Ah yes. Opening day of Bronco season is here at last. Training Camp, the first chance for Broncos Country to see their favorite team, the new players and of course, Peyton Manning. On the drive in, I am listening to the local Denver sports station and I hear that Knowshon Moreno passed his physical and will be practicing today. That is good news for a guy coming off of a knee injury and needing to prove something this year. If the change in Strength and Conditioning coaches and philosophies has anything to do with it, Moreno will have an optimal shot to do just that.
I’m sitting at the far 46 yard line today. The sky is mostly clear with only a few clouds passing gently by. It looks like it will be another typical hot practice day, so I apply the sunscreen and bug spray and settle in for the long haul. Fans are still filing in and at 8:20 am, it’s still too early to say how crowded it will become.
Ten minutes go by and the Jugs machine is set up to my left on the 35 yard line. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this apparatus, a Jugs machine is similar to a pitching machine, except this one is used with footballs. It simulates a kickoff or a punt for Special Teams Units to practice with. It can be set to shoot end over end (kickoffs), a spiral (punts) or even a wobbley squib kick.
To continue, short cones are spread out along the 50 yard line to designate coverage lanes for the punt coverage unit to drill with. I see Lonie Paxton emerge from the locker room and Jason Hill is loosening up and stretching his legs. The players are in shorts and shells for this practice. Brock Osweiler begins to play soft toss with a ball boy, then Mike Remmers appears with Adam Weber and Caleb Hanie and the latter two join their fellow Quarterback to warm up their arms. No sign of Peyton Manning yet, but the Quarterbacks now wear the blue jerseys instead of the Orange from past years. The Orange jerseys belong to the Defense (Orange Crush 2.0?) and the Offense will wear white.
At 8:50 am on the button, the first Air Horn blast signal the beginning of Training Camp. Needless to say, this induces a raucous cheer from the growing crowd. Broncos football is back!
The punt protection unit drills with the 1st and 2nd teams, while Tracy Porter, Syd'Quan Thompson, Matthew Willis Drayton Florence, Omar Bolden and Eric Decker field punts from the Jugs machine. David Bruton and Joe Mays rotate calling signals as the personal protector. The crowd is filling up both end zones and I will venture to say that it will beat last year’s record of 3,100. That is to be expected with new sheriff Peyton Manning in town. Also it IS the first day of football season in the Mile High City and you know we love our Broncos. HORN.
Away goes the Jugs machine and the first teams line up for some 11 on 11 drills. Since the Defense is directly in front of me, I notice Robert Ayers, Ty Warren, Justin Bannan and Elvis Dumervil are the starting linemen, with Von Miller, Joe Mays and Wesley Woodyard at the Linebacker spots. Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter are the Cornerbacks and Rahim Moore is paired with Mike Adams at the Safety positions.
At half speed tempo, Manning hits Eric Decker on a square in 15 yards downfield. Willis McGahee runs off tackle on the next play. I see DJ Williams just standing on the sideline (in uniform) all alone watching.
The second teams are going against one another on the far field, while Knowshon gets his first carry. Manning completes a pass to Moreno on a middle curl route on the ensuing play, followed by another completion to Knowshon on a wheel route. Lance Ball rotates in at Running Back and runs a sweep to the left, followed by a Manning completion to Decker on a 10 yard out.Lance Ball gets another carry and then Peyton fires a pass to Joel Dreesen on a deep seam pattern. This is followed by a handful of two back sets with Chris Gronkowski trap blocking for Ball and McGahee. Then to the surprise and glee of the crowd, Peyton Manning takes off running around the right side directly towards my seating area. Someone yells out from the crowd something to the effect of, "who needs Tebow, we’ve got Manning!"
