FOOTBALL: Team looks better than expected

Michael Casagrande

After a winter-long hibernation, the helmets and pads are back at Smith Stadium as spring practice began last week.

Yesterday was the first day of practice in full pads, and today will see the first full action.

It may be early, but coach David Elson said the team is looking better than he had expected before practice opened.

“I had a feeling that guys were picking things up a little quicker than I thought,” he said. “You see a few young guys begin to grow into positions. We have a long way to go.”

When practice began Thursday, the defense had a much different look from the fall.

Absent are all-Americans Jeremy Chandler and Erik Dandy and defensive coordinator Don Martindale, who took a job with the Oakland Raiders.

Mike Dietzel was promoted to defensive coordinator from defensive backs coach and special teams coordinator.

Craig Ackerman will be responsible for inside linebackers and the special teams, and Mike Chism joined the staff as the outside linebackers coach.

The transitional period has been a success with the coaches shuffling jobs, Elson said.

“I think it has been real smooth,” he said. “I like consistency and we have had some significant success on defense.”

With the sizable holes on the defensive end, sophomore linebacker Brandon Smith said players are starting to step up.

“People are out there battling for positions,” Smith said. “It’s a trial and error type of thing. It’s going pretty good though.”

Elson is looking to junior Deonte Smith to replace Dandy as inside linebacker after playing outside linebacker last season. Junior inside linebacker Charles Thompson will not be participating in the spring because of injury.

Sophomore Dennis Mitchell should start at defensive back with Chandler gone while junior Antonio Thomas will make the move from strong safety to cornerback after Carl Birts’ eligibility ended in the fall, Elson said.

With the cornerbacks tentatively set, several underclassmen are hoping to take one of the two safety positions up for grabs.

On offense, the Toppers will have to find replacements for seniors Casey Rooney and Shannon Hayes, who accounted for 79 percent of Western’s receiving yards last season.`

Sophomore Earl Clayton is the top returning receiver, gaining 223 yards from 16 receptions.

Last spring, the quarterback position was one of the main concerns going into the fall. This season, there will be little drama with Gateway Conference Freshman of the Year Justin Haddix returning.

The enthusiasm is as high and the practices have been productive, sophomore offensive lineman Sean Pugh said.

“We are getting things done,” he said. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].