Once again this year, 12 beat writers from around the Mountain West will collaborate on a weekly football notebook. Here is the fall camp edition. We will go weekly beginning Aug. 26.
Air Force ran the Oklahoma drill during its second practice in full pads, the first time any player on the team had run the violent exercise at the academy.
The result – aside from some extra red jerseys worn by injured players the next day – was a clear message sent to this team that the old ways are being replaced with a more aggressive, physical approach.
In addition to the physical drills, the first-team offense and defense went at each other for live, full-tackling periods in the first two days of pads, whereas the team typically had waited until its first fall scrimmage to unleash them.
“That’s something that we put some emphasis on coming into camp is we wanted to let our guys play a little bit,” outside linebackers coach Matt Weikert said. “See how physical they can be, how fast they can go and who can be durable. Those are the guys we’re going to win games with.”
After a season in which Air Force forced just nine turnovers and gave up an average of 40 points en route to a 2-10 record, the players seem to have embraced a more rugged approach.
“The competition is up, people are louder,” junior defensive end Alex Hansen said. “It’s just a better environment to play football and to get better as a team.”
Season opener: vs. Nicholls State, noon MT Aug. 30, ESPN3
Notable: WR Jalen Robinette (leg) and RB Devin Rushing (ankle) each missed the first scrimmage on Saturday but are expected back this week. QB Kale Pearson, back from an ACL injury suffered in the first half of last year’s season opener, has taken the majority of the first-team reps through the first week of practice. Sophomore Nate Romine, who started the final five games, is behind him. Four outside linebackers (Justin Alabi, Reggie Barnes, Jared Jones and Steven Sumpter) left the team over the summer for varied reasons (each related to academics or injuries). DL Joseph Champaign, who has been plagued with knee injuries, is also not playing as a senior. WR Sam Gagliano is not with the team as the result of a “coach’s decision,” but the senior has attended most practices and the team’s first scrimmage.
— Brent Briggeman, The Gazette
Details of the Broncos’ new offense has come out in drips with most of fall camp closed to the media.
The offense will have an up-tempo element but incorporate some of the concepts that first-year coach Bryan Harsin used so effectively when he was the offensive coordinator — pre-snap movement, versatile tight ends and vertical passing.
“I love this offense,” redshirt freshman backup quarterback Ryan Finley said. “Absolutely love it. I think what (offensive coordinator Mike) Sanford is doing is unbelievable — a little bit of under center, all the shifts and motions, all that kind of stuff. Absolutely love it.”
What is clear, even though it isn’t official, is that senior quarterback Grant Hedrick will lead the attack.
Hedrick played nearly all of the last seven games last season in place of Joe Southwick. Southwick was injured on the first offensive snap against Nevada and returned for one series on Senior Day against New Mexico.
In those seven games, the Broncos went 4-3.
And Hedrick’s stats reveal a mixed bag.
The Broncos scored an average of 34.7 points per game, down a touchdown from the first half of the season, and the quarterback was responsible for nine turnovers (five interceptions, four fumbles). The team’s third-down success rate plummeted from 52.6 percent with Southwick to 42.3 with Hedrick.
But Hedrick also accounted for 22 total touchdowns (16 passing, six rushing) and 300.3 yards of total offense per game. His total offense, if accomplished over a full season, would have ranked 20th in the nation. His points responsible for would have ranked ninth.
Hedrick also contributed an 85-yard pass (the Broncos’ longest since 2003) and a 50-yard run.
He says he plans to enjoy his new role, not stress about it.
“I’m trying to embrace everything and take everything in — positive and negative things, I’m just going to try to embrace it and really enjoy this whole thing,” Hedrick said. “I’ve enjoyed my whole time here. This whole process has been awesome.
“ I feel like if I just keep continuing to do what I’m doing, I’ll be fine. I don’t feel any pressure at all.”
Season opener: vs. Ole Miss (Atlanta), 6 p.m. MT Aug. 28 (ESPN)
Notable: The Broncos have spent much of fall camp on a new $1.4 million grass practice facility. That brings the total spent on football facilities since 2005 to $75 million. Sophomore wide receiver Chaz Anderson has been one of the surprises of fall camp. He moved from cornerback to bring speed to the group. The Broncos return tailback Jay Ajayi (1,647 total yards, 19 TDs), wide receiver Matt Miller (school-record 88 catches, 1,140 yards, 12 TDs) and slot receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes (77 catches, 702 yards, six TDs).
