SAN ANTONIO - The U.S. Army All-American Bowl has always been a showcase of the athletes and some of the game-specific rules are meant to facilitate the big play. For cornerbacks this makes their job significantly more difficult. Only man coverage is played and the referees will be quick to whistle pass interference penalties.
The job of instructing the defensive backs for the East squad is being handled by coach Paul Gonnella of Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge & Latin School.
"The defensive backfield is going to be hampered by these rules," noted Gonnella. "They want a lot of points and it is our job to be able to align, understand down and distance and how to play man in different situations so it can give us an advantage over the offense."
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As good of a coach as Gonnella may be, he understands his greatest asset to counteract the rules are the players he has been given, specifically at the cornerback position. Donning the East jersey this week are the No. 1, 4 and 5 cornerbacks in Rivals.com's ranking of the position.
"Being around a group of guys like this is a blessing," Gonnella remarked. "The two guys mainly that we had out there were [Boubacar] Cissoko and Patrick Johnson. Let me tell you this: they have feet, athleticism and toughness. It's unbelievable. The best thing about these kids is every one of them is a joy to be around and when you add that to their athletic ability it makes it something special."
Before things got better, however, they got worse when Tallahassee (Fla.) Lincoln's T.J. Bryant went down with an ankle injury in the first hour of the first practice Monday morning. The 6-1, 175-pound Bryant got his leg caught under him while catching a pass and trying to avoid a defender at the same time. He missed the rest of Monday's practice session and is questionable the rest of the week.
That left Gonnella with just five players to fill four starting positions, but even without Bryant out there the cornerbacks were arguably the top position group from top to bottom.
Now a man down, Gonnella called on safety Robert Blanton to pull double duty between the cornerback and safety positions, and he responded with an impressive showing.
"We're down to five guys right now after T.J. got bumped around earlier, so we're going to use Robert to move around a little bit," said Gonnella. "I'm going to tell you what, out of all of them, he probably stepped up the most. He played free for us, he played strong for us and he played corner. I don't think anyone caught a pass on him all day."
Blanton used the opportunity to really put his coverage skills on display. He is neither the biggest nor the fastest, but he was always in the receivers' hip pocket and considering the strength of the pass catchers on the East, having a perfect day is a strong testament to his performance.
Where Blanton was not expected to step up the way he did, cornerbacks Patrick Johnson of Pompano Beach (Fla.) Ely and Boubacar Cissoko of Detroit Cass Tech had plenty of expectations coming in.
The 6-1, 193-pound Johnson is truly the total package at cornerback. He has a fluid hip turn and tremendous ball skills. He has all the speed he needs and his size allows him to battle for the football with even the tallest of receivers. The play of the entire day at the East practice just may have been Johnson's one-handed interception on a ball that was thrown over his back shoulder and right along the sideline.
"[Johnson] is everything he is built up to be," said Gonnella. "I have been around a lot of great athletes in the past being at Mississippi State for a couple years and there have been some kids who come into the SEC built up more than they are supposed to be, but he is everything and more."
At 5-9 and 180 pounds, Cissoko has always battled the perception that he is too short to be an elite cornerback at the college level. Battling an East receiver group where every member is 6-foot-3 or taller, Cissoko made more believers on Monday by handling every challenge that came his way with above average play.
"His feet, his ability to explode from a backpedal and his closing [speed] is incredible," said Gonnella. "Also, he's dealing with most guys that are bigger. They tried to hit him on a couple deep routes and he stayed with them, he timed the jump right and he never got beat."
Recruiting analysts have always lauded Cissoko's quick feet and closing ability. So far this week he is also showing an increased ability to counteract the disadvantages of his height.
Whether Bryant returns this week or not, the West offensive coaching staff will have to game plan specifically for the East cornerbacks or they will struggle to maintain a consistent passing attack, even with the rules in their favor.