I like football. I like football training camps. I’ve been to a bunch of them over the last three weeks.
Here’s a little of what I’ve seen and learned…
Sunday, July 29. Cleveland Browns.
THE SETTING: The Browns’ usual training and administrative facility in Berea. I made sure I was there for the first day in full pads.
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THE STAR: Trent Richardson. This was before the knee issues and the scope and all the worry that’s come with it. On this day, Richardson looked like a top-five pick. He sprung into the secondary on a couple of runs, bringing the impressive crowd to its feet. Browns fans bark — and they believe. In Richardson, they should. Aren’t the Browns due for just a little good luck sometime this century?
THE SURPRISE: Josh Gordon is jaw-droppingly big and fast. He didn’t get much action on this day, but his talents were obvious. Gordon is very much a project, and using a second-round supplemental pick to get him was very much a risk, but he can be a project worth taking on in time. Combine his presence with Jordan Cameron catching everything on this day and Travis Benjamin looking very fast, and for the first time in a long time the Browns looked to have a passing game. It was just one day in camp, but it was there.
THE TAKEAWAY: We’ll see. Since then the Browns have obviously encountered issues, some the kind every team has to handle in camp and some the kind that always seem to pop up in this current Browns cycle of change and losing. The takeaway on this day was that the Browns are better on offense, still slow and thin on defense and still well behind the rest of the division in talent. There is progress, but what the organization will look like five months from now remains a total mystery.
(Then I covered the World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational for a week, putting the camp tour on temporary hold.)
Saturday, Aug. 4. An NFL event featuring NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Hall of Famer Warren Moon and Browns general manager Tom Heckert.
THE SETTING: Roswell Kent Middle School, Akron. More than 150 inner-city youth football players were on hand to receive new helmets through a program funded by the NFL, the NCAA and the Browns. This was a very good deed and a very nice presentation made in the neighborhood NFL players Antoine Winfield and Chris Wells grew up. Among the youth programs on hand was the South Rangers, whose alumni include Tyrell Sutton and some guy named LeBron.
THE STAR: Goodell, who addressed the kids about staying safe while playing football, then later addressed the Saints bounty situation and sung the praises of new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
THE TAKEAWAY: I got a chance to catch up with Heckert, who said it was business as usual for the Browns during the ownership transition. He had nothing but compliments for Joe Haden and said he expected this to be the season for Haden to establish himself among the league’s best corners. As typical Browns luck would have it, word broke a few days later that Haden may be facing a four-game suspension for taking a banned substance.
Monday Aug. 6 and Tuesday Aug. 7. Ohio State University
THE SETTING: The normal indoor and outdoor practice fields on campus, just behind the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
THE STAR: Urban Meyer. Duh. ESPN cameras were everywhere — watch the show if you haven’t already — and Meyer’s energy was obvious. He’s a recruiting genius, both with this TV show and without it, and his first class of recruits looks more like an NFL Draft class than a bunch of 18-year-olds. Football has forever changed in Columbus. This whole show, the one starting Sept. 1 and running until Meyer runs himself ragged again, will be worth watching.
THE SURPRISE: The body changes. Ohio State gives strength coach Mickey Marotti a fancy title and $300,000 a year salary, and by all visible indications the guy is worth every penny. The Buckeyes, collectively, are a leaner, faster, stronger and more confident group. We’ll see how it translates, but they’re not going to look up to or struggle to match up with anybody.
THE TAKEAWAY: We still don’t know if Braxton Miller can throw the ball, and that’s kind of an important thing for a quarterback. But Meyer’s offense is built for a runner like Miller, and there are enough young guys on this offense that they can all grow together. Meyer wants to win every game now — especially that last one — but the real thing begins in 2013. The eye test says the Buckeyes will be national championship contenders then and in many years to follow.
Friday, Aug. 10. New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals preseason game
THE SETTING: Paul Brown Stadium. Seeing tailgaters as I walked over to the stadium kind of warmed my heart. OK, more than kind of.
THE STAR: Begrudgingly, it was Jets backup Tim Tebow. In the camera bay positioned in front of my press box seat was a cameraman whose sole job was to follow Tebow on the sideline. I know this because I watched his monitor. First preseason games are the dullest product the NFL delivers — the draft, training camp, everything else included — so the Tebow storyline wasn’t totally terrible or overdone. For one night, anyway. Because people care, I wrote about Tebow.