— Chadd Cripe, Idaho Statesman
From a defensive standpoint, Colorado State is building its football program much like the Rams would build a game plan for a specific game, co-defensive coordinator Marty English said.
The first priority is to stop the run, and the Rams made it to that point last season by limiting opponents to an average of 140.6 rushing yards a game after giving up 233.7 in 2011, the year before Jim McElwain was hired as coach.
Now that they’ve forced teams to beat them through the air, they’ve got to fix the pass defense. The Rams gave up 275.7 passing yards a game last season and 33 passing touchdowns, more than 121 of the other 123 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the nation.
It’s all part of the maturation process of a defense, English said at the team’s annual media day.
“From our first year, we knew we needed to improve rush defense, because if you can improve and do a good job against the run and force teams to throw, you’re doing what you want to do defensively,” he said. “ We think we got a little better at that.
“ That’s just kind of the flow of how it goes. I don’t know that you completely jell defensively for two or three years.”
Season opener: vs. Colorado (Denver), 7 p.m. MT Aug. 29, Fox Sports 1
Notable: Dee Hart, a graduate transfer from Alabama, has joined the race for the starting job at RB to replace Kapri Bibbs, who left school after his sophomore year for the NFL. Hart, a five-star recruit coming out of high school, has two years of eligibility remaining. LB Cory James underwent minor surgery on a knee during the first week of practice and should be back on the field soon, McElwain said. Afternoon thunderstorms forced the Rams to practice in their indoor facility instead of on their outdoor fields on three of the first four days of fall camp.
— Kelly Lyell, Fort Collins Coloradoan
Bob Davie is not a devoted fan of offensive balance. If his offense can rush for 300-plus yards, throw nary a pass and win the game, the third-year UNM coach will take that every time.
That basic formula, however, has resulted in only seven victories against 18 losses in Davie's first two years at New Mexico. While the defense bears most of the blame for that imbalance in the win-loss column, the passing game has been the focus and the major talking point of fall camp.
And, thus far, the news has been good. Quarterbacks Cole Gautsche and Clayton Mitchem have thrown the ball accurately — Gautsche displaying a newfound touch on the long ball — and the receiving corps has looked sharp.
“I really feel like our quarterbacks have made a lot of progress, starting with Cole in the passing game,” Davie said after a recent practice in Ruidoso, N.M. “I think that’s pretty evident.”
Davie acknowledges that the improvement can't really be measured until it's displayed against someone else's defense. Still, every day the passing game clicks in practice — which it has done consistently — is that much more validation.
At the same time, the Lobos' bread-and-butter ground game faces some challenges. Record-breaking running back Kasey Carrier is gone. Senior Crusoe Gongbay, the heir apparent, is on indefinite suspension pending final resolution of rape and kidnapping charges filed against him in April.
Junior Jhurell Pressley has blinding speed, but no UNM running back has displayed Carrier's ability to run for consistent yardage between the tackles.
Of course, Davie's hoping that's because the much-maligned New Mexico defense now is stronger in the middle — thanks in large part to 6-foot-2, 305-pound nose tackle Cole Juarez, a junior-college transfer.
Sunday, in the team's first tackle-to-the-ground scrimmage of fall camp, the defense defeated the offense based on a points system devised by the coaching staff.
Season opener: vs. UTEP, 6 p.m. MT Aug. 30, Mountain West Network (online)
Notable: Gautsche may be improved as a passer, but running the triple option is still what he does best. In Sunday's scrimmage, he scored from 70 yards out on the second play of the workout. ... Davie has had high praise for two true freshmen, wide receiver Chris Davis and offensive lineman Aaron Jenkins. Jenkins might wind up starting at right guard, Davie said.
— Rick Wright, Albuquerque Journal
The Aggies have been very pleased with their development in camp. The theme of training camp has been to develop the “culture,” of the team so the newcomers understand winning isn’t easy. So far they seem to get it with coach Matt Wells liking the focus in camp.
