On the training camp tour
I love my job.
It's rarely better than when I pack the car and the backpack to go see a bunch of undefeated football teams in preseason training camps.
I brought a notebook.
The team's renovated, day-to-day headquarters in Berea, Ohio. The Browns fancied up the training camp setting and the fans keep coming in droves. I was there for five or six practices throughout the open portion of camp; this day was the first in full pads, though most NFL teams still aren't going full speed with live contact.
THE COACH: Rob Chudzinski, a first-time head coach who grew up a Browns fan, had two previous stints as a Browns assistant and is supported by well-paid and respected coordinators Norv Turner and Ray Horton. The new Browns decision-makers clearly wanted an offensive-minded coach, and they got one in Chudzinski. On this day Chudzinski interacted with fans and asked them to make noise on a key fourth-down situation, which the fans clearly loves. He gets it, and over time that just might count for something.
THE STAR: Trent Richardson. His muscles still have muscles, and he strikes me a more confident, quicker guy heading into his second professional season. He's going to have to drive the bus if the Browns are going to be successful this season, and though he still needs to prove he can stay healthy, Richardson looks up to the task. Tackling this guy can not be anything resembling fun.
WORTH NOTING: Joe Haden has looked so good it's hard not to list him as the star. Ditto Josh Gordon, though he doesn't consistently stand out. But, my gosh, does Gordon have talent. To this untrained eye, Brandon Weeden has been night-and-day better in the preseason games than he has been in practices I saw, and that might be OK. Five scores in six first-team drives, even against bland defenses, is a marked improvement from just about any of the last 14 Browns seasons. This new offense is clearly a better fit for Weeden, and Weeden's ability to succeed and lead is still the biggest story surrounding this team now and into the near future.
THE TAKEAWAY: The Browns have better players on the field than they've had in recent years. That much is pretty obvious. Previous administrations have laid a foundation, especially in the trenches, and if Weeden can continue to improve and Gordon can keep his nose clean, the Browns will win some games and create a real buzz going forward. Because of the thin secondary and the quarterback question, I'd still use caution in buying this year's team as being close to a playoff contender, but I like this roster -- and the thought of what it might look like in a year or two.
THE SETTING: Dix Stadium. The Golden Flashes weren't practicing on this day but were in uniform for media and picture day. After breaking a 40-year bowl drought by winning 11 games and the MAC East last year, there were smiles all around.
THE COACH: Paul Haynes, a Columbus native and Kent State alum, replaces Darrell Hazell, who's now at Purdue. For decades Kent State was looking for The Guy to lead the program out of the dregs, and now Haynes gets to be The Guy Who Replaces The Guy. He embraces that, and he knows he has a roster ready to win right away. Maybe not 11 wins, but expectations have changed and the future appears bright.
THE STAR: Dri Archer. If you remember last year's camp tour -- and, really, who doesn't? -- I said that Kent State looked like a good team and that Hazell would likely be in demand by BCS programs by December. I didn't know about Archer, though, and now just about everyone does. He's a 5'8 dynamo and one of the fastest players in the country. Haynes is enjoying Archer's work ethic -- and the challenge of getting Archer the ball and making defenses pay for paying too much attention to Archer.
WORTH NOTING: For the second straight year, the Golden Flashes held a quarterback competition in camp. Redshirt freshman Colin Reardon has won the starting job for Thursday night's opener vs. Liberty, and he'll have to grow up fast. On Sept. 14 Kent State plays at LSU; a week later, the Flashes play at Penn State.
THE TAKEAWAY: Haynes seemed confident. This is no longer a rebuilding project, and not only does he have Archer and Trayion Durham to make his young quarterback's job easier, he has both talent and leadership returning on the defensive side. Kent State football matters again, and with Archer on the field and maybe even faster than last year, the Golden Flashes are coming to a highlight reel near you.
The practice fields adjacent to Ohio State's Woody Hayes Athletic Center. It's worth noting that Urban Meyer had the real work taking place on the grass field; later camp practices were moved to Ohio State's Ackerman fields to keep the players on grass and give practices a true camp feel. This practice is the only one of the whole camp that was open to the media.
THE COACH: Meyer, the undefeated rock-star who's changed everything about the program in 21 months and not only has a team at No. 2 in this year's preseason poll but appears to have the program positioned for long-term success. Meyer didn't lose a game with a bowl-banned team this year and now has more of his own recruits, has returning studs at quarterback and on the offensive line and kept his entire staff in place. That won't happen again, most likely, but Meyer has things rolling; good luck to the rest of the Big Ten trying to keep up.
THE STAR: Besides Meyer? Braxton Miller. The junior quarterback is clearly more comfortable and confident and is throwing a better ball. He still has a ways to go in the passing game, but he's a legit Heisman candidate not just because of Ohio State's soft schedule and an offense that fits him, but because he's capable of turning the ordinary into the extraordinary with one cut. If Ohio State can keep Miller fresh and away from big hits, he'll keep putting up big numbers. Maybe very big ones.
WORTH NOTING: I always believe in using caution before buying the hype, but buy it -- BUY IT -- on freshman Dontre Wilson, the speedster from Texas who will play running back and in the return game immediately. He made a couple of "wow" plays on this day. More than 15 NFL scouts lined the sidelines on this day, and though they were there primarily to see cornerback Bradley Roby they'll be back -- as often as they're welcome -- over the next couple years to see players who are now sophomores and freshmen.
THE TAKEAWAY: This roster oozes talent. The speed at practice and the speed of practice stand out; Meyer is really good at his job, and every assistant coach brings energy and demands maximum effort from his players. Before Michigan, honestly, Ohio State's toughest opponent will be its own ability to develop leaders, handle expectations and stay ready every week for everybody's best shot. Pasadena in January is a very realistic and attainable goal.
Green Street Stadium, which two nights before had hosted the Nike jersey unveiling featuring some guy named LeBron dressed in full football uniform. On the field were a bunch of very gifted football players, starting with Ohio State recruits Dante Booker and Parris Campbell and fellow senior Newman Williams, who hasn't yet picked a college but might be the best pure football player of the bunch.
THE COACH: Dan Boarman, an alum of the school (when it was still just St. Vincent) who had a pretty good run at nearby Copley High School before returning to coach the Irish. An offensive lineman at Indiana University in the 1970s, Boarman won his first state title as a head football coach last season. His team is stacked and very well could win it again.
THE STAR: The big guns weren't doing much at practice on this night, and picking just one as the best would be impossible. Booker looks like he belongs in an NFL training camp, not a high school camp, and if he can stay healthy he'll be a star at the next level(s). Williams arrives at the ball with bad intentions and had his breakout game in last December's state title game, when Meyer, Luke Fickell and Mike Vrabel were watching from the sideline. Campbell is probably the fastest player in Ohio and just turned 16 last month. His ceiling is ridiculously high.
WORTH NOTING: LeBron was a very gifted football player when he played at St. V-M from 1999-2001, obviously, but the talk of him being able to play in the NFL is a little bit ridiculous. He never, ever wanted to take a hit of any kind when he played. Just don't tell him I said that.
THE TAKEAWAY: St. V-M lost most of its offensive line and its quarterback from a team that just overwhelmed Div. III competition last November and December. It's never easy to repeat, and there are holes to fill. But having the best three (at least) players on the field in every game you play is a pretty good way to win a bunch of football games. If you're into watching good high school football, check out the Irish vs. Youngstown Mooney in September and at Massillon in October.