Pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together for the football team.
But even 18 days into fall practice, the picture is not completely clear.
Second-year coach Al Golden and the rest of his coaching staff are determined to find the group of players who give the Owls their best chance to improve on last season’s 1-11 record.
Meanwhile, several players are still fighting to get their name atop the depth chart by the Aug. 31 season-opener against Navy at Lincoln Financial Field.
“It’s been fierce,” red-shirt junior center Alex Derenthal said about the intensity of the competition at camp. We’re trying to find the best 11 to play on both sides of the ball.”
Players teetering on the edge of sitting or starting have one more major opportunity to solidify a starting spot when the Owls hold their third and final scrimmage today.
Red-shirt junior Leyon Azubuike, who is moving from outside linebacker to defensive end this season, said the margin of difference between players at certain positions is razor thin.
“We’re deeper at almost every spot,” said Azubuike, one of seven returning starters on defense. “There is not much of a drop-off from No. 1 to No. 2. Players have to go out and compete everyday, because the guy behind them is just as hungry.”
For the second consecutive year, the most high-profile battle is at quarterback. Adam DiMichele, a 6-foot-1-inch, 185-pound red-shirt junior and Vaughn Charlton, a 6-4-inch, 226-pound sophomore, are in a dead heat to be the Owls’ top signal caller.
DiMichele played in every game last season and threw for 1,518 yards and 10 touchdowns against 12 interceptions.
Charlton played in eight games, starting three, and racked up 417 passing yards with two touchdowns. He threw two interceptions.
The starting quarterback will be determined by “Tuesday of game week,” Golden recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“You really need two guys to play,” Golden said. “Both kids we can win with. Both kids are leaders . . . We’ll let it play out here in early August, but we’re going to solidify that by the third scrimmage.”
Outside of quarterback, there is still plenty of competition on an offense that returns eight starters this season. Sophomore Jason Harper, red-shirt freshman Jarred Kinney and red-shirt junior Marcellous Grigsby are battling to fill the void left by the departure of running back Tim Brown, the Owls’ leading rusher last season. At wide receiver, sophomore Dy’Onne Crudup, red-shirt senior Domerio Hamilton and freshmen Delano Green, Michael Campbell and Marquise Liverpool, will each try to fit into a rotation that includes two returning starters – red-shirt junior Travis Shelton and junior Bruce Francis.
Liverpool, who played minor league baseball before joining the Owls, is a former All-American wide receiver at Don Bosco Prep, in Ramsey, N.J. Golden said he was impressed with the highly-touted 21-year-old recruit’s progress so far.
“Not only is he a good player and a good person, but he’s bright,” Golden said. “He’s picked up the offense and you’re talking about a guy who’s been out of football for three years.
“He’s changed the dynamic of the offense because of his professionalism, his work ethic and because of the kind of leader he is,” Golden added.
“He’s quiet, but he does things right. We have to bring him along a little slower than we like, but I’m really pleased with the impact that he’s made.”
On the other side of the ball, there is ample competition along the defensive line as the Owls transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. Red-shirt junior Philip Simpson, sophomore Terrance Banks and freshman Chris Tremel are each competing to start at defensive tackle.
A minimum of four players will attempt to secure a single outside linebacker slot, including red-shirt junior Omar McDonnaugh-Hales, sophomore Alex Joseph and freshmen Amara Kamara and Elijah Joseph.
Fall practice isn’t all about position battles though.
Before camp opened, Golden talked about how important it was for the Owls to become a player-driven team. He said the team showed signs of reaching that goal last Tuesday.
“We did two conditioning periods in the middle of a scrimmage, which is hard,” Golden said. “The second [conditioning period] really ended up being a team drill, because they decided that they were going to finish the drill together.
“That was the first time that’s happened in the 20 months that I’ve been here. That’s a positive sign. But we’re not where we need to be yet and the players know that.”
Azubuike said he’s noticed more players taking on leadership roles in practice. Becoming a player-driven team will be a vital part of the team’s success this season, he said.
“We’re not quite there yet.”
Tyson McCloud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.