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Spahn, Jones, LBs shine amidst dark skies hovering over Lions’ training camp finale

August 23, 2009

A gray sky played host to the tantalizing clouds that still loomed over Lions’ Stadium Saturday afternoon, the site of the team’s final training camp practice session. It wasn’t long before the sky opened for the second straight day, as torrential downpours ensued.

The bleachers rattled as plodding raindrops smashed into the steel seats, a distracting ambiance that blanketed the team’s training facility. But, if you were listening carefully, there was another soundtrack playing during Saturday’s second practice.

Track One:  “Come on boys, we got one last practice before camp is over!” -quarterback Bill Picatagi

Track Four:  “Let’s go, 110% from everybody. No more of this faking (expletive)!” -linebacker Joe Spahn

Track Ten:  “If you ain’t sprintin’, you ain’t workin’.” -linebacker Dan DeCongelio

Track Twelve:  “Oh hell yeah, baby! Gardner, now that’s what I like to see!” -offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta

Much to her dismay, Mother Nature’s generous precipitation couldn’t keep up with the noise of a lively Lions unit that broke camp with the completion of 3:30’s practice. Much of the enthusiasm resonated from one corner in particular, where the linebackers battled against the elements and a week’s worth of fatigue.

“They should be pretty good,” was the way that defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton described the corps, a group that he hopes will fortify the Lions’ defense as it looks to improve in 2009.

Despite its dominance for the better part of a decade, opposing defenses walked over the Lions’ defense in 2008, which allowed an average of just under 30 points per game. The unit thrived in former defensive coordinator Jay Hoffman’s scheme, consistently ranking atop the conference in numerous defensive categories. His departure after the 2007 season left a glaring vacancy, one that Hamilton — now with a full season in the books — feels confident he can fill.

“It is what it is,” he said, citing the change that left the unit lost in translation. “We tried to keep a lot from the old scheme and we had a lot of the same players come back, but it’s still a transition. Out with the old, in with the new.”

His casual use of the tired cliche incredibly understates what else didn’t return after the 2007 off-season. The Lions waved goodbye to a handful of All-NJAC performers that graduated the following spring, losing experience, leadership, but — most importantly — numbers on the stat sheet. In addition to cornerback Jeff Bower–who earned honorable-mention recognition–the squad lost the production of three first-team performers, including linebacker Nick Steffner (First-Team All-NJAC), free safety and team captain Andy Larkin (First-Team All-NJAC), and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and All-American performer, defensive-end Joe King.

Out with the old, indeed.

Following a season during which the Lions allowed a conference-worst 204 rushing yards per game and 26 touchdowns, Hamilton’s counting on larger-than-life performances from some former talent. Likely a daunting task for most guys returning after a year away from the game, Joe Spahn might be talented enough to survive, even thrive in 2009.

The last time he played, Spahn proved to be a force on the weak side of the team’s second-level, terrorizing offensive backfields en route to a All-NJAC honorable mention. The way he’s looked thus far in camp, I’m not going to expect anything different from the 6’0, 215-pound Florence-native.

Also returning to the linebacker corps after a one-year hiatus is Chris Jones, who has already cracked the starting lineup for the team opposite Spahn on the strong side. Completing the trio with a firm hold on the Lions’ middle linebacker spot is Dan DeCongelio, who should prove disruptive to opposing lead blockers and devestaing to receivers crossing over the middle.

Now for some daily notes and observations:

  • Sure he’s a good football player, but Joe Spahn’s such an intriguing talent to watch.

He’ll rush the passer with tenacious determination, but he’s always in complete control of his body. His agility rivals his teammates at defensive back, as he’ll glide off the corner when Hamilton sends him after the quarterback and on run-blitzes on non-passing downs. It’s kind of like giving a ninja a battle axe:  just scary.

  • Jones and DeCongelio aren’t slouches, either.

Though this season will be his first in a starting role, Jones should surprise a lot of opposing coordinators with his abilities. He runs flat-footed and often moves more mechanically than you’d like from your strong-side backer, but he’s got long enough arms to distance himself from fullbacks and tight ends on running plays. I don’t see him having problems shedding most blocks.

DeCongelio’s the most balanced of the three. He doesn’t have Spahn’s speed, but doesn’t play as robotically as Jones, either. He’s a muscular athlete with a good frame that shouldn’t keep him from blowing up plays in the backfield. I watched him during the unit’s one-on-one session against the running backs, who ran routes from the backfield. He’d be much better served patrolling a zone, but he can stay with most backs in man coverage, if need be.

  • As hard as they worked, the linebackers looked like they couldn’t be having more fun.

The unit participated in some of the most unique training exercises I’ve ever seen during the team’s individual session. One reaction drill required that players leap to their feet, high stepping laterally over a line of teammates that lay on the ground, followed by a half-speed form tackle of the player across from them. Coach Larkin added some flavor to his unit’s scan-the-sky drills by using tennis balls, but that was about a hundred times easier to explain.

  • I was taken back by the contagiousness of the team’s vocal leadership.

There’s plenty of guys with experience under their belts, but the oft-coveted “lead-by-example” approach doesn’t always ignite that spark of motivation, especially in younger players. Watching guys like Spahn, DeCongelio and — from time to time — Chris James stalk their teammates while they’re in the middle drills, barking words of encouragement gives you a sense of how well this team has gelled over the past week. Safe to say the team has come together as well as the coaching staff could have hoped.

  • I took a minute to watch receiver Mark Gardner and cornerback Scotty Mathurin field punts during the afternoon’s special teams segment.

Though he didn’t see the field much on offense, former Lion Zack Rinaldi’s production on special teams will be sorely missed, as his conference-best 11.2 yards per return earned him first-team honors on the season’s All-NJAC squad. In the words of teammate Justin Beres, Mathurin ranks as “one of the most athletic guys on the team.” If his half-speed effort in practice was as lackadaisical as it looked, he’ll give the Lions outstanding field position every time they take the field.

  • A tiptoeing full-extension grab along the sideline by Mike Camastra would have been the day’s top play…

If it wasn’t for Colin Weber’s one-handed catch in the end-zone on the very next play, a silly off-balance grab pulled in during the team’s one-on-one segment against the secondary. It’s hard to say that I’m surprised, considering how talented Weber’s proven to be, but my jaw almost hit the floor. It’s a shame that I’m the lone media representative that’s here. That should have been caught on camera, and it should be on SportsCenter tonight.

I’m sure he won’t care, but Camastra’s No. 2 finish shouldn’t bother him. The local boy from Lawrenceville’s Notre Dame High has exceeded expectations for a freshman during training camp, and — if he can keep it up — might find himself entering the game in certain situations to rest the Lions’ big-name receivers. He’d been plagued by chronic shoulder injuries earlier in his career, but he seems to have put the ailment behind him.

Camp might be over, but the action is just getting started, kicked off by tomorrow’s Blue-and-Gold game in Lions’ Stadium. Depth charts have been released periodically throughout camp, but the game could solidify a number of positions on both sides of the ball. I’m still trying to figure out this whole “staying dry” thing, but even if I get rained on like I did today, I’ll be entertained nonetheless.

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