When coach Tom Cable originally stated he was instituting two-a-day practices in the wilting Napa Valley heat, many praised him for taking an "old school" approach.
Cable felt that the practice schedule under Kiffin, which gave the players the morning off after practicing the previous night and rarely saw them during the nadir of the heat, made the team soft.
So he was bringing it back to the old school, and was going to toughen the players up.
Only, there would be no contact.
Many were left scratching their heads, until he explained his purpose. The team, he feels, was not where it needed to be in regards to knowing positioning, responsibilities, and schemes.
So he was going to conduct eight non-contact practices that were purely for the sake of learning, and purely for the sake of fundamentals.
I was ecstatic to hear this. One of the major problems the team has had during our epic struggles is a lack of fundamental understanding of roles and responsibilities. So we fans would have to wait a few days to find out if Mitchell broke anyone's face or if J-Rock was handling the blitz.
I was and still am fine with that.
From what I've read from the practices, it has been a great idea, and one that was sorely needed.
Russell is throwing the ball much, much better now than he did during OTA's. Perhaps it was the time with his receivers (albeit not starting receivers) or perhaps he's been putting in work behind the scenes. But he's been much more accurate and much more poised, and he seems to be progressing very well at this point.
Granted, there are no defenders as of yet, but there weren't during OTA's either and the fact that he's improved since then is a huge sigh of relief. With continued dedication, he has nowhere to go but up.
He seems to know this, and is beginning to carry himself much more like a leader. He's become more vocal, more confident, and people are taking notice. It's his team, and he's beginning to show that he knows and embraces that fact in his words and deeds.
Good news for his receivers, the team, and Raider Nation.
Walker & Schilens
Javon Walker had a stellar practice yesterday, even though he wasn't running with the team. Reports are that he was running cleanly, full-speed with that old familiar smoothness, and was cutting and jumping in ways that would affect a sore knee; yet he showed no ill effects.
He was jogging and bouncing around after practice, jazzed not only to have performed well but to finally be pain-free.
This is fantastic news; if the Javon Walker of old ever shows up, then we're in for a treat. His track record thus far indicates that a colossal if, but yesterday is still encouraging.
Chaz Schilens appears to be picking up where he left off last season. He's been making all the catches he should, plus many he has no business making. His size and athleticism are a dynamic combination, and he seems to be using them to his full advantage.
Word from camp is positive, and although many of the players are anxious to stick someone, they understand the purpose and the need for fundamental training.
Cable has said that he felt putting them in pads without a full understanding of what to do was redundant, and is now feeling confident that the upcoming practices will involve a lot less core teaching and a lot more playing football.
John Marshall was all over his charges all weekend, but in a teaching and mentoring way.
Back to the fundamentals of gap discipline and shedding blocks, the Raiders need to listen to their coach and stay the course if they hope to improve against the run.
There is no contact yet so it's impossible to gauge whether this is happening, but early returns say that Marshall is coaching the hell out of these guys and they're responding well.
Mike Haluchak is also running some drills with the linebackers that emphasize getting off blocks and pursuing the ball.
The bottom line is that the staff and the players are doing exactly what they said they needed to and would do: concentrating on positioning and fundamental understanding of assignments in order to be in the right place to stop the run.
Very, very important, and a very, very encouraging step forward.
Now if they can only stress the same fundamentals during tackling drills when they start. Because solid tacking, we all know, will go a long long way to helping our run defense.
Mario Henderson is fully entrenched at left tackle right now, which is a big positive given the way he played last season and the work he's put in this season.
The negative here lies in the fact that Khalif Barnes seems resistant to a switch to the right side. He flat out said he wouldn't be comfortable with the switch, as he hasn't played the right since college. The transition is not nearly as easy as us fans would believe.
With penalty-prone subway turnstile Cornell Green currently getting the majority of snaps at right tackle, this has the potential for disaster. Green has never been starter material, but we've had little choice. I honestly thought the team would cut him after his domestic issues, but they haven't.
We can only hope Barnes comes around on playing the right; the fact that he did in college is a plus, as he knows the position.
Darrius Heyward-Bey's Hands
Heyward-Bey showed up to practice on Thursday, and has struggled to catch the ball ever since. He had a good practice on Saturday morning, catching a lot of balls and showing smooth cuts; but unfortunately that was the exception and not the rule.
Sunday brought the worst yet. Heyward-Bey has been known to body catch a lot of balls and drop some others due to a lack of concentration, and that seems to be exactly what happened yesterday. Unfortunately, it happened in front of Al Davis.
One thing Mr. Davis must've loved to see was Heyward-Bey booting a dropped pass in obvious frustration at one point. The dropped pass isn't good, but the fire and the personal disappointment are encouraging.
He's been getting almost constant coaching, and has been absorbing everything he can. He's still working very very hard and putting in extra time with receivers coach Sanjay Lal to improve his route running and his hands.
Although it doesn't appear to be working miracles just yet, his stellar attitude and hard work are encouraging and, given his physical gifts, are easily the most important factor in his future success. So far, in those areas, he's been aces.
Tommy Thinks He's Gene Kelly
If Tommy Kelly cannot stop jumping offsides, this defense is in for a long, long year.
Kelly jumps offsides an average of roughly three times per practice, against no contact, during learning drills.
His job this year is more to stop the run than rush the passer. At least it better be. He needs to show more discipline and gap control. I love that he's gung-ho to get into the backfield but dude, use your size and strength and quickness and stop guessing to get off the ball.
It's not working often enough, and it needs to stop before the season starts.
All in all, it appears that there are more positives to take from the learning sessions than negatives. I didn't address everything, of course, but tried to address some of the more obvious and pertinent scenarios.
I'm happy Cable instituted the learning practices. It keeps the guys fresher, and it's ensured that they'll have a better understanding of where to be and what to do in every situation. That will make for more effective contact practices, which will help everyone in the long run.
(Much like Raider Card Addict, I must give a shout-out to Jerry McDonald over at ibabuzz.com for his informative camp recaps, where I got most of my information. Thank you Jerry.)