Spring Practice Report: Defensive backs battling for time

As the weather warms up in Athens,  spring ball has begun wrapping up.

Beau Blankenship stiff arms a defender on his way to six. Blankenship became the first Ohio running back to rush for 100 yards in four-straight games since Kalvin McRae.

Beau Blankenship stiff arms a defender on his way to six. Blankenship became the first Ohio running back to rush for 100 yards in four-straight games since Kalvin McRae.

The injuries have already begun to mount for the Ohio Bobcat football team. Running back Dazmond Patterson and defensive back Devin Bass have missed time, and it’s somewhat unclear who will actually take the field when the Spring Game goes down at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Peden Stadium.

That being said, players in both backfields have optimism heading into the spring finale. Redshirt senior safety Xavier Hughes, himself coming off of a serious shoulder injury, is simply worried about having a good time out on the field.

“I’m just going to go out there and have fun with my guys,” Hughes said of the Spring Game. “You know I want the defense to obviously have a better turnout, but I mean, it’s team sport.”

Redshirt senior running back Beau Blankenship took a more pragmatic approach to the upcoming game.

“We’ve been working hard,” Blankenship said after Tuesday’s practice. “We probably haven’t gotten as many reps as we’d like to because of the injuries and stuff, but the team is working hard, improving and I’m looking forward to the season.”

Read below to capture what spring football beat reporters Zak Kolesar and Chris Manning collected from practice on Tuesday morning:

Blankenship carrying same mentality into final season:

Out of any player on the 2012 Bobcat roster, there is not another guy who wore Hunter Green and White last season that had a more impressive start to the season than Blankenship. From the opening game in Happy Valley to the close call at Gillette Stadium, the Oklahoma bruiser compiled 757 yards and six touchdowns over the first five games. His crowning performance came against the Massachusetts Minutemen when the Ohio workhorse carried the ball over 40 times for the first and only time in his career. There was good judgment behind that decision, which resulted in 269 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

Blankenship’s season fizzled over the course of a few games due to the crunched schedule near the end, in which the ‘Cats went 1-4 to close the regular season. He did, however, earn co-offensive MVP honors at the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl for a bowl record four-touchdown effort. Even though he may have been running on tired legs near the season’s close, the bowl victory serves as an example that his mentality did not change.

“(My mentality) won’t change, and I go in every game trying to do the best I can,” Blankenship said. “That drive won’t change – I’ll be ready.”

Another contributing factor to Blankenship’s success in 2012 was the offensive line consisting of graduating seniors Eric Herman and Skylar Allen. This season he will be lining up behind an unfamiliar and somewhat experienced starting group.

“The line that is in right now is doing a good job and they’re working hard, so I’m excited about it,” Blankenship said. “And a bunch of the guys we had playing last year are hurt (right now), so we’ll get them back in the fall.”

Injuries last season prepared some of the incoming starters for the roles they will be taking on this season. Blankenship also realized during that same time frame that there are some aspects of football out of his control, and seeing teammate after teammate go down was the principal one. This made the ‘Cats a tested squad, and it also puts them at an advantage having gone through the experience of reaching down the depth chart for role players.

Hughes on his rehab, the young guys and 11Fest:

For Hughes his last two seasons have been cut short by shoulder injuries and he’s taking it slow as he looks toward next season. In spring practice, he’s been focusing on his technique, while limiting his contact.

“This is my second year coming off an injury, so basically it’s getting back to getting the little things right, getting my footwork down and my mentality right,” Hughes said.

With the limit on physical contact, Hughes has put his focus on rehabbing his shoulders and has spent a lot of time in weight room. The Bobcat safety is also looking to gain weight to his 168-pound frame.

Hughes has also came away impressed with young players such as the aforementioned Bass and redshirt freshman Toran Davis. He also mentioned Thad Ingol, a redshirt junior, as a player to look for on the field this season.

Lastly, with the spring game falling on the same day as the Kendrick Lamar-headlined 11Fest, one might think that players would be upset about missing such a big event.

“I’m more worried about the season than 11Fest,” Hughes remarked. “We got to get this championship in, so we’ll get there if the guys really want to go. But other than that, it’s more about football than partying right now.”

Cornerbacks coach James Ward teaches healthy competition:

With players like Hughes, Jamil Shaw and Travis Carrie slowly making their way back onto the field for contact drills after missing last season, the Ohio defensive back unit will have many contenders fighting throughout the 2013 campaign for playing time. Talented players who missed time in 2012, young cornerbacks who stepped up in their absence and newcomers all have proven over the spring practice session that the DBs will be jockeying for depth chart position all season long.

“It’s been very competitive this spring, and as a coach, you like to see that,” cornerbacks coach James Ward said. “The toughest thing is when you have to manufacture competition as a coach, and now that there’s genuine competition, it just gets everyone in the room better.”

With Carrie back in the mix of practice, young corners are looking to him, for leadership. Bobcat defenders try to copy his technique in exercises in order to go up on Ward’s list. This list exemplifies how his players are doing throughout spring practice by handing out grade rankings for their performance during these drills and assignments.

“I give everyone their grade on one sheet so everyone can see where everyone is, and you can see guys jockeying for position saying, ‘Hey, I’m only a percentage point behind you and I’m going to catch you,’” Ward said.

Ward does this because he feels that nailing down hand and foot techniques is most important at the defensive back position. Being very detail specific with how his unit moves on the field is something that he holds high on his coaching resume because mistakes at the cornerback and safety positions receive maximum exposure over almost every other position. He makes sure his players are properly trained before going into battle with their wideout counterparts.

“To create muscle memory with your technique is to create second nature, which I strive for,” Ward says.

Quote of the Week

What that tells me is that they are buying into the coaching. They are trying to absorb it like a sponge and doing a good job from that standpoint. You expect those guys to make some mistakes, but I’m not seeing the same mistakes over and over again, which sometimes you get with young guys.” ~ Ward on how he hasn’t been seeing the same mistakes committed by the defensive backs this spring.

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