Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

April 2, 2014

Closing the gap

Rams using spring practice to improve on gridiron

BLUEFIELD — Closing the gap between performance and potential is what every person in any line of business wants to achieve.

That same principle is the focus of the Bluefield College football team, as spring practice continues with an eye toward the 2014 season, and the possibility of getting that first win after consecutive 0-11 campaigns.

Of course, the win-loss record isn’t a topic of conversation, at least not among head coach Ordell Walker and his current staff of three.

“Maybe amongst themselves, but nobody has brought it up around us,” Walker said. “We never really talk about the scoreboard and getting the first win. I want them thinking so much bigger than that.

“Right now the process is we have to close the gap between our personal performance and our personal potential. Everybody in the organization has to win that battle and when you do that our program gets a whole lot better and you give yourselves the best chance to win the game.”

Bluefield College began spring practice on March 17, and will conclude on April 12. For the second straight year, the Rams will not have a spring game since they are shy on depth on the interior lines, but Walker hopes that will change in 2015.

“That is kind of another step in the program when we can do that and that should happen next season,” Walker said. “We want to continue to get the brand out and get the community out to support our program. It will be huge for the program, huge for recruiting, it would be a good junior day to get recruits out.”

It was a week after spring practice last April that Bluefield College shocked many and fired Mike Gravier, and later replaced him with Walker, who came from Greenville College in Illinois. He currently has three assistants, all of whom were with him at Greenville, including Aaron Mingo (offensive coordinator), Jeremy Burrows (offensive line) and Lamar Bell (co-defensive coordinator).

Year two should bring more stability to the staff, which Walker has noticed in more areas than just on the field.

“We definitely feel more comfortable with the way the program is progressing...,” Walker said. “They are certainly more comfortable it seems like in all areas. We are just progressing and feeling more like home.”

That quartet has 58 student-athletes who have been preparing for the upcoming season at Mitchell Stadium, with an emphasis on technique, fundamentals, attitude and approach to the game.

Bluefield, which had just one senior on last year’s team, does have plenty of returnees looking to secure a starting position.  The Rams have also inked a sizable recruiting class, most of whom will arrive in the fall knowing they’ll have to beat out incumbents to get on the field.

“The way we approach spring ball is we are really trying to establish that first group that we will start fall camp with so your first group is going to get a few more reps than everybody else,” said Walker, who plans to complete his staff after spring practice is over. “Spring ball is always wide open for us so everybody is getting equal reps right now.

“It is just about trying to improve each individual player, but there is competition. They are trying to establish themselves, but once we get to camp that process really starts over again, although the first group will get a few more reps than everybody else.”

Among the positions up for grabs is the all-important quarterback position. Bluefield used four players there at times last season with varying degrees of success, including Josh Erby, Ashten Dixon, Cory Mabry and Armani Ford. They combined to complete just 42.9 percent of their pass attempts, while throwing 23 interceptions and just seven touchdowns.

The competition has now been narrowed to three, but Walker has made it a priority to find one signal-caller to handle the role. That has been easier said than done.

“Each quarterback brings something different to the game so when they are in there we always have to tailor things around that guy,” Walker said. “If we could kind of play one style that would be our preference. They are all pretty even, we are seeing a lot of good stuff.

“There is definitely improvement with all three of them. When we grade them all out, they are all within one or two percentage points of each other, but it hasn’t cleared up any yet.”

Walker is confident in the offensive skill position players, including running back with Adrian Pope, Marion Harris and Sam Bennett — all of whom had just under 500 yards on the ground —  along with talented receivers Rodrell Smith and Richard Johnson, who combined for 54 receptions and six scores.

Bluefield will return to the Appalachian Athletic Conference next season, but will remain in the ultra-competitive Mid-South Conference for football.

“We really feel like we can compete in the conference with the receivers and running backs that we have...,” Walker said. “They are all looking good, they are all healthy so we feel really good where we are at with those two positions right now.”

Play in the trenches is the key to any football team, and Walker is hoping experienced returnees, a solid collection of newcomers and an emphasis on the fundamentals will show improvement on both sides of the ball.

“Good defense is only going to be as good as the individual’s ability to make tackles and get off the blocks,” said Walker, whose Rams return Frank Brooks, who led the Rams with 77 tackles last season. “It doesn’t matter what scheme you run, you are never going to out-scheme an opponent every play, at some point guys have to be able to get off blocks and they have to be able to tackle.”

Ditto for the offensive line, which must protect the quarterback and provide opportunities for the skill positions to make plays.

‘Especially on the offensive line we need to develop our technique and fundamentals there,” Walker said. “I think with the skill guys like the quarterbacks, it is more of learning the system and more of the big picture.

“Everybody has to get better in technique and fundamentals, but it is not as critical for them as making the right reads, getting to the right spots and making the right decisions, moreso than technique.”

Once spring practice ends next Saturday, there will be just two weeks of school remaining before summer vacation arrives. Players will be expected to prepare on their own, while coaches will hit the road, looking for future Rams.

“We will finish up this recruiting class and maybe relax a little bit once we get out of spring ball and then in May we will hit the road again and start doing some junior recruiting,” Walker said. “It is good, it is building a program and that is the lifeblood of the program. It is where we need to improve if we want to see dramatic changes in the program.”

Bluefield will begin its season with a Thursday night home game with Pikeville on Aug. 28. That will be followed by a visit to FCS foe Presbyterian in South Carolina and a trip to the Apprentice School in Newport News, Va.

Up next will be the usual gauntlet provided by the Mid-South.

“Presbyterian will be unfamiliar territory, but everybody else conference-wise, we have a feel for what they do and schemes and things like that,” Walker said. “As a coaching staff we are certainly more comfortable coming into this season.”

“The experience to get to go to South Carolina and getting to play an FCS school and play Apprentice out in Newport News, where a lot of our recruits are from, those are huge. It is exciting for a lot of guys to get to play close to home, we get quite a few guys from South Carolina.

“Going to a new territory and new experiences, it is all education and it is fun so we are excited about it.”

—Contact Brian Woodson

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