The first day of fall practice is in the books, and Justin Fuente is. . . well, it's still early but he's excited.
"I was encouraged by a lot of things," he began after some thought. "We've made some strides. It's too early to tell how much. We're in better physical condition than we were in the spring. I want to take my hat off to (Strength and Conditioning) Coach (Rohrk) Cutchlow and his staff. He did a great job.
"I think we've got a lot of maturing to do, at every position," he admitted. "Not just the older guys. But all-in-all, I think they came out here and tried to do what we wanted them to do."
Fuente is already making his stamp as a very hands-on, fiery field general. He stalked the practice facility, roaming from one station to the next, coaching his coaches, and riding his players to do their jobs properly. And he was not shy about chewing out players who weren't giving good effort.
Fuente clearly enjoyed his first day as the Tigers' head coach.
"Oh, it was awesome!" he exulted. "Tonight, we had walk-through for the first 15 minutes. I ran the walk-through and it seemed like it lasted 30 seconds. I had so much fun just installing some base things, teaching. It's fun to teach."
The coach explained that there wasn't an awful lot he could learn on Day One.
"A little bit of conditioning level, you can tell that," Fuente explained. "You can get some measure of what they retained (from the playbook). But there's a lot of great players in shorts who are not great players when you put the pads on them so you try not to jump to too many conclusions. . . There's a long way to go."
There are 65 Tigers who have never taken a snap at the college D-I level before. Fuente is having to give them a lot of practice repetitions
"We're so young that our freshmen are repping more than they normally would," he said, "more than I've done with other teams across the country. What we're doing is a little shock to their system. And so at times we dragged. We've got to get that fixed."
"We've got a lot of things to do," Fuente freely discloses. "We've got positions--all of 'em--that are wide open. We made that clear to the team last night. We've got a two-deep (position chart) but that's for everyone else."
Redshirt senior wide receiver Marcus Rucker from Whitehaven has become a more vocal leader in his fifth year as a Tiger. He knows that the team is inexperienced and so he is trying to fill the leadership vacuum.
"I'm a senior and we don't have a lot of (seniors) so I've got to keep the team up," Rucker commented. "They'll follow my lead so I know I have to go hard and be real focused. I've got to keep it up. It's just day one, so we've got a long way to go."
The glib, direct Rucker thought the first day went well but acknowledges how much work his team yet has to do to be ready for the season opener on Saturday, September 1 versus UT-Martin at the Liberty Bowl.
"It's just the first day. Everybody came out prepared and ready. But it's still the first day so we've got to get a lot of things going, we've got to see the film and go have a better day tomorrow."
Rucker has been through more coaching changes than most players will ever experience. He's now on his third coach in five years. It actually leaves him at a rare loss for words when he tried to articulate his feelings on the matter.
"Words can't explain it," he said after a pause. "I'm glad to be home. I mean, we've had all these different coaches but I feel (Justin) Fuente is a good coach and he's gonna be good for the program. He's gonna move us to the next level, so I'm ready."
The senior playmaker said that the entire team is adjusting to the Speed of practice.
"It's a high-tempo offense so we're moving every drill, every second," Rucker explained. "(Coach Fuente is) hard on us about moving and going high-tempo so we've got to keep that up and give him what he wants."
Sophomore defensive lineman Terry Redden, also from Whitehaven, reported for fall practice slimmed down to 275 pounds but still inside playing the nose in the Tiger's traditional 3-4 defense. He, too, seemed pleased with his team's initial effort.
"As far as day one, we had a lot of positives and we had a lot of negatives. We weren't flying around the ball fast enough and we've still got a lot of growing to do. But the first day, overall, I thought was real nice."
Redden, too, acknowledged that the team is still adjusting to Coach Fuente's emphasis on speed.
"The speed of practice has really increased. Everybody is up-tempo. We live by the code "EAT": effort, attitude, tempo. We've gotta get going, keep everyone flying around to the ball."
As for first day standouts, Rucker was steady and caught a couple of deep balls while true freshman wide out Daniel Hurd had the single most spectacular catch of the evening. Redshirt sophomore speed merchant Keiwone Malone, the Memphis native who transferred home from Alabama, made his presence felt and will press for significant time on the gridiron.
Wideout is the deepest position on the team and will be a position with ferocious competition for playing time. Redshirt junior Jamere Valentine and redshirt sophomore Kevin Wright also looked good in their reps. Redshirt freshmen Ryan Byrd and Tyriq Patrick need to work on their bodies before they fall further behind.
True freshman signal-caller Paxton Lynch will struggle to learn the offense but has a howitzer for a right arm. When he steps into a pass, it gets there in a hurry. But don't totally discount Memphis native Will Gilchrist in the battle for playing time behind Karam.
Jai Steib is an imposing physical presence at running back and will get playing time, as he was the all-around most impressive athlete in the backfield. But junior Jerrell Rhodes looked good, too, and has the advantage of a spring camp under his belt. Sophomore (and Memphis native) Artaves Gibson was a bit lackluster. And redshirt junior Jaquise Cook looked great. Tailback is going to be another deep position.
On the defensive side of the ball, Redden spent an awful lot of time blowing into the backfield with his quick reactions to the snap and his superior speed & strength. Sophomore cornerback Bakari Hollier was often a standout but has got to improve on his foot work. True freshman DB Chris Morley had the best defensive play of the evening, showing a great nose for the ball and going up to wrestle a pass in coverage for a beautiful interception.
We will continue to have reports for you as Tiger football camp progresses.
Leroy Watson, Jr. is the Managing Editor of TigerSportsReport.com, and may be reached via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter (@leroywatsonjr)