SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - The West team's first practice took place under cloudy skies Monday, symbolizing the less than clear outlook of their roster. Several players for the West lined up on defense with the potential of playing offense later in the week.
Hillsboro (Ore.) four-star athlete Colt Lyerla was a running back, receiver, linebacker and kick returner his senior year in high school. Monday, he played strong side linebacker and returned kicks during special teams walk-throughs.
His roles may be expanding.
"Colt, I want you ready to play tight end when you're not in on defense," said West head coach Bob Johnson Monday morning.
While Lyerla didn't get any reps at tight end, Johnson put his team on notice. Versatility is an attribute that will create opportunity. Los Angeles (Calif.) five-star athlete De'Anthony Thomas has been an all-state running back and safety. Monday, he played cornerback for the West.
"I needed time to get comfortable at corner because I haven't played it all year," said Thomas. "I play safety and then running back, but I feel it's a natural position for me. I still know the fundamentals and techniques of corner."
Thomas, who has been committed to USC since last summer, was one of two smaller defensive backs lining up for the West. Klein (Texas) four-star cornerback Charles Jackson is more familiar with his responsibilities in coverage. Jackson, a Nebraska commit, played cornerback and safety in high school.
Monday, the two smallest players on the field for the West were the two most aggressive hitters.
"You can have guys that aren't the tallest, but both of those guys are put together," said defensive backs coach David Peck. "From everything I've heard, and from what I got to see today, these are physical kids who are just good athletes.
"They don't shy away from making hits. As matter of fact, at the first day of practice, the offensive coaches kind of got after us about that. Maybe our guys were getting a little too aggressive because we definitely don't want to get guys hurt. Our guys just want to make plays.
"You worry about getting kids that think they're all that, but it's been to the contrary. I've been really happy with the attitudes of all seven of the guys I've been coaching. I don't know how we'll match up with the East, but our guys are here willing to learn."
Coaches also learning
While the players learned the West offensive and defensive playbooks Monday, the coaches learned the strengths and weaknesses of their players. That was emphasized by head coach Bob Johnson, who spent much of the day evaluating West quarterbacks; Cody Kessler, Bubba Starling, Driphus Jackson and J.W. Walsh.
"Fortunately, with the business I'm in coaching privately and working with the Elite 11, I've seen two of these guys already," said Johnson, the longtime coach at Mission Viejo (Calif.). "Two of the guys I knew, which was the case last year as well, and that helps.
"All of these quarterbacks played deep into their seasons also, so they're crisp. It just a matter of getting down the terminology. Offensively, everything we do is tweaked from what they know. Whether it be spread or options, the trick is figuring out which guys fit which plays.
"I think we have enough variety offensively that we can play to each guy's strength. Today was all installation, so you can't take a lot from what we saw in terms of highlights."
In comparison to last year's opening practice for the West, Monday's practice was remarkably smooth. As West offensive coordinator a year ago, Johnson saw several botched snaps from under center bring practice to a screeching halt.
"I wasn't frustrated last year because I knew we'd eventually get it going, but it was a mess to start with," said Johnson. "So few quarterback play under the center these days. The same with these guys, but they just seemed to catch on a little better.
"It was a nice first day, but I'm not overjoyed. Like I told the kids, we have a long, long way to go. We'll get better each day and we have a great group of kids. It's an honor to be here and I think they know it."
Monday practice highlights:
West defensive tackles Todd Peat Jr. and Viliami Moala clogged the interior line to limit the the offenses running game all day. Peat and Moala are both shorter than 6-foot-3 and well over 300-pounds. Offensive guard Sedrick Flowers also played some defensive tackle.
Linebacker Lamar Dawson had a interception and two pass deflections in 7-on-7 drills. Dawson and Tre Madden both look very comfortable in coverage as WILL linebackers.
Jake Keffer played both MIKE and WILL linebacker Monday, splitting time in the middle with Steve Edmond. Colt Lyerla lined up at SAM as did Christian French.
Although Jason Gibson says he wants to play linebacker at Cal next season, he lined up at defensive end for the West team Monday.
Cody Kessler was the West's most efficient quarterback Monday throwing touchdown passes to Kasen Williams, DeAnthony Arnett and George Farmer.
West wide out Trey Metroyer caught touchdown passes of 30 yards or more from J.D. Walsh, Cody Kessler and Bubba Starling.
Wide receivers George Farmer and Victor Blackwell put a scare into Trojan fans Monday has both ended up on the sidelines with injuries. Farmer rolled his ankle on a touchdown catch in the end zone, while Blackwell dislocated his finger on a dropped pass. Blackwell did not return to practice, but Farmer did.
Quincy Russell tweaked his knee early Monday, and while he returned for the afternoon's session of practice, he ended up back on the sidelines for precautionary reasons. His return for Tuesday is questionable.
Matt Hegarty was limited Monday with a knee injury suffered while playing basketball last week. He did take part in non-contact drills.
Tyler Johnstone did not practice Monday and is out indefinitely with a back injury suffered during the season.