Eagles air it out during spring practice
By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
If Saturday's Blue/WhiteGame and two weeks of spring practice are any indication, the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles football program may need to install an air traffic control tower at its facility.
The passing game was a heavy focus of emphasis during the W.S. Neal spring training camp. In fact, Blue Eagle quarterbacks were a combined 22-for-48 in Saturday's scrimmage game.
It is small wonder W.S. Neal may be changing its offensive scheme with All-State running back Alphonso Gross and his 6,096 career rushing yards set to go through the graduation line in a few days.
"I'm pleased with the progress our quarterbacks made. We forced the ball into some situations we shouldn't have during our scrimmage game, but we also did a lot of good things," Blue Eagles coach Shane Smothers said.
Not only did W.S. Neal focus its attention on its passing game, it did so with last year's primary starting quarterback, Justin Smith, at a new position. Smith has been shifted to a running back spot.
"Justin has great speed and a lot of toughness. Right now we feel Justin can serve us better in a running back role," Smothers said.
The Blue Eagles quarterback competition will probably come down to Marquis Barksdale and Daniel Hodge.
"Marquis got a lot of varsity snaps last year and started the game at Geneva. Right now he has an edge in arm strength. Daniel didn't play last season, but he has stepped right in and done a great job. He reads situations very well and has a great work ethic," Smothers said.
With Gross gone, the W.S. Neal running back corps has been revised. In addition to Smith's move from quarterback, Mario Daniel has been shifted from wide receiver to a ball carrier.
"I still think we've got some capable people at running back. Justin and Mario have handled their transition well. Ronald Travis is probably our most experienced returning running back at this time. He probably had the best spring game out of our running backs. He does a good job of finding the holes," Smothers said.
While W.S. Neal has to replace a Division I recruit in Gross at running back, it also has to do the same at wide reciever with the departure of Marcus Folmar.
"Our recievers have gotten a lot of work. Ben Crane had a great spring game. Jonathan Alexander should help us in that spot and Brandon Douglas, who did not play last year, has stepped in and shown a lot of promise. We're also expecting Keith Weaver to help give us some depth at receiver," Smothers said.
DeWayne Floyd got most of the work at tight end during spring workouts. Cory Freeman was limited to just a couple of days due to injuries although he took part in the scrimmage game.
"Cory was bothered a little bit by a leg injury and we pretty much used DeWayne as a flex tight end," Smothers said.
W.S. Neal's offensive line should be one of its most experienced areas next season although last year's primary center, Brandon Gantt, missed the spring workouts due to shoulder surgery.
"Even with Brandon out, we've still got Spencer Williamson, who can go guard or center, back. We've also got returning starters in Jared Cooper and Allen Dunn," Smothers said. "I was real pleased with the play of Terrell Sanders during our workouts. He is a newcomer to the program and he made a lot of positive contributions. Jamie Green, who is about 6-3, 350 pounds, also had a good spring. With that kind of size, he needs to play somewhere."
Many of the same faces on the offensive line got most of the work on the defensive line.
"We try to limit the two-way players as much as we can. Again, we're loking at people like Williamson and Cooper. Sanders also played well on defense. He has extremely quick feet. A pleasant surprise for us was the play of Jeremy Brazile. He was very quick and aggressive. Based on what he showed us, I think he could have a chance to start next season," Smothers said.
At linebacker, W.S. Neal returns Jake Bailey at an inside position. Freeman was also moved from outside to inside. In the middle, W.S. Neal used Justin Howard, Shon Biddle and Shounathan Williams. Smith and Crane handled the outside linebacker roles.
"Probably the ones that stick out the most for our spring were Ben Crane and Justin Howard. They did a great job of really getting after it," Smothers said.
With a heavy emphasis on passing, W.S. Neal's secondary probably got more than its usual workout.
"We went after those kids hard. They got beat a couple of times, but for the most part they did what we needed them to do," Smothers said. "We primarily used Travis, Floyd, Daniel, Ryan Andrews and Alexander in those roles."
Perhaps the biggest question Smothers said his team answered during the spring was its depth.
"Depth was a big plus for us last season, but it was something we had a lot of questions about going into the spring," Smothers said. "Based on what we saw these two weeks, we had a lot of players answer that for us."