When asked for a list of players that had switched positions since the start of spring practice, coach Matt Rhule just looked around, as if someone behind him had the answer.
“Gosh, I don’t even know,” he said. “I have moved so many guys.”
After the Cherry & White scrimmage concluded spring practice on Saturday, April 20, the changes Rhule has made since he took helm of the team in December 2012 were evident.
The day concluded with Chris Coyer, the Owls’ leading passer from last season, catching three passes – two for touchdowns – from the tight end position. Sophomore Romond Deloatch caught 13 balls, including a touchdown, lining up at tight end, not receiver. And Cody Booth, looking like a man who ate last year’s Cody Booth, sprung wide receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick for a 39-yard run midway through the first quarter with a crushing block. Booth did so while wearing a black jersey, having made the move from tight end to offensive line this spring.
“What we are trying to do is get the best players on the field,” Rhule said. “There’s no use in having guys that are both talented playing behind each other when only one can play. We just look at it like roster management finding a way to get guys on the field.”
While he didn’t specify, Rhule could very well have been alluding to Coyer. The senior was the MVP of the Gildan New Mexico Bowl in 2011 before leading the team in passing and starts at the quarterback position in 2012. Under Rhule’s leadership, the team has taken on a pro-style offense, meaning more drop-backs and less quarterback runs, and Coyer fell to fourth on the depth chart.
“Chris has always been a really tough hard-nosed physical player and he has always run the ball really well,” Rhule said. “The fact that he’s physical and fast, he’s just trying to find another way to get on the field. I think he has a chance to be a real weapon for us.”
Coyer, who was recruited by Rhule as a quarterback, said he has embraced the change.
“It’s something I have done a little in the past and it’s fun to get back to,” Coyer said. “I know the offense really well and it’s fun to go out there and make plays.”
“It’s not really weird seeing [Coyer] catch passes,” Deloatch said. “He’s a baller and an athlete so he does whatever he has to do to help the team win and get on the field.”
Rhule said that with Coyer, as with all players, he did not demand a switch in positions to be made. Instead, he presented the idea and allowed the student-athlete to decide whether or not to accept the change.
“It was a mutual understanding between me and coach Rhule,” Coyer said. “I thought this was what was in the best interest for the team and best for me in the long run. [The offense] can use me in a lot of different ways now and it’s a lot of fun.”
Adding a quarterback to the tight end position has bolstered a position that was lacking depth after Booth moved from the position to the offensive line. Coyer has added not only an extra body, but also leadership.
“It helps out a whole lot having Coyer next to me,” Deloatch said. “He helps me out when there’s something I don’t know and he keeps me going. He gives me tips on what to do and what not to do and what the defense is doing and how to read it.”
Deloatch, noted last year for his physical prowess and raw ability, has drawn early praise from Rhule for his athleticism.
“[Deloatch] isn’t a typical tight end right now,” Rhule said. “He’s not lining up against the defense and knocking them off the ball, but he is a threat. I’m not worried about what guys can’t do, we’ll develop that. I’m worried about what they can do.”
Coyer made his presence known in the spring game in other ways too. He adjusted a protection at the line before redshirt junior starting quarterback Connor Reilly had a chance.
“Today [Coyer] changed a few protections before I saw them,” Reilly said. “Having him out there is a lot of fun and is going to make the defense work.”
While Coyer and Deloatch have made transitions to the tight end position, the player leaving the spot open has had the biggest challenge. Booth, in his move to offensive line, was required to put on additional weight, something he said he has done by eating five or more meals a day.
“I’m going to keep eating and this summer it’s all going to be about technique and fundamentals,” Booth said. “I want to be good at what I do.”
“The hardest transition is guys like Booth who have to change their body,” Rhule said. “I’m excited about it and if it doesn’t work he is just going to take three steps to the left and go play tight end.”
Many of the position changes have been a result of the new offense implemented by Rhule. While the entire team is being forced to learn the new formations and schemes, players who are learning them from a new position could see a steeper learning curve. The season doesn’t kickoff until August 31 against Notre Dame and despite spring practice concluding, Rhule said he isn’t worried about players not knowing his system.
“Everyone is learning new spots now,” Rhule said. “What you find out is that a football player is a football player. A football player will find a way to go play.”
Ibrahim Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ibrahimjacobs.