THE SURPRISE: That A.J. Green dropped what would have been a touchdown pass early in the second quarter. He won’t drop it next time. Green is a superfreak, a budding superstar and the guy who, potentially, can push the Bengals to new heights.
THE TAKEAWAY: I spent a lot of time with the Bengals in the spring and early summer for OTAs and minicamps, so I didn’t prioritize their actual camp. Besides injury concerns that always pop up through the preseason, their worries remain the same. They’re scrambling to find defensive backs, aren’t sure about the running game and are still searching for receivers besides Green. But this is a very talented team with pieces in place — don’t underestimate the importance of having Marvin Lewis and both coordinators (both of whom are rising stars) under contract — and Andy Dalton gives the Bengals a chance to win most weeks. Lewis has the kind of locker room he wants, and it will be very interesting to see where this thing goes from here.
Saturday, Aug. 11. University of Cincinnati
THE SETTING: Higher Ground Conference and Retreat Center, West Harrison, Indiana. The Bearcats go camping for two weeks in the woods. Literally. I wrote about the unique setting and circumstances earlier this week.
THE STAR: Defensive end Walter Stewart. The Bearcats lost a lot of talent and leadership from last year’s senior class, and they lost a lot of it to the NFL Draft. If Stewart can add some polish to his game — and beat double teams that are probably coming — he’ll be next in line for that. His talent is obvious; perhaps more important is that UC head coach Butch Jones calls Stewart “the most dynamic leader I’ve ever been around.”
THE SURPRISE: Quarterback Munchie Legaux is taller than I expected, maybe 6’5. He seems mentally ready for the challenge of being The Guy. He has to improve as a passer and do it with a pretty young receiving corps, but all indications are he’s matured and as ready as he can be for what’s ahead.
THE TAKEAWAY: The Bearcats don’t open until Sept. 6, so they were very much in the infant stages on my visit. There’s some talent on hand on both sides, and there’s some leadership returning on defense despite the losses. Legaux got some experience last year, there is some developing talent at the skill positions and if the Bearcats can beat Pitt in the opener, they’ll be in good position to make a run at the Big East title. It’s probably a team that will be better in late October than it is early, and it’s certainly a team worth watching.
Monday, Aug. 13. Massillon Washington High School
THE SETTING: Massillon’s Paul Brown Tiger Stadium, a high school stadium with a capacity of nearly 20,000 and features like indoor, loge-type seating, brand-new turf and a full video-screen scoreboard. Sort of like the dusty, antique high school stadium in your old neighborhood, except absolutely nothing like it.
THE STAR: Kyle Kempt, the senior quarterback who’s already committed to the University of Cincinnati. Kempt is far from the most gifted Massillon player, but as a third-year starter, a career straight-A student and a guy every player on the team looks up to, he’s the most important. He’s throwing with more zip and more confidence this year, and it was his voice heard at the end of practice leading a breakdown call of “Week 15.” That’s when the state championship games will be played. (Note: Michigan defensive back recruit Gareon Conley was not in uniform the day I was at Massillon.)
THE SURPRISE: The tempo at which Massillon practiced. This looked more like a high-level college practice than a high school two-a-day. Coaches were vocal, players were responsive and the ball moved quickly and with authority. Credit for that goes to Kempt, head coach Jason Hall and new offensive coordinator Badre Bardawil. A second surprise? Old-school rap played from sideline speakers throughout practice, part of a plan Hall hopes will lead to a looser team that’s enjoying the ride, not getting weighed down by outside pressures.
THE TAKEAWAY: If you know anything about Massillon, you know all about the 22 state championship banners that hang on the stadium’s east side. And you also know they were all won before the playoff system was in place. It’s incredibly tough for a public school to survive the grind of the Div. I playoffs — and especially the caliber of team that would await in Weeks 13-15 — but if Massillon is ever going to have the pieces in place to do it, this could be the year.
Wednesday, Aug. 15. Kent State.