“These kids have got to learn to be followed,” he said. “The example that I gave was when B.J. (Larsen), Zach (Vigil) and Chuckie (Keeton) were young and Bobby Wagner told them to do something they just did it without question. When B.J. Larsen says something, I expect the new D-linemen to do it and quit asking questions.”
Quarterback Chuckie Keeton and running back Joe Hill, both of whom are returning to action after their seasons were cut short with knee injuries, have looked great in camp.
“It just feels good to be out there again,” Keeton said.
So far the offense is ahead of where it normally is, something Wells attributes to Keeton’s return. He also believes Keeton is better this year than last year after spending time on the sidelines and in the box.
“He is sharp up here,” Wells said, pointing to his head.
Season opener: vs. Tennessee, 5 p.m. MT Aug. 31, SEC Network
Notable: Tight end Landon Horne is out until at least mid-season with a lower leg injury sustained in summer. Devin Centers has nabbed three interceptions in drills during camp. Wells often says recruiting local players is crucial for the Aggies to maintain their presence in the state along with Utah and BYU. This year, three are expected to have major roles in defensive ends B.J. Larsen and Jordan Nielsen and linebacker Alex Huerta. Receivers Ronald Butler and JoJo Natson had issues with the law in the offseason with Natson being arrested for stealing from a teammate while Butler had a DUI. When asked, Wells said both could play immediately.
— Lya Wodraska, The Salt Lake Tribune
Barring any unforeseen events, redshirt senior Colby Kirkegaard will be the starting quarterback when Wyoming hosts Montana in its season opener on Aug. 30.
“Colby Kirkegaard is doing a good job, but he's not where we want him to be," first-year coach Craig Bohl said during fall camp. "We will evaluate over the course of fall camp. But make no mistake, he's done better than everyone else
"I think it's important for (offensive coordinator) Brent Vigen, the coaching staff and myself to put him in positions to be successful. We're not going to ask him to make the throws like (Denver Broncos quarterback) Peyton Manning. We will ask him to manage the game and leverage our defense."
Kirkegaard, 23, is the Cowboys' most experienced quarterback in terms of age and playing time — albeit the latter is not by much. He has played in seven games, started one and for his career is 21 of 36 for 160 yards with an interception.
Kirkegaard came to UW in 2011 out of Phoenix Community College in Arizona. His lone start came in 2012 against Cal Poly — a 24-22 Wyoming home loss — where he was 15 of 23 for 123 yards and an interception. Kirkegaard redshirted last season.
Kirkegaard emerged from three others as the starter after spring drills in April running a new West Coast offense. Wyoming had run a spread offense since 2009.
"He has the inside track, and it's because he's been the most consistent in terms of his play-making ability and all of the intangibles," Vigen said. "He really understands what we're doing, and is taking the bull by the horns in terms of leadership.”
Kirkegaard is not taking anything for granted at this point.
"It's weird to hear from where I've been in the past, but it's exciting," Kirkegaard said. "That's been my dream since I stepped foot on this campus. You come here to play. You don't come to back up for two-and-a-half or three years.
"Hopefully my hard work pays off."
Season opener: vs. Montana, 2 p.m. MT Aug. 30, Root Sports
Notable: Wyoming returns nine starters on defense, and while its 11 starters are nearly set in stone, who will be the backups at safety remains uncertain. The Cowboys signed four true freshman defensive backs and all could see playing time this season. ... Bohl said the offensive line remains the most unsettled position on the entire team after the first week of camp. Injuries to the two projected starters at tackle — senior Connor Rains on the right side and sophomore Nathan Leddige on the left — have not helped that progress. Rains is back at practice, but Leddige is still recovering from a concussion. ... Sophomore punter Ethan Wood left the team last Saturday after his parents were killed in a small plane crash in southern Iowa. They were in Michigan visiting one of their other sons, Josh, who is an assistant football coach at Michigan Tech, and were on their way back to their home in Colorado Springs, Colo. It is unknown when Wood will return.
— Robert Gagliardi, Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Fresno State had no ready answer in replacing quarterback Derek Carr or receivers Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse, who are in NFL camps with the Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos.
