It’s time to move forward. The Owls will be asked to forget about last season’s 1-11 finish and look ahead to their 2004 campaign beginning this Saturday with their annual Cherry and White intra-squad game.
“I think we improved a lot on defense,” said Bobby Wallace, who is overseeing his sixth spring as head coach of the Owls. “A lot of players who weren’t here this time last year have shown tremendous improvement, and I think we’re a stronger team at this point than we’ve been at any point since I’ve been here.”
This year, captains will choose sides and compete in a full, four-quarter exhibition for the first time since Wallace took over the program in 1998. This is one of Wallace’s healthiest rosters, but there is much room for improvement.
The number of players available to practice had been smaller in past year due to injuries and restrictions on transfer eligibility. The increase in depth this spring gives Wallace and his staff the opportunity to field two teams for the scrimmage.
The receiving corps is thin, with senior Phil Goodman the only legitimate threat. Wallace is expecting seniors Ikey Chuku and Buchie Ibeh to step up and become additional targets for quarterback Walter Washington.
If the Owls can’t catch the ball, they might have just as much trouble stopping other teams from doing so. Cornerback was the weakest aspect of the defense last season, allowing an average of 227 passing yards per game. Returning starter Ray Lamb and junior Jonathan McPhee will attempt to reduce that number.
Wallace has been less than satisfied with the performance of his kickers and punters so far. He attributed their struggles to colder weather and unfamiliar field conditions, but seemed confident they will improve throughout the summer. Wallace found out last year how vital production on special teams is, as the Owls lost three games because of missed field goals.
Washington, now a junior after transferring from Dodge City Community College (Kans.), is one of the team’s few certainties. Wallace declared him the starter and has operated as if nothing has changed, implementing a new type of defense each day for Washington to analyze and, hopefully, exploit.
“We do quite a bit on defense [in the spring], and the fact that we don’t have much depth at receivers probably hurts the quarterbacks’ chances of improving as much as we’d like, but they’re making progress,” Wallace said.
Last spring Washington missed out on practice because of NCAA rules on junior college transfers, but still performed brilliantly toward the end of the season when then-starter Mike McGann was lost for the season to an elbow injury. Washington said he has been bombarded with different looks every day, but he expects the experience of his first spring practice to help him greatly this fall.
“Not being here for spring practice last year was, I wouldn’t say a downfall, but it didn’t help me much,” Washington said. “Learning new defenses, being able to read new defenses, being able to know what type of defense they like to play against you has been very helpful over the spring”
The intra-squad game will also give Wallace a chance to see which of his running backs can emerge. Umar Ferguson and junior college transfer Tim Brown are likely to share a substantial amount of the work, but it is important to note that Washington was the team’s leading rusher. Last season, Washington ran over Virginia Tech and outrushed all-American running back Kevin Jones with 151 yards (Jones had 150 yards).
Ferguson showed some potential with 319 yards and four TDs. Brown, although small, could be a surprise. Wallace said Brown’s running style is similar to Barry Sanders and he has the power to run through would-be tacklers.
Trying to catch Washington and Co. on Saturday will be senior linebacker Troy Bennett and junior linebacker Rian Wallace. Wallace is the unit’s top returning player with 148 tackles, which ranked second in the Big East Conference and sixth in the nation. Wallace, a second-team all-Big East selection and the team’s defensive MVP, has missed a few practices because of a back strain. But he should be fine for Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I just want them to go out, have fun and compete,” coachWallace said. “There’s not going to be anything strategically that we’re looking at in that particular game…we’re getting our work done the other days.”
Benjamin Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.