Sept. 13, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
Center Ben Burkett was named the 'Cat offensive player of the week for the work he did in their Saturday victory over Illinois State. Two others nominated for that award were left tackle Al Netter and right tackle Patrick Ward. That explains well enough why they ran so much more effectively against the Redbirds than they had a week earlier against Vandy.
"Yeah, especially coming off of last week. It was fairly embarrassing," Burkett said Monday when asked if he felt better about his unit's more recent production. "But we didn't really change up much as far as the game plan. We just focused on little details, and better execution led to more yards on the ground."
This is one more fact to note when considering his line. Last year, with many of its members dinged up, it was comprised of various combinations and never really came down to a set five. (Left guard Brian Mulroe, in fact, did not move into the starting lineup until the Alamo Bowl.) This year, in stark contrast, the starting five (with Doug Bartels as right guard) has been set from the start. "We sat down with Cush (Adam Cushing, their position coach) and we talked about, he made a point of emphasis that he's going to choose five guys and that's who he's going to stick with and it's your job to earn the spot," said Burkett, explaining the change. "That's been our MO."
What's been the effect?
"Having the same guys to my right and left, it really helps out because you just feel a lot more comfortable. Plus Doug and Al, they've been there two years and so sometimes I don't even have to make a call. They already know what they're doing. It just makes it easier. Communication is what it's all about."
It has been well documented that quarterback Dan Persa
is among the 'Cats' hardest workers and fiercest competitors and finest athletes and best leaders, and those are certainly among the reasons for his surreal start. (His efficiency rating is a national best 212.06, which dwarfs the 164.17 rating Tim Tebow achieved last season while leading the country.) Another reason, it is safe to say, is the work he does with former quarterback Brett Basanez
, whom he frequently consults. (He even texts him shortly after a game for a quick critique.)
"He's done a lot," Persa says of his unofficial tutor. "First and foremost is with my fundamentals, fine tuning that. He's always on me (that) the smallest thing can make the biggest difference fundamentally. Leadership wise, any question I have he answers it to the fullest. I think that really helps me. He's been in my shoes and he's closer in age."
What kind of little things?
"Some of the things are bad habits that you can't fix immediately. But once you fix it, you can definitely feel the difference."
How about an example?
"Keeping my back foot pigeon toed when I'm about to throw to get my hips through. I wasn't doing it before. Then you tilt your foot a little bit and you get a lot more power behind the ball."
Freshman receiver/returner Venric Mark has been on the radar screen since he flashed his speed in camp and, in Saturday's rout, he got in some extended work. Receiver Rashad Lawrence, another frosh, introduced himself against the Redbirds with a 50-yard reception, and the 280-pound freshman defensive tackle Will Hampton did the same during his second-half minutes. Could more from their class see the field in the future?
"I can't say that yet," says 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald. "We'll see how guys progress."
Was there a reason Mark was used more against the Redbirds than against Vandy?
"I'm bringing him along. I wasn't very good at swim lessons back at Carl Sandburg. They kind of just threw me in the deep end and said, 'Swim.' I guess I'm a little scarred from that, so I don't believe in throwing those guys in the deep end too fast too soon. Bring them along a little bit, let them get their experiences and grow from them. I definitely saw Venric play faster today and Rashad play faster and I think Will will do the same thing next week."
Following their victory over Vandy, both Fitzgerald and Persa questioned the emotional level of the 'Cats. Following their victory over Illinois State, Fitzgerald said, "I thought our focus was much more improved, I thought our passion was much more improved."
"Last week, especially on the sideline, guys weren't having any fun and getting it going" added defensive tackle Corbin Bryant. "We had a talk with some of the young guys who traveled and some who didn't and said, 'In order for us to play a little better out there, we need to see your passion on the sideline.' We had that today and it made us have a lot more fun."
"One thing that Corbin and I did was to give them towels on the sideline," concluded senior linebacker Quentin Davie. "To see those towels going around, when you're on the field as a defense, it gets you hyped and you make better plays."
The 'Cats, who visit Rice on Saturday night, have won eight of their last 11 road games, a remarkable record. Asked about that, Fitzgerald said, "We've been pretty consistent with our routine. I think our young men's focus is great. I think one thing when you go on the road that we've talked about a little bit as a coaching staff, we get them at about 10 o'clock Friday morning and we're with each other the whole 48 hours. For home games we get the guys about 3:30, 4 o'clock (after classes). That might be something. But we've played pretty well at home too. So we're pretty consistent with our routine."
"Maybe it's just the way we practice," Persa said on this subject. "We practice with a lot of enthusiasm and regardless of the hostile environment we're in, we stick together pretty well. I think that definitely helps."
"I think also, when you go on the road, especially at a place like Iowa, there's really a sense of urgency to come out and start fast," concluded Burkett. "That's what, as far the offense goes, we base our tempo on."
And finally: Mark, Hampton, corners Justan Vaughn and Demetrius Dugar and linebacker David Nwabuisi are from the Houston area, which means a homecoming for them on Saturday. For Fitzgerald, it means he must take care that their priorities are set. "I talked to them this morning," he said early Monday afternoon. "I told them, 'Handle your business today. If I find out your business isn't done by today, I might not take you.' They weren't very happy about that. But they're excited to get better this week in practice. Yeah. I'd be burying my head in the sand here if I didn't think it was going to be a big game for them. . . But they've got to be focused to play. That's the one neat thing about them. They're all playing."
"Fitz is all about business, our team's all about business," Vaughn said when asked about his coach's threat. "So it's going to be a good time for us. But we're down there for one reason and that's to win."
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