I notice that Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil have swapped sides, with Von Miller on the right side with Ayers. I am unsure if this is because the Tight End is lining up on the left or not, but it is something to note. Peyton is taking all the snaps at Quarterback during this segment. It is also worth noting that Chris Kuper is taking reps during this time as well. The next play is a pass and it appeared that Jason Hill and Jacob Tamme were unaware which one of them was the intended target because the ball ended up going between them. McGahee runs a sweep to the left and then in a two back set with play action, there is a mix up and they re-run the play. The second time around, Manning completes a pass to Demaryius Thomas and follows that up with a completion on a middle curl to McGahee. They continue in the two back set and Willis gets another carry. Peyton hooks up with Joel Dreesen on a sideline pass. On the next play, a single back, two Tight End set, Willis McGahee takes the ball around the right side. Lance Ball takes a swing pass from Manning and then gets a carry on the next play. On the final play of this segment, Peyton connects with Andre "Bubba" Caldwell. HORN.
The stretch interval begins with the players spreading out across the near field. The Defense is on the far side in their orange, while the Offense is on the near side close to me in white, which creates a subtle contrast. A bit different from the Rich Tuten days, Strength and Conditioning coach Luke Richesson has the players doing compound stretches, working multiple sets of muscles. Could this be plyometrics? I am unsure and really not qualified to answer that question. Suffice it to say, it is much different from the previous methods used here.
After about ten or fifteen minutes of this, Coach Luke says, "Alright, let’s have Manning break it down." The team huddles up, completes a chant and gets ready to work. The first team Offense lines up, runs a play sequence and then sprints 30 yards downfield. The second and third units do the same thing, with Caleb Hanie and Adam Weber respectively, at Quarterback. They turn around and run back up the field using the same method. This time, Brock Osweiler takes the third team. He completes his first pass as a Bronco to Greg Orton and it was a decent pass. The players break off into their individual position drills. Coach Tyke Tolbert is working the Wide receivers directly in front of my position. He has them drill on getting off the line of scrimmage using different techniques, working one on one against each other, but five at a time. I see the Quarterbacks doing footwork drills off to my right and the Tight Ends practicing drive blocking against one another over to my left. The Running Backs are on the far side of the near field, running and slaloming through the hurdles and the Offensive Linemen are doing their thing at the far left end of the field. HORN.
The Wide Receivers split into two groups and run double routes. Each player runs a square out, turns and catches a pass, then runs a square in and catches another pass. Coach Tolbert passes to one set of receivers and an assistant throws to the other group. I finally notice that Brandon Stokely is missing in acton. I later find out that he was excused due to having the flu.
The Quarterbacks line up to practice hand off drills with the Running Backs. They are running two at a time using the mats that show "running lanes." This goes on for about 5 minutes and then the Quarterbacks run passing drills with the Wide Receivers. These are ran two at a time as well. One QB passing to a receiver on the left and another passing to a Wideout on the right. Peyton is directing the routes in this drill. There is a ball boy (or assistant) acting as the Defensive Back and coach Tolbert is directing them to show press, jam or off coverage looks so the WR’s can practice reading and adjusting their routes for each situation. As this drill goes on, the Tight Ends are added to the drill and it becomes more interesting to watch. I like what I am seeing here.
While this is going on, the 1st teams go through running drills 11 on 11. Caleb Hanie and Peyton Manning both take reps in this drill. Brock Osweiler is definitely the odd QB out in this practice. "Welcome to Adam Weber’s role in 2011 rookie." Most of the passing looks pretty good considering it’s the first practice and at half speed. There have been some missed balls with blame all around, but not enough to get picky over. Then with that thought in mind, Hanie promptly sails two passes in a row and I get the feeling that I jinxed him. I notice that #86 is a big boy and check my roster and see that it is Tight End Anthony Miller. A second glance shows me he is 6-4, 260 lbs and it’s no wonder that he looks like a Tight End. HORN.
