Spring football is here

Calisthenics, cone drills, and seven-on-seven plays set to a soundtrack of Gucci Mane and Ice Cube; that’s all that spring football practice is, right? How much work can these guys possibly have to do when the first game isn’t until August 30?

Turns out there’s a whole lot of work to do and not a whole lot of time in which to get it done. The NCAA restricts the amount of time that football coaches have to work with their teams during the offseason. Coach Burton and his staff get just 14 practices and an intersquad spring game to do all the crucial work that’s impossible to do in the midst of a season when the next week’s opponent is looming.

That work consists of integrating new members to the coaching staff, indoctrinating players who’ve transferred from junior colleges into the team’s system, and figuring out who’s ready to step into roles vacated by players who graduated since the end of last season. Oh, and they also might want to set aside some time to add a new wrinkle or two to the offensive and defensive schemes.

This week’s Vanguard sports section is almost entirely given over to introducing you to the 2014 version of the Vikings team, while they’re currently hard at work getting ready for a season that starts with a huge in-state game versus Oregon State (read the preview).

We have a profile of head coach Nigel Burton, checking in with him as he heads into his fifth season at Portland State. Kasey Closs, the leading wide receiver from last year’s team, gives us a player’s perspective on spring ball and the work that surrounds it. We spend some time with running back heir-apparent Shaq Richard. We also take a look at the recent transfer players and what impact they might have on the season, as well as a preview of the NFL Legends game PSU is hosting on May 18. There’s a lot to be excited about in 2014 for the Vikings football program, so let’s get started early!

During the first week of practice, fundamentals were the focus. The first order of business was special teams. Players broke up into groups and did walk-throughs of the less than glamorous aspects of a football game. Kicking 30-yard field goals without an opposing defense may not be that exciting to watch, but making sure that the snap and the hold are automatic can save some points in the season.

While the field goal unit was busy banging home kick after kick, their counterparts were practicing getting in the way of a phantom opposing kicker, learning the timing and spacing necessary to block a kick without taking a costly penalty for running into the kicker.

Throughout practice the position coaches were hammering home the details that need to be internalized long before the whistle blows for real—fumble recovery drills for the linebackers, offensive linemen taking their stances underneath a metal cage to keep proper form, exploding forward with low centers of gravity ready to drive opposing defenders out of the way of the Viking running game. The wide receivers spent time working on running crisp, clean timing patterns, coming out of their break right as the ball arrives, trusting that it will be where it needs to be so they can cut upfield and turn a short pass into a big gain.

Coach Burton ran three groups of defensive secondary through interception return drills, shouting “big play today!” as he prepared to loft the ball from the end zone. The safety or corner closest to the pass brought it in while his teammates formed up to escort him into the end zone over and over. A few pick-sixes like that would go a long way toward ensuring the Vikings have a successful season if they happened during games.

The only way big plays like that happen in the fall when the lights are on at Providence Park is by getting as many reps as possible during these few spring practices. Once the team is on the same page and no one has to question their assignments, they can just play football, letting their athleticism and instincts take over.

Putting questions to rest is a big part of spring ball. Figuring out what they have to work with now gives the coaches some time to put game plans together for the season. Even coming off of a season like last year where the Vikings had many things to feel good about and build on, there are still plenty of questions that the coaches need field time to answer. Who will step up on the offensive line to replace the departed Mitches Gaulke and Van Dyk? Will Kieran McDonough take a step forward as the quarterback? Is there a running back the caliber of D.J. Adams on this year’s roster?

Answers to these questions and more will hopefully present themselves over the next couple weeks of practices. There’s not much time left before the spring game on May 18 at Hillsboro Stadium, and then it’s countdown to kickoff in Corvallis.