With weeks remaining until new coach Ron Turner’s formal debut at Florida International, his players took the next step toward opening day at practice Wednesday.
After two days of shorts, jerseys and helmets, players were finally given their shoulder pads for a practice filled with contact. The first full pads practice will be Friday.
“When you put the pads on, you get to see who is going to be physical,” Turner said. “Some guys in shorts aren’t standouts, but all of a sudden they put the pads on and their game elevates.”
Players noted that intensity remained the same as always — in this case, a positive.
“The energy is the same every day,” linebacker Derrick Jones Jr. said. “No matter what we wear, we come out here and practice hard.”
Jones, a redshirt senior, could fill the leadership void left by former safety Johnathan Cyprien, who went to Jacksonville in the second round of the NFL Draft. Jones made one of the spectacular plays in practice Wednesday.
Covering a short crossing route toward the left sideline, Jones read the eyes of quarterback Jake Medlock and jumped the pass for an interception and touchdown. The play drew loud cheers from the rest of the defense.
Jones, however, believes he alone won’t fill Cyprien’s void.
“I want to see my whole team step up,” the linebacker said.
The introduction of pads allowed for more drills that showcased each unit’s physicality.
The offensive line and tight ends worked extensively on play-action protection. The defense seemed to have the upper hand in this drill, as more often than not a leak sprung in the protection.
Offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler frequently barked at his unit for missing an assignment or not using proper technique.
The running backs worked a lot on balance, as well as absorbing contact while carrying the ball. That position group continues to bear watching, as the starting spot remains up for grabs.
Sophomore running back Lamarq Caldwell was one of many backs to take reps with the first team.
“We have a lot of hungry young players,” Caldwell said. “We have a lot of depth. Right now it looks like six or seven running backs could be playing in a game.”
With the pads, 11-on-11 drills also became a bit more exciting. On one play, Medlock tried to fit a ball near the left hashmark to wide receiver T.J. Lowder in between a cornerback underneath and a safety over the top. Lowder got his hands on the ball, but the play was broken up after Lowder took a hit.
But even with the practice stepped up a notch, Turner said his team was still a long way from where he wants it to be by the season opener.
“I think everyone is very excited,” Turner said. “How ready we are yet, I’m not so sure. They’re very excited, but the readiness will come.”