THE SETTING: Oberlin College, about 35 miles southwest of Cleveland. Kent State usually practices on campus, but this was a one-day, surprise road trip head coach Darrell Hazell thought would break the monotony of camp at home and test his team’s focus. Hazell was an assistant at Div. III Oberlin early in his coaching career, and he had nothing but praise for the current Oberlin staff in hosting his team.
THE STAR: Roosevelt Nix. The junior defensive lineman from Reynoldsburg is a stud, and he’s a big reason Kent State’s veteran defense is expected to lead the way for this team, especially early. Hazell likes his team’s leadership and work ethic, and there’s a quiet optimism surrounding this season.
THE SURPRISE: Kent State looks big. Like, real-college-football-team type big on both sides of the ball. There’s not a game on the schedule in which the Flashes should be physically dominated, and if the veteran defense can lead the way this team can stay in bowl contention into November. It’s been since 1972, by the way, that Kent State played in a bowl game. I know that because my mom was a student there then. And I’m ancient. That was a long, long time ago.
THE TAKEAWAY: I didn’t see much of practice, but in the parts I did the defense was fast. A three-way quarterback battle is still ongoing, but it’s hard to imagine senior Spencer Keith not taking the first snap of the season Aug. 30. If the Flashes get solid play from the quarterback and offensive line and the defense stays healthy, they could be this year’s surprise MAC contender. If it happens — and this is just me talking — look for Hazell to be a hot name on the coaching market.
Friday, Aug. 17. University of Toledo
THE SETTING: The Glass Bowl, University of Toledo
THE STAR: Senior safety Jermaine Robinson. Yes, Toledo, does field a defense, despite what some of last year’s scores may lead you to believe. A Pittsburgh native, Robinson is a four-year contributor who’s battled through injuries, picked off Kellen Moore last year and is very much an NFL prospect if he can stay healthy. He’s been all over everything in this camp. “You most certainly notice him,” new head coach Matt Campbell said. “And our guys follow his lead.”
THE SURPRISE: I spent much of the day in the football building and a team meeting, but I didn’t stay for all of practice. My first visit to the indoor fieldhouse left me extremely impressed. A bunch of that project — and other campus projects — was funded with the money Toledo made from hosting the Ohio State game at Cleveland Browns Stadium a few years back. Note to other MAC programs — that’s a good deal if you can make it.
THE TAKEAWAY: Strictly going by the eye test and seeing the ball move early in practice, the Rockets have some real horses. They’d really prefer not to play those 70-66 games, but they’re equipped to score a bunch of points again if they need to. Campbell’s plan is to keep a two-quarterback system working, let his seniors lead and eventually reap the rewards of a challenging early schedule and a talented roster full of guys who have paid their dues. Anything short of a MAC West title will be a disappointment as the Rockets have many reasons to believe they’re on the fast track to becoming a consistent winner and occasional crasher of big-school parties.
Saturday, Aug. 18. Manchester High School – my alma mater.
THE SETTING: James R. France Stadium
THE STAR: Nick Peyakov, senior quarterback. A borderline Div. I college prospect, Peyakov enters his third year as a starter. I’d like to tell you — and college coaches — that he’s big enough, athletic enough, throws well enough and (most importantly) loves the game enough to be the kind of project worth taking on, but I think this says it all: Jim France has been the coach at Manchester for 42 (not a misprint) years, and he’d rather get a root canal than run the shotgun and throw more than two passes a game. It just so happens that Peyakov’s third year as the starter will be the third year the Panthers have been a predominantly spread team, throwing it 30+ times a game. It’s not a coincidence.
THE SURPRISE: None, really, which is why this is always my favorite stop. Coach France’s son, Jason, calls the spread offense, but everything else — from the defensive coordinator to the structure of practice to the warm brown water coming out of the fountain to the black helmets and pants — is the same as it’s always been. Coach France has been there so long and been so successful that they named the stadium after him while he was still coaching — and going on 25 years ago. Ask him what that’s like and he’ll tell you, “it just means I’m old.”
THE TAKEAWAY: Maybe the Panthers will be pretty good when graded on a scale of other small and slow teams; they usually are. This stop was just a case of being in the neighborhood meeting a desire to catch up with some old friends and share some stories from previous stops on my camp tour. I told Coach France that the practices I most enjoy are the ones that play Jay-Z over the loudspeakers. His reply: “Who’s Jay-Z?”