But the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks did take a somewhat surprising jump up in their first live scrimmage of the fall. Junior Brian Burrell completed 12 of 18 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns while Duke graduate-transfer Brandon Connette hit on 15 of 20 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns, and inside those numbers there was some solid play. Both quarterbacks were able to navigate series at tempo in the no-huddle spread offense without stumbling due to operator error.
“I thought the quarterbacks really did a nice job with some third-down conversions, some fourth-down conversions when we had to,” coach Tim DeRuyter said.
“I thought they both commanded the offense really well. They did a really good job of commanding the offense and making the right reads, making good decisions and putting the ball pretty much where it needed to be and making good decisions about where it needed to be.”
The Bulldogs’ offense produced five touchdowns in the 83-play scrimmage, which might not sound like a lot considering the defense held out three of its best players in nose guard/defensive end Tyeler Davison and safeties Derron Smith and Charles Washington.
But initial scrimmages in the fall or the spring have not gone very well here when quarterbacks, backs and receivers were digesting a lot of installations. “I remember two years ago we didn’t even sniff the end zone and that was a pretty good offense,” line coach Cameron Norcross said.
Burrell and Connette will continue to compete for the starting job. The next full scrimmage is scheduled for Saturday, and there is no timetable on making a decision who will take the first snap at USC.
Season opener: at USC, 5:30 p.m. MT Aug. 30, Fox.
Notable: Myles Carr, who was moved to an inside receiver position from quarterback following the spring, has taken to his new position. He had four receptions for 78 yards in the scrimmage with two touchdowns. The Bulldogs have started giving Malcolm Washington, a true freshman, some reps with the No. 1 defense at cornerback. Fresno State has much more depth at those positions than a year ago when it allowed 282.6 passing yards per game including 59 pass plays of 20 or more yards and 34 pass plays of 30 or more yards. Only Troy, with 67 and 36, allowed more explosive pass plays. Having eight returning starters on defense has its benefits. The Bulldogs have more scheme installed at this point than they had at the end of camp a year ago. “We’re so far ahead,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. “We put in blitz coverage a couple of days ago that didn’t go in until practice No. 17 last year. We are ahead. We’re defending run plays, two-back run plays and heavy-personnel run plays earlier than we’ve ever done it.’’ Davison, a preseason all-conference pick, started taking reps at end as well as nose guard in the spring and has continued to in fall camp. “He’ll be on the field regardless and he’ll be at both,” DeRuyter said. “The nice thing about having the flexibility of having him at both positions is whoever is playing better, whether it’s one of our nose guards or one of our ends, he makes the pieces fit. That way, we can get our best three and then our best six out there. The other thing it does, it gives an offense more issues of hey, we can’t just know that he’s going to be inside to be doubled, he’s going to be in different positions.’’
— Robert Kuwada, Fresno Bee
Coach Norm Chow will not make a public announcement on the starting quarterback, but all signs point to Ikaika Woolsey claiming the No. 1 spot.
Woolsey and Jeremy Higgins were bracketed at No. 1 exiting spring training. But Woolsey has taken all the significant reps with the first-team offense this training camp. He appears to be a good fit for the Warriors' spread offense.
Woolsey is actually a fourth-year sophomore. He grayshirted in 2011, then redshirted in 2012, Chow's first season. He made two starts in 2013 after Taylor Graham suffered an injury to his left (non-throwing) shoulder.
Graham, who has had a good camp, said he has fully healed from offseason surgery. Higgins also is nearly mended from an injury to his Achilles' heel suffered in the spring game.
The Warriors, who used three-receiver sets 70 percent of plays last year, suffered setbacks at wideout. Keith Kirkwood transferred to Temple to be closer to his family on the East Coast. Vasquez Haynes underwent surgery last week for a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Freshman Devan Stubblefield, who was projected to start, suffered a season-ending knee injury during the first practice of training camp.
Quinton Pedroza, who redshirted in 2013 after transferring from Utah, and Marcus Kemp, a sophomore, have emerged as the top wideouts.
The defense, which switched to a 3-4 scheme under first-year coordinator Kevin Clune, has rotated more than a dozen linebackers.
