Spring practice underway for Portland State football

The atmosphere around Stott Field this past week has been one filled with excitement as well as nerves and questions.

The atmosphere around Stott Field this past week has been one filled with excitement as well as nerves and questions. With 50 returning letter winners and a total of 30 redshirts, walk-ons and gray shirts, there were impressive numbers out on the field for spring practice and plenty of healthy competition to go around.

The five months separating spring training from the preseason was unapparent in the eyes of players on Wednesday, as the offense and defense were intensely competing for bragging rights during drills pitted against each other. Loud cheers immediately followed every big play and five or six players running onto the field to pick up their fallen teammate and get them pumped again. Friendly taunting and smack-talking ran rampant after the defense picked up momentum, intercepting numerous passes in a row and at times, outplayed a typically dominant Vikings’ offense.

The big plays from the defense were positive signs for a Portland State football team that’s coming off a poor defensive effort this past season, as they gave up nearly 233 yards per game on the ground. PSU’s struggles were mainly a result of changing to a 4-3 defense and the challenges of trying to adjust to the new scheme with younger players in the starting lineup. Vikings football head coach Nigel Burton was not shy when it came to talking about the teams needs for this upcoming season.

“We have a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball,” said Burton. “We are just trying to polish our play and work especially on our linebacking core as well as our defensive line.”

Burton knows a thing or two about improving a team’s defense, having spent the 2008–09 seasons as the defensive coordinator for the Nevada Wolfpack, helping them to consecutive bowl game appearances and a 15-10 overall record. Also, Nevada’s claim to fame is their innovative pistol offense, something Burton brought with him to Portland and ended up being the backbone of the Viks success last year on the ground.

Another big step forward for the Viks defense is the addition of Texas Tech transfer Myles Wade. A 300-pound defensive tackle and Portland native, Wade is expected to make a huge impact on the defensive side.

With new players coming in and most starters returning, coach Burton has set up the ideal scheme for creating a high level of competition among all of the players. For instance, Burton has worked all of his quarterbacks into drills, hoping to come away with a better idea of who deserves the starting position come the fall.

“Competition will be high in some of the skill positions,” Burton said with confidence. “We also have a good quarterback competition going since there is no clear starter yet.”

So far, practices at Stott Field have had a good level of intensity, as well as a calmness and confidence throughout the team. With 22 returning starters, the veteran atmosphere was starting to take shape and players have made huge strides in cohesion and communication with one another.

“I feel confident with where we are at,” Soon-to-be senior running back Cory McCaffrey said about the team’s progression. “We have six more months to get where we need to be, so I feel really confident about where we can be come August.”

Other big names returning to the field for the Vikings include quarterback Connor Kavanaugh and defensive back DeShawn Shead. Kavanaugh, who will be a senior come the fall, said he felt there was a different feeling this year going around the squad during the first week of spring practices.

“I think guys are more excited this year. Guys know what the coaches expect out of us, “Kavanaugh said. “In terms of nerves, I think everyone now has a good feel for each other. Last year, everyone was new and trying to figure things out the different personalities and now we are all more familiar with each other.”

The team is working hard on creating that sense of family and is building trust with one another as each practice goes on. For most of the players, success isn’t just something they feel is expected out of them, but is what they want out of themselves.

“We have a lot of work to do, but everyone really wants to make their families and school proud by coming out and doing well,” Burton said. “We started looking lackadaisical towards the end of the season and that will need to change.”

One thing found in common throughout the minds of players during the first two practices, was the acknowledgement of the higher expectations this season and the importance of coming out of the gates strong. Players joked with each other and seemed relaxed, but ask any of them and they could not be more intent on turning around their play this upcoming season.

There is much work do be done, as coaches will look to be replacing both tight ends, as well as finding the right linebacking crew, but improved depth will help the Viks in their 2011-12 campaign and with plenty of young talent, players will be looking to make their names known in the upcoming spring game. Burton closed his Wednesday practice with words to help players remain hungry while they wait patiently to redeem their 2-9 record of last year.

“Big plays are contagious,” Burton emphasized. “Keep your energy high and make those big plays happen.”

Potential and excitement is flowing through the Vikings football team, and with each and every spring practice, the team is working hard to create the strong bond that’s necessary to bring a winning attitude back to Portland State football. ?