The Quincy University coaching staff came bouncing off the practice field in much the same manner as the Hawks following Tuesday afternoon’s two-hour workout.
Why? It was by far the best early-season practice the Hawks have had in Tom Pajic’s three seasons as head coach.
The Hawks were efficient, effective and energetic. Better yet, they maximized their time and were crisp on offense and defense. Obviously, they are still in helmets only, and the tone and tenor of practice changes when the Hawks put on full pads. Still, it’s a sign legitimate progress is being made. There were other signs, too, which led to a favorable first impression as the Hawks begin working toward their Sept. 4 opener at Lindenwood-Belleville.
Here are some things that caught my eye:
• Overall team speed is better. Offensively, especially at wide receiver, speed hasn’t been an issue the last two years. In the backfield, the running backs have been more bruising than breakaway. To a degree, that is still the case. However, there was a noticeable burst from the backs when they found openings during offensive team drills. There are still plenty of weapons on the outside and speed to stretch defenses downfield.
On the flip side, there are some anchors in the middle defensively — linebackers Ike Onike and Dan Camp — who fly to the ball. The defensive backfield has plenty of speed and agility, too. Up front, the Hawks move well and can be physical. That allows defensive coordinator Joe Bettasso to stay aggressive in his play calling.
It’s going to be enjoyable to watch the defensive line progress as the preseason winds.
• The wide receiver corps looks to be a strength despite all of its youth. Kody Wood, a true freshman from Jacksonville, made a sterling catch along the sideline on the final play of practice and looks like he could step in immediately. The graduation of Justin Dickens and the transfer of De’Carlos Poole left the unit a little thin, but Wood is a prime addition as part of the talented Central State Eight Conference pipeline.
• Junior quarterback Nick Lonergan is maturing in every facet. Most importantly, he looks like a leader. A confident signal-caller and passer since he stepped on campus, Lonergan knows how to fluidly run Pajic’s offense. What he is showing the first couple days of practice is the ability to take the team under his wing. He was encouraging players on both sides of the ball and making sure to give the defense a pat on the back as much as he did the offense.
With some talented quarterbacks joining the program, like Rochester’s Robbie Kelley, Lonergan will be the perfect guy to learn from the next two years before he hands over the reigns to the offense.
• Sterling Ross will be on the field offensively. He could be on there a lot. Ross, a junior running back from Florida, is a change-of-pace guy who can run away from defenders. Last season, Ross averaged 4.5 yards per carry, gaining 218 yards total. However, he was responsible for QU’s longest rushing play of the season — 66 yards against Kentucky Wesleyan.
• A good sign the program means something is the return of former players who remain in Quincy and want to help. Offensive lineman Bryan Gibbons, who graduated in May, has been helping offensive line coach Gary Bass work with the incoming freshmen.