Season opener: vs. Washington. 8:30 p.m. MT Aug. 30, CBSSN
Notable: Second-year freshmen LG Dejon Allen, RG Elijah Tupai and RT John Wa‘a are projected to start on the revamped offensive line. Ben Clarke, who started all 24 UH games at center, has moved to left tackle. Kody Afusia, a senior, has moved from guard to center. The Warriors' roster is peppered with players who began their college careers at other schools, such as quarterbacks Taylor Graham (Ohio State) and Jeremy Higgins (Utah State), wideout Quinton Pedroza (Utah), tight end Jordan Pu‘u-Robinson (Washington State), offensive lineman Kory Rasmussen (Colorado), linebacker Jeremy Castro (UCLA) and safety Taz Stevenson (Washington). Former USC QB Max Wittek joins Aug. 25, the first day of the fall semester when rosters are permitted to expand.
— Stephen Tsai, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Like most teams, the Wolf Pack have toed the company line in recent years when one side of the ball hasn’t played to the level of the other.
“We win as a team, we lose as a team,” was the kind of postgame comment players would offer after a loss.
Harmony, though, hasn’t always been as good as it was made out to be, apparently. Second-year coach Brian Polian said defensive players felt a bit like second-class citizens because of former coach Chris Ault’s emphasis and history with the offense. For several years, Ault was also the offensive coordinator.
“There was a lot of offense-defense when I got here because you had a head coach who ran the offense. He was the play caller,” Polian said. “And the defense, at times, felt like, whether justified or not, they were of the opinion it’s us against them.”
Quarterback Cody Fajardo and defensive end Brock Hekking, both seniors, took it upon themselves in the offseason to bring a cohesiveness back to the team.
“That kind of hindered our team a little bit, to be honest with you,” Fajardo said. “ I think this offseason, out of any offseason I’ve been here, our team has really come together.”
Polian has seen it, too, and it’s one reason why he believes Nevada will be much improved from its 4-8 record a year ago.
“I believe we’ll be significantly improved. Now, what that means in terms of the win-loss column, time will tell. I believe we are in a much better place in terms of their togetherness. I think we're in a much better place in terms of understanding what the expectations are — academically, in the community, in the weight room, football-wise. ... I have a gut feeling we're in a better place. Time will tell."
Season opener: vs. Southern Utah, 1 p.m. MT Aug. 30, NevadaWolfPack.TV (online)
Notable: Two offensive linemen, Chad Specht and Brent Roling, have been held out of camp while they nurse foot injuries. Specht might be able to return in the first couple of weeks of the season; Roling isn’t expected back until at least midway through the season. Starting guard Connor Talbott has been limited by an ankle injury. And two more linemen, Joey Anglemire and Daren Echeveria, missed Tuesday’s scrimmage with injuries but should be ready for the opener. Reserve linebacker Gabe Lee, whom Polian called the team’s best special teams player, suffered a knee injury in practice this week. Polian is still awaiting MRI results.
— Dan Hinxman, Reno Gazette-Journal
SAN DIEGO STATE
At the midway point of fall camp, the Aztecs have found their backup quarterback. True freshman Nick Bawden started the second week of fall camp Monday morning taking second-team reps behind senior starter Quinn Kaehler.
San Diego State has had to go to its backups in the last two seasons.
Bawden (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) has impressed the coaches since he joined the team in the spring as an early enrollee out of Los Gatos High.
“He’s very intelligent and he understands the offense,” offensive coordinator Bob Toledo said. “He’s not the finished product when the ball is snapped, but on the board and everything, he knows what’s going on, so he’s just got to now relate it from the classroom to the field. So we felt he just needs more reps. He has the ability.”
Chase Favreau is No. 3, while junior transfer Brad Odeman has been told he needs to choose another position.
Season opener: 5 p.m. MT Aug. 30, Northern Arizona, CBSSN
Notable: All three of San Diego State’s projected starting linebackers are dealing with injuries. The most critical is the recovery of middle linebacker Jake Fely, who had an operation on a bulging disk in his neck after spring camp. Fely is not participating in contact drills and was “very disappointed” by news he got from doctors last week. Though Aztecs coach Rocky Long had hoped to have Fely back by the third game of the season, it looks like that timetable could be extended considerably. After a terrible year with the kicking game last season, the Aztecs have three place-kickers on scholarship, but coach Rocky Long doesn’t seem close to deciding who will be the starter. The kickers have performed in scrimmages out of the sight of media, and Long is not revealing who is faring better in the competition. After a ragged practice in pads on Day 3 of fall camp, Long did not let his players speak to reporters. “We're a lousy football team," Long said. "We don't do anything right.”
