March 3, 2012
Spring may not have been in the air from a weather perspective Saturday in Chicago, but spring football certainly was. Skip Myslenski filed this report from NU's first of 15 spring practices.
THE FACTOIDS: The 'Cats -- in shorts, shirts and helmets -- held their first spring practice Saturday morning. It lasted 19 sessions, included some 100 reps and ended with no drama. "It's always good to be back playing football. . .and I thought the guys responded well," Pat Fitzgerald later said. "But tomorrow will be a lot tougher. Everybody's excited about Day One, it's kind of like Christmas Day. It's a good day. Let's see if we continue to play with our toys tomorrow."
ONE SWITCHEROO: Pat Ward, who has started the past two seasons at right tackle, lined up Saturday at left tackle, the position long held down by the graduated Al Netter. "Obviously we graduated a pretty darn good player there," explained Fitzgerald. "But Pat's played a lot of football for us and you always want to have somebody who can protect the back side of your quarterback. We expect Pat to move over there, but it's spring practice. So we'll see how that goes. But that's our plan starting off.
TWO SWITCHEROO: Jack Konopka, who as a true freshman played superback last season, lined up Saturday as a backup right guard, the position held down last season by the graduated Ben Burkett. (Senior-to-be Neil Deiters worked with the starters.) "Today was easy (for him). Nobody hit him back. Tomorrow will be easy. Nobody will hit him back," Fitzgerald said when asked about that. "We'll see how it goes on Tuesday (when the players put on shoulder pads for the first time). But we're going to take this first week especially to see what he can and cannot do there without ever playing the position. We'll be realistic in the evaluation. But we think he has the skill set to potentially be a starter in the O-line. That's what we feel. Now we need to see it. We know he can play superback. But his future's in the O-line, probably. What is he? Six-seven, 290 pounds. He's a big, young man. He looked pretty good today running around in there, there's no doubt about that."
There was a reason Konopka alit at guard rather than tackle. "We're going to start him at the harder spot," explained Fitzgerald. "We think it's much harder in our offense to play guard than tackle. So we're going to put him in there and make it real difficult on him. We'll see how he handles it. But, mentally, he's as football intelligent as any guy we have. . . I didn't see any mental errors where I went, `Ugh. We're going right and he went left.' For a guy who never played, that was impressive."
IN EXPLANATION: This is why the `Cats feel guard is more difficult than tackle. "With what we are and how we do things, we get a lot of people who aren't in your face," said Fitzgerald. "You're at guard, you've got a guy right on top of you. So for him to move to tackle, not a big difference from tight end. A little bit, but not as big as you might think. Guard is a big difference."
NO SWITCHEROO: Kain Colter spent Saturday at quarterback and that is just how it will be throughout the spring. He, through the next six weeks, will be only a quarterback, not the wild card he was last season when the `Cats used his talents all over the field. "Definitely, definitely," he said when asked if that will help him develop at that position. "In my mind I sometimes wish I could go out there and run a route and do something. But focusing just on quarterback is going to help a lot and I really feel I can be the quarterback for this team and lead them to a bowl game and win that bowl game."
THIS IS IN PENCIL, NOT INK: This is, of course, just spring, and by fall the reality could be different. By fall there may be packages in place that return Colter to his wild card ways with either Trevor Siemian or Zack Oliver, strong arms both, taking the snap. Not that Colter himself wants any part of that. "It's just the competitiveness in me and wanting to prove I can do everything (as a quarterback)," he said in explanation. "When people say I can't do this, when people say I can't do that, it really motivates me and I want to go show that I can go throw just like Dan (Persa) did and just like (Mike) Kafka did, that I can be productive throwing the ball as well as running the ball. So just inside of me I feel I want to prove them wrong."
HERE WE GO AGAIN WITH LABELS: Both Persa and Kafka, you might recall, were considered little more than running quarterbacks when they took over as starters. So it now is with the dynamic Colter, whose arm strength is questioned as well. That particular rap was dropped on him his freshman season, which he played coming off a serious shoulder injury he suffered as a high school senior. "You watch his (improved) arm strength, his (improved) accuracy, a lot of it will be documented as his (healed) labrum," said Fitzgerald when asked about this issue. "But so much more of it is from his toes to his chest, just fundamentally being mechanically more sound in his lower body. Those are things we can work on and focus on, especially with him just being quarterback in the spring. I'm really excited to see that growth."
"A lot of throwing is torque and getting your core into it, things like that. So I'm working at that," agreed Colter, who then added this. "But I feel like a lot of it with me and why I wasn't strong was the shoulder. I put on a little weight this offseason, I'm still working on that, and I feel it's just going to get better for me."
IN ADDITION: "It definitely feels a lot better than last year," Colter said of his arm. "Is it going to be (former Bronco star) John Elway (strong) or anything like that? No. But I feel it's good enough to lead the team and make every throw. I don't feel there's a throw I can't make right now. But the biggest thing is just timing and ball placement and getting a relationship with the receivers, knowing where they're going to be, knowing when they're going to break off routes, things like that. You look at guys like (former Boise State quarterback) Kellen Moore and a couple other guys around the nation that didn't have the strongest arm, but were really successful by mastering the mental part of the game and having great timing and ball placement and having a good relationship with their receivers. You don't always have to fire the ball in there."
GOING MENTAL: This is the area where Colter feels he has the most room for growth, the area where he feels he must make strides to reach the next level at his preferred position. "I think the biggest thing is just playing a lot more and going against a lot more defenses. Playing quarterback," he explained. "I did play a little bit last year. But once you get more time and get more plays back there at quarterback, the game slows down for you and you're able to see things you didn't see before and you're not as rushed and you're relaxed in the pocket. I feel that's the biggest thing I didn't do last season. I'd make my read and if it wasn't there, I looked to run. But I feel as you get more experience, you'll be able to sit back in the pocket and see things that you didn't see. I think that's the biggest thing I can improve on. That's the biggest thing Dan and Kafka had going into their last seasons, just being able to sit in the pocket a little bit longer and expect things."
SOUNDS LIKE A QUARTERBACK: "My sense of leadership is stepped up a lot," Colter also said on Saturday. "Dan, Drake (Dunsmore, the superback), all those guys who really built our program up, they've left and now it's time for us to step up. It's really amazing how time goes by. I'm going to be a junior next season and I feel like I was just in high school. But it's time to step up and, you know, I feel we have a lot of athletes on this team, a lot of talent, and I'm excited about where we can go this season."
AND FINALLY: Wide receiver Tony Jones, on Colter: "Kain's developed incredibly as a leader. He's the guy and we're going to follow him. He's become a lot more vocal. He definitely communicates a lot better. I think a lot of it is just becoming more comfortable with the guys. And, of course, with Dan being Dan last year, I think Kain had a somewhat backseat role and he didn't want to step on anyone's toes. But now this is Kain's team. He leads, we're going to follow."
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