t be left. Get on board.”

DISSA AND DATA

Defensive back Kaizer Butler was working out all by himself behind the visitors’ grandstand. “This is the easy part,” he told me. The hard part is keeping his grades up because he has to do a lot of work on his own because he spends seven hours a day (or night) on a kidney dialysis machine as part of his recovery from granulomatosis with polyangiitis, rhe auto immune disease that nearly took his life last summer. He dropped from 217 pounds to 185. He said he’s regained five pounds, but the process is a long and tough one. He still has hopes of one day resuming his football career. I’m not counting him out, that’s for sure … It was really great to watch linebacker Brandon Bryant sprinting up and down the sidelines on Monday night, along with defensive backs Yasir Thomas and Tre Jordan. Others of the running or walking wounded included Clay Rush, Chris Granjean and Troy Dixon. It was interesting to watch offensive lineman Dylan Murphy have his elbow worked on on the sidelines. At another time, it would have been enough to cause him to call it a night, but on Monday, he eventually shook it off and hustled back to his buddies. I guess if you want to play in Coach Garrett’s game, you’d better be available for practice. That was pretty much the word I got from a member of the staff, too ... I think there's a ball-security emphasis with this new coaching regime. No carrying the football away from the body like a loaf of bread, exposing it to a defender's punch. It's ball to the chin, tucked close to the body, with the right (or left) hand over the top of the ball. I'm sure it's strange to a bunch of the players, but all of them seem to be getting the hang of it. Lafayette fumbled 11 times last year and lost four. That may not seem drastic, but it adds up to four missed scoring opportunities -- and  maybe a win or two.

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