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Fangio to players: You have to ‘earn’ a roster spot

The head coach has no intentions of just ‘giving’ anybody a job.

As a slimmer Vic Fangio begins year two in Denver, the Italian meatball-making, opera-singing coach may seem a little friendlier in this year’s version of training camp.

But don’t be fooled. The compliments are not going to start flowing like wine at a wedding.

Fangio is still Fangio after all.

In fact, when the head coach was questioned why some highly drafted rookies were not playing with the ones, Fangio emphasized it takes “balance” ... and maybe even a Ouija board.

“Those guys are getting reps with the ones at times during practice. We don’t always stay with the same 11 guys with the ones,” Fangio said, adding he likes to mix it up. “They have to show it. They have to earn it. With the shortened training camp, obviously we have to get out the Ouija board out and do some predicting. It’s a little bit of everything there, but definitely never want to give anybody a job.”

But without preseason games, the head coach has to make his evaluations based on the meeting room and the practice field. And while he’s prone to being long-winded in meetings, he’s happy saying almost nothing on the field.

“I’m a big believer that coaches sometimes talk too much on the practice field. It’s time to watch the players play and find out what they know and what they don’t know,” Fangio said. “You’re not going to be out there on the field with them. I’m not a big talker during practice because they’re out there by themselves. They don’t have a coach in there helping them when they’re on the field.”

Fangio teaches in the meeting room, gives the “quizzes” in practice and offers a “final exam” at the game.

“Don’t help them during the quiz because you’re not going to be able to help them during the final exam,” he said, “but we help them tremendously in meetings.”

A few rookies - Lloyd Cushenberry III being one of them - have garnered a positive impression (which by Fangio standards is about as close to a compliment as you could hope for).

“I think Cushenberry is doing fine,” Fangio said of the rookie center that much of Broncos Country is banking on being a starter come game time. “One thing that he’s got going for him that a lot of rookies don’t have going for them is that he is smart. He’s picking things up very well. He’s calm at the line of scrimmage, as you know the center has to make a lot of calls. He excels at that.”

Fangio added that Cush, the former LSU Tiger who snapped the ball for college’s No. 1 offense in 2019, is “not a totally honed up machine on it right now, but we expect that he will be. We’re encouraged by him.”

Fangio reiterated the camp battle between Cushenberry, Austin Schlottmann and Patrick Morris for center - as much for depth chart placement as for general knowledge of various positions on the line that a player may have to sub in for.

“One of the things that you always have to be cognizant of as a coach is to work guys in not just always as the first team or second team because guys on the second team are going to have to work with guys on the first team when an injury happens during the season,” Fangio said. “We like to mix that in during practice.”

The coach was asked about it again after Thursday’s practice, and he repeated his answer, while also reminding the reporter he knew “what problem you are alluding to:

“We’re trying to get them enough reps. They’re not getting as much as the ones, but we think we’re getting them a good amount in the amount of time we can be out there,” Fangio said. “We’re trying our best there, but obviously they have to take advantage of every rep that they do get to execute it, know the assignment, play it with the right technique, then be able to finish it with talent. We’re cognizant of that problem that you are alluding to.”

Thursday’s practice was a reminder of the reason players need to know more than one position. Todd Davis was carted off with a calf injury that could keep the inside linebacker sidelined for several weeks. Fortunately for Fangio, he likes what he’s seeing from rookie linebacker Justin Strnad.

“I’ve liked Justin so far. He’s shown some ability both in the pass defense area—the run game, we haven’t had a lot of shots of it yet,” Fangio said, adding that when it comes to injuries, the inside linebacker is a position that will suffer more than others because of the lack of training camp time and the lack of preseason games. “He’s got a lot of work. We have to speed up the process with him. Overall, I think he’s doing well. I like what I see.”

Of course, Fangio also likes what he is seeing from his rookie first-rounder. Mostly.

“He’s got a good feel for it, but he’s going to have to be able to bring that up to the next level against press coverage and against various different coverages that he’ll see in the NFL. He’ll see more than he saw in college. He’s going to have to adapt that ability to bring it to the next level. He’s not there yet but I think he should be able to.”

Overall, Fangio has been impressed with the rookie class - particularly given the odd circumstances that delayed their official prep with teammates and coaches on the field.

“I think our coaches did a good job with the virtual stuff that we had in the offseason. ...I think these guys have engaged themselves in the learning. I think they realized, they’ve heard it enough from you guys and read it and heard it from other people that, hey, it’s going to be tough on the rookies with the condensed training camp and no preseason games. I think they feel that urgency.”

IF the players aren’t feeling the urgency, the coach definitely is. There are only a dozen or so practices left before the season is officially being counted.

“I have to keep reminding myself that I think we only have 13 or 14 practices left before we’re in game week for Tennessee. We have to squeeze things in,” Fangio said. “Many times I get the feeling like we’ve only practiced three or four days and you think you can go slower. Then I have to remind myself to look at what’s left and what’s coming and how soon it is. We have to find that fine balance every day.”

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