— Tod Leonard and Stefanie Loh, San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN JOSE STATE
Coach Ron Caragher plans to view the Spartans’ final scrimmage on Saturday before determining his starting quarterback for San Jose State’s season opener against North Dakota.
Junior Joe Gray and senior Blake Jurich are the competitors and although Gray has been the perceived favorite, Caragher isn’t ready to make the call.
“I wouldn’t say either one’s surged ahead where they’ve made it obvious,” Caragher said. “They’ve both had their days where one has just edged the other, but neither’s had a terrible day.”
The Spartans scrimmaged this past Saturday and nothing occurred to change the competition. Gray completed 6 of 10 passes for 68 yards but led the Spartans to just one field goal on four drives. Jurich was 8 of 18 for 121 yards and a touchdown. He was in charge for five possessions and one of those other four produced a field goal.
As both quarterbacks enter the final week of the competition, they are trying to avoid overthinking things.
“You can’t put too much pressure on it,” Gray said. “You can’t have the weight of the world on your shoulders. I’m Joseph Gray. I just want to play football. If Blake’s the best for the team, he’s best for the team. If I’m best for the team, I’m best for the team. That’s the coach’s decision. We just go out and play.”
As for Jurich, he said he’ll, “just keep working. Keep my mind on the goal and just keep working. Don’t put too much pressure on myself. Just play like I know how to play.”
Season opener: vs. North Dakota, 8 p.m. MT Aug. 28, ESPN3
Notable: Sophomore TE Billy Freeman hasn’t participated in a full practice yet after having foot surgery this spring. He’s expected to be ready by the opener. Senior CB Sean Linton’s career is done after he had to have a second surgery on his torn ACL, which occurred during his true freshman season in 2010. Cadaver tissue was used to repair the ligament and it failed to hold up.
— Jimmy Durkin, San Jose Mercury News
UNLV coach Bobby Hauck never stops recruiting even when signing day ends, and that was especially true this year.
The Rebels signed four junior college transfers after the February signing day and brought in defensive tackle Brandon Willis from UCLA.
Hauck wasn't done then, either. Three days into training camp, defensive end Josh Shirley transferred from Washington. He has 18 career sacks, though his production dropped and playing time decreased. He was expected to be a backup this season had he stayed at Washington.
But Shirley showed flashes of being a playmaker for the Huskies. He forced two fumbles and made a tackle for a loss in the 2012 MAACO Bowl Las Vegas against Boise State.
For UNLV, getting Shirley is a huge boost. The defensive line is Hauck's biggest concern, but he has addressed that by bringing in Shirley, Willis and three junior college transfers.
"I think our D-line shored up to a degree," Hauck said. "A player of Josh's abilities will help us."
Shirley, like Willis, is eligible to play right away because he has received his degree. He will pursue a master's degree in public administration at UNLV.
"It's good to have him in camp and moving forward," Hauck said. "Our people did a good job of getting it done. Our grad school had to admit him, and we appreciate that. That's the spirit of cooperation on the campus. It's good to have him out here."
Season opener: at Arizona, 8:30 p.m. MT Aug. 29, ESPN
Notable: UNLV went into camp last year with its lineup mostly in place. That's not the case this year. Notable battles are at quarterback, running back, guard, defensive tackle and middle linebacker. ... Juniors Blake Decker and Nick Sherry are competing at quarterback. Sherry was the starter two years ago and at the beginning of last season before losing his job. Decker is a junior college transfer. ... The Rebels probably will use a committee system at running back to replace Tim Cornett, the school's all-time leading rusher. Junior David Greene and sophomore Keith Whitely are operating as co-starters in practice, and a third and perhaps fourth back probably will be added to the rotation. UNLV signed two JC transfers for that position.
— Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal
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