The players break off into two groups. On my left, Peyton Manning takes the first teamers through 11on 11’s. To the right, the other QB’s are practicing with the Wide Receivers going one on one with the Defensive Backs. There is a lot of shifting and motion going on over at the 11 on 11 drills. These guys are getting with the program. Another nice thing to see this early in Camp. If you will remember last season, everyone was behind because of the Lockout. Not only that, but John Fox did not get the benefit of an extra week of practice that all new coaches usually receive. So the team is ahead of last year’s schedule and a lot of the Offense has already been installed. It is just that noticeable.
Caleb Hanie relieves Manning in the 11 on 11 drills and Peyton joins the WR/DB battle. I notice that Champ Bailey draws Eric Decker on each turn and Tracy Porter gets to practice against Demaryius Thomas. I see Drayton Florence beating up (read: harassing) De’ Andre Goodwin all the way down the field on one play. Then Andre Caldwell blows by Tony Carter and Manning delivers a strike for a touchdown. On the very next play, Porter breaks up a deep pass intended for Demaryius Thomas. Manning overthrows Matthew Willis because Willis doesn’t get separation from good underneath coverage by Omar Bolden. Greg Orton beats Rafael Bush and makes a great catch in the end zone. Porter and Demaryius are matched up once again and Manning hits Thomas in stride, then the young receiver takes off reminiscent of his last touchdown catch in 2011. HORN.
The Chain Gang makes an appearance and 7 on 7 drills begin. Jacob Tamme catches an inside slant from Peyton, then Manning completes a pass to Dreesen on a comeback over the middle. Eric Decker drops a ball over the middle that hit him right in the hands, then Jacob Tamme finds a hole in the zone coverage and Manning finds him wide open. Tamme beat two defenders on that play. Caleb Hanie completes a nice pass to Jason Hill in front of Chris Harris and another to Virgil Green on a sideline route. Hanis hits De’Andre Goodwin with very good coverage by Jerry Franklin. Weber gets a turn at Quarterback and on his first attempt, waits too long and throws short right into coverage. On the next play he hits Greg Orton deep over the middle. Brock Osweiler rotates in and on his first pass, he throws over the middle on a play that would have creamed receiver Tyler Grisham by three defenders. The next play is a completion to Anthony Miller. HORN.
After a short water break, the Jugs machine magically appears at the 35 yard line once more and Eric Decker, Syd’Quan Thompson, Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence field punts as the punt coverage unit works on their punt protection blocking package for about 20 minutes, then they run live coverage with the Jugs machine and no Gunners. After the 4th rep the HORN sounds.
11 on 11 drills resume with the chain gang. The Line of Scrimmage is the 29 yard line to my right and the Offense is moving right to left. Manning passes to Tamme, then a short pass to McGahee on play action. Willis McGahee bursts through the left side of the line for a measurable gain. Then Andre Caldwell breaks free down the left sideline an Peyton completes the pass to him. That was something that didn’t exist last year. Lance Ball gets a carry up the middle. Hanie comes in and reverse rolls to the right after a play action fake and throws incomplete. Weber feels the pressure on the next play and throws the ball away. His next pass is tipped at least four times and ends up being intercepted by Joshua Moore. Ronnie Hillman gets a carry and runs around the right side. Osweiler gets a couple of reps, feeling the pressure and overthrowing Tyler Grisham. If Grisham was taller than 5-11, he might have been able to snag that pass. Brock sails the next pass. HORN.
The teams switch directions after another very short water break for some 7 on 7 drills. Champ beats Decker this time, getting his hands in to break up a Manning pass. Peyton then hits Decker on a crossing route and then to Dreesen on a deep seam pattern. Manning goes back to Dreesen again on the next play and Joel can’t come up with it in traffic. Manning completes to FB Austin Sylvester and then Caleb Hanie rotates in at Quarterback. Caleb hits Jason Hill with a nice crisp, almost laser-like deep pass for a touchdown. The next play Hanie is intercepted in the end zone by Tony Carter on a pass intended for De’Andre Goodwin. Osweiler hits Greg Orton, who turns it upfield. The next play, Brock effectively looks off the safety and completes a pass to Cornelius Ingram. Adan Weber sails a pass over the middle and is picked off by Duke Ihenacho. Adam’s next pass is behind Cornelius Ingram and goes incomplete. HORN.
