Tackle football is back. This is where the 2008 season really gets underway. This isn't about acquisitions, passing camps or light contact drills. Training camp means real football. This is when the fun begins. The pads go on and the players start hitting. Free agency, the draft, mini-camps and passing camps are all activities for the offseason. Training camp is the ""real"" start of the 2008 season.
There is a lot to be learned in classroom study and non-contact drills, but football is completely different when live hitting is involved. Players have to concentrate more. They finally get to be physical. Hitting also adds a lot of emotion to things. We all know football is an emotional sport.
Training camp and live hitting are also important in that they show us which players are durable. You need to see who can practice for three-or-so weeks and handle the daily grind. Two-a-days in hot July weather can be brutally tough on guys. It takes a combination of mental, physical and emotional toughness to fight your way through that period. Durability is a much underrated aspect of football. Last year Jeremy Bloom wore down in training camp and it showed in his preseason performances. The team gave him time to get his legs back, but that never happened.
One thing to keep in mind is that training camp has different meanings to different players. Rookies, young players and new acquisitions all come to Lehigh wanting or needing to show they belong. A rookie like Quintin Demps is a virtual lock to make the team because he was a fourth-round pick. Camp is important to him because the better he plays, the more he will be on the field in the regular season. Linebacker Joe Mays has a different story. He's fighting to make the roster. Mays was a sixth-round pick. He's battling with Pago Togafau for the backup middle linebacker job. Mays can't afford too many mistakes or bad days. He needs to show he has the ability to play in the NFL and he also needs to play consistently. It wouldn't hurt to catch the coaches' eyes with a big play here or there. At the very least, Mays wants to show enough to earn a spot on the practice squad.
Returning veterans come to camp trying to improve on some part of their game. Trent Cole is a proven pass rusher. He might want to work on using his hands or a new move. This is more of a fine-tuning process than anything else. Reggie Brown is focused on catching the ball better. He wants to eliminate some of the drops he's had in the past. Omar Gaither is adjusting to his move back to weakside linebacker.
Some guys come to camp with a chance to win a starting job. These players have a lot of pressure because of how special a starting job in the NFL is. Look at fullback. Jason Davis and Luke Lawton are battling for the job. Both players have some time in the league, but winning the starting fullback spot would be huge for them. They know that they will be judged carefully every play and every day at Lehigh. The tough thing about this battle is that it is winner take all. The loser is almost certain to get cut. He might land on the practice squad, but NFL teams don't carry two fullbacks anymore.
Other players get an opportunity handed to them. Shawn Andrews isn't at camp right now so Max Jean-Gilles gets to work as the right guard with the starting offensive line. This means a lot of reps for Jean-Gilles. It also lets him work with the best players. This is a great opportunity for him to show that he has starting potential. The coaches can see how he fits in with the starting offensive line on a day-in, day-out basis.
You also have veterans coming to Lehigh fighting for roster spots. These guys are under a lot of pressure to try and keep their NFL careers alive. Safeties J.R. Reed and Sean Considine could both make the team or get cut. Receivers Greg Lewis and Hank Baskett could be fighting for one receiver spot. Kris Wilson and Matt Schobel are fighting for a backup tight end job. Players in these types of situations will have to go all out in order to win the battle and a roster spot.
The real key to a successful training camp is to have limited injuries. You know guys are going to get hurt. You just hope the injuries aren't to key players and that they don't cost players the whole season. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed.
KEEP AN EYE ON ...
- King Dunlap is slated as the backup left tackle. He's got the size and ability to handle the job. The big question on him is how tough he is. Battling against Trent Cole (the second-team offense takes on the first-team defense) will tell us a lot about him.
- Dunlap being on the left side has shifted Winston Justice to right tackle on the backup offensive line. He played the right side in college. He played most of the Buffalo game at right tackle. Maybe Justice can finally find a home and thrive.
- Rookie Quintin Demps seems to be a magnet for the football. That was his strength in college, so it is good to hear that is staying true in the NFL. Watch his hitting and tackling.
- How does L.J. Smith look? We need him healthy in 2008. If he looks all the way back that will be a huge help to the offense.
- Trevor Laws needs to come off the PUP list and get on the field. He has a chance to be the key backup at defensive tackle. In order to do this, he has to get a lot of practice reps. Laws is the kind of high-effort guy that should thrive at training camp.
- The other second-round draft pick from this year is DeSean Jackson. He will have a ton of pressure on him, at least from fans and the media. Jackson is expected to add some playmaking ability to the receiving corps. He also should win the punt returner job. His speed and elusiveness will be a welcome sight on the return units.
- One player that I'm really curious to see and hear about is running back Tony Hunt. He had a disappointing rookie season. Hunt now has a better feel for things. He needs to show a lot of improvement this summer.
GOING TO LEHIGH
I've had the good fortune to go to training camp a few times. I highly encourage everyone to make the trip up there at least once. The Lehigh Valley is incredibly beautiful. I couldn't imagine a better venue. The Eagles do a great job of making training camp fun for everyone. Most of all, I love watching football practice. You get to hear the coaches and players. Even on a day with 20,000 in attendance, it is a fairly intimate setting. I'm hoping to make it up this year myself. I missed last year and hated that.