COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The players hit the field in full pads for their first true practice on Monday night for the Maryland Crab Bowl. On the University of Maryland campus, the Baltimore squad had a chance to work out in the warm confines of the practice bubble but the Washington D.C. team braved frigid temperatures, strong winds and snow flurries to begin their preparation for Saturday's contest.
Several prospects that were on the "final roster" released by the Crab Bowl last week were not in uniform on Monday for the Washington D.C. team. There were quite a few last-minute changes that could have some fans disappointed.
The most notable absence was Rivals250 cornerback Blake Countess. The 5-foot-10, 171-pound defender was one of three four-star prospects on the original roster and was the highest-ranked of the three as the No. 156 overall player in the country. There was some confusion from the event coordinators as to why Countess was not participating. His spot was filled by Donte Williams of Eleanor Roosevelt and the new addition held his own fairly well in one-on-one and pass skeleton drills.
Also missing was Ohio State three-star linebacker commit Conner Crowell. The loss of the 6-foot-1, 215-pound playmaker could be a tough one to overcome. Another Big Ten defensive commit was missing in action as well: Iowa safety pledge Nicholas Law. Both Crowell and Law are big, fast defenders who can cover and play the run well.
Virginia had four commitments in the game when the rosters were released but that number was decreased by one. Defensive end Vincent Croce, at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, was part of a pretty intimidating defensive line group on paper. However, he will not be playing in the game either.
There were several surprise standouts at Monday evening's practice. Despite Croce not participating, there was still a defensive end wearing No. 19 with his name on the back. He was perhaps the best defensive lineman on the day, which is even more impressive considering he was playing alongside four-star defensive tackle Darian Cooper.
The mystery player turned out to be Giovanni Francois. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound defender was a force in one-on-ones, constantly beating the opposing lineman. He used a speed rush, spin moves and pure strength to make his way into the backfield each time. Francois is a big kid but he is athletic enough to where he could even play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense at the next level.
Francois took a much longer path to the game than any other player though. A year ago, the defender was suiting up for Brandenton (Fla.) Southeast. He moved to Upper Marlboro, Md., recently and made an immediate impact at Wise High School. He currently holds offers from Rutgers, Syracuse, Western Kentucky and FIU.
Another under-the-radar player to perform well on Monday was two-star athlete Sherrod Baltimore. The 5-foot-10, 160-pounder played cornerback and was the most impressive defensive back on the day. On one play he found himself beat on a move by Phelps only to catch up and run stride for stride with him before breaking up the pass. Despite the size mismatch, 6-foot-3, 200-pound receiver Daniel Upson was quick to point to Baltimore as his toughest matchup of the evening.
With a cold blast affecting much of the country, it was expected that it would be chilly this week for practices. However, nobody foresaw exactly what happened.
The wind was howling the entire practice. Temperatures were in the low 20s. Snow flurries began falling midway through. Even the players were thrown off of their game.
Most of the team had long-sleeved shirts, and some even had full sweatshirts, underneath their shoulder pads. They did not stop there, though. Well over half had sweatpants over their football pants. They also had beanies, face masks and warmers, and anything else to fight the bitter cold. Nothing worked though. Even though they deal with low temperatures in this part of the country often, many players admitted they had never played in any kind of environment remotely similar to what they experienced on Monday evening. When the coaches called practice about 20 minutes shy of the scheduled ending, the team was quick to run off the field and into their waiting cars with heaters.
The forecast is not expected to change much over the rest of the week. If it continues into the weekend, the weather could have a serious impact on the game. Though no heavy snow is expected, the cold still forces players to slow a bit and impacts the timing. It was obvious as the quarterbacks were consistently leading the receivers a little too much the entire practice.
On Tuesday night, the Washington D.C. team gets to use the practice bubble while the Baltimore team will experience the wintry outdoor conditions for the first time.