11 on 11 drills begin again with Manning completing a swing pass to Gronkowski. I don’t know when it occurred to me to check, but I notice that Manny Ramirez is playing in Chris Kuper’s spot at Right Guard. That was an expected move since the coaches have said that Kupe will be limited for a bit as he heals. I wasn’t paying that much attention today on how many reps he took though. I was just glad he was able to practice after the gruesome injury he sustained last season.
Ty Warren pats down the next passing attempt by Manning. Lance Ball gets a carry on a nice trap blocking play by the O-Line. Manning hits Demayius on a comeback route with Porter covering him. Weber attempts a late pass to McGahee that is broken up by Nate Irving. Jeremiah Johnson rushes through the line over the left side. Hanie attempts a swing pass to the left intended for Jeremiah, but it hits the ground. Hanie’s next pass is high, but Virgil Green goes up and makes the grab. Osweiler hits Goodwin on a quick slant and then completes a sideline pass to Mark Dell. Ronnie Hillman weaves his way up the middle for a few yards. Demaryius drops a pass from Manning, then Peyton completes a pass up the right sideline to Eric Decker. Manning hits McGahee on a safety valve pass and then it’s Caleb Hanie’s turn. McGahee gets a carry up the middle. Hanie’s pass is batted down by Kevin Vickerson. Osweiler bobbles a shotgun snap, gets it under control and tries to continue the play, but ends up just throwing it away. His next pass is a toe tap sideline catch by Mark Dell. Adam Weber comes in and makes a swing pass to Austin Sylvester and McGahee gets another carry. HORN.
The punt protection unit assembles and Eric Decker walks by the sideline on his way to return punts and shakes hands and low fives about a dozen fans on the sidelines. Britton Colquitt comes out to punt and Syd’Quan Thompson, Tracy Porter, Decker and Drayton Florence field punts. An assistant provides red "socks" to go over the return practice team. The socks differentiate the punt coverage team from the return "scouting" unit for the "eye in the sky," the camera that films each practice for reviewing purposes. Colquitt punts a few times and the protection/coverage unit practices their release and get off. The Jugs machine now alternates punting with Colquitt and the coverage unit adds a pair of Gunners to the unit. Matthew Willis, Rafael Bush, Mark Dell, Jason Hill, Jeremiah Johnson, Omar Bolden, Greg Orton and Joshua Moore all take reps as Gunners. HORN.
11 on 11 drills. McGahee runs off the left side, Manning rolls right only to throw it away. Peyton connects once again with Joel Dreesen and then Eric Decker on a comeback. Matthew Willis makes a nice catch over the middle on a Manning pass. The next play is a flea flicker that Manning ends up throwing away, right at an unexpecting coach over at the sideline. Jeremiah Johnson is stuffed trying to run up the middle. Caleb Hanie rolls to his left and throws too high for his receiver. He was totally off balance and didn’t square up enough to make the pass. He comes back and hits Mark Dell on a slant during the next play. Adam Weber comes in. rolls to his right and takes off running. Mario Fannin takes an inside handoff to the left. Weber is intercepted by Jerry Franklin for a pick six and the final HORN sounds to end practice.
The team huddles up to end the day and members of the Defensive Line come over to sign autographs. A few other players also take the time to give out autographs for the record crowd, who I later learn was 4,372 strong. The crowd chants for Manning and Peyton generously accedes to their requests. He is joined by Caleb Hanie.
All in all, it was a good practice. No injuries and the players got their work in. This first practice was light years ahead of the last 3 years I’ve been to training Camp. Of course that could be the Orange Kool-Aid talking, but I think not.
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