Patrick Chalvire/staff writer
Spring is in the air and the Turner Era for the Panther football team has officially begun. Tuesday morning brought the team back onto the field for their first spring practice of the year.
The Panthers open up the spring not only with new management, but also a new and inexperienced group of young men shaking off the dust of being away from the field. Head Coach Ron Turner understands the difficulty of leading a new team into a new system.
I want to see energy and enthusiasm,” said Turner. “I knew the execution obviously was not going to be where we want it. We want to make it simple, but you can’t come out day one and have the kind of execution you want put in. I want to see athleticism, energy and enthusiasm. As long as we have that, then we have a chance.”
Energy and enthusiasm played a key role in the Panthers’ first practice of the year. Coaches are hard pressed to find out which player will stand out and who fill the needs and gaps from last season, but there were a few bright spots that proved themselves on the field and showed coaches what they’re made of.
Richard Leonard, cornerback for the Panthers, could be heard all through out the field both with his voice and plays. Leonard succeeded in disrupting passes and making it difficult for receivers to catch passes, as well as keeping the motivation and support high for the rest of the defense.
Another player returning from last year’s squad is Willis Wright. A wide receiver that is expected to see more passes this year now with former Panther Wayne Times no longer on the team. Wright looked in shape and when the team separated into position drills, he did not seem to lose a step running his routes and in catching his passes left and right.
Though there are players returning with previous playing experience, there are some big needs to be filled by young, inexperienced players. Former Panther Johnathan Cyprien will not be returning to the field because he is projected to be drafted in the 2013 NFL Draft. Turner understands that filling gaps left behind by seniors is the nature of the game.
“Well that’s the nature of college football,” said Turner. “You lose guys like that, somebody else has to step up and play and somebody will.”
Jericho Lee, who spent last season playing on the defensive line, went through drills with Kedrick Rhodes and the rest of the running backs. Under Turner and his new system, Lee may possibly be switched over to offense and use his size and physical ability as the team’s fullback.
“We run some two-back offense and he looks like a fullback body type,” said Turner. “He’s a willing football player. He loves the game, plays with heart, so hopefully we find a place for him and give him a shot there.”
The offensive line, coached by Steve Shankweiler, graduated all five starters and will be one position that will see some of its biggest competition. The Panthers do have three returning juniors in David Delsoin, Donald Senat and Jordan White. But with four out of seven lineman being freshman, there is a lot to learn in this new system.
“There’s a reason why they call you coach,” said Shankweiler jokingly. “We got a long way to go but we some eager kids that are trying and want to do well. “
The offensive line position, unfortunately, could not take full advantage of their first practice as well as other positions. The first practice only brought players out in helmets and shorts, and for a position that is strictly contact and movement, it can cause problems at first.
“Anytime you’re running around in pajamas, it’s hard to evaluate a lineman,” said Shankweiler. “The bottom line is you got to line up and knock somebody’s butt off the ball.”
Another position filled with freshmen players is the linebackers. Led by new linebackers coach Tom Williams, the first practice showed more energy and enthusiasm by the group.
All the coaches, including Williams, understand the pros and cons to having young yet talented players willing to learn. The inexperience allows Williams and the coaching staff to mold their group the way they feel is beneficial for the team.
“They don’t have old habits to break,” said Williams. “As young players they have a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy and love to play the game of football. They don’t have a lot of playing experience so we got to try and get them as much experience in practice to prepare them.”