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Ross’ unexpected return to practice pleasant surprise to O-line, news to coaching staff

August 25, 2009

Standing at a healthy 6’4, Andrew Ross towered over the crowd of teammates that walked in front of him. While they, heads hanging and feet dragging from 10 grueling days of preseason training, trudged toward Lions’ Stadium for this afternoon’s 3:45 pm practice, Ross stood tall and sported a cheeky grin—kind of like he knew something that everyone else didn’t.

The crowd parted and Ross, dressed in full gear, needn’t explain why.

Both offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta and offensive line coach Paul “Bones” Vichroski agreed that Ross’ return would provide a much-needed boost to a Lions’ offensive line that’s been battered by injuries. Neither knew they’d be getting his help so soon.

“We really don’t know when we’re going to be able to get [Ross] back, we have to just wait and see what happens,” Acosta said earlier, speaking in the future tense rather than the present, in theory rather than reality. “We don’t like to rush guys back before they’re ready. When they are though, we’d love to get them back in practice.”

Coach Bones spoke with a similar tone.

“They are our key players on our offensive line and it’s a shame [those injuries] happened,” he said referring to Ross and guard Evan Arfuso’s importance to the offense’s continuity. “We’ve got good guys backing them up and we should be able to get the job done with what we have until they come back. We’ll see what happens.”

Though he didn’t sustain any injuries after another driver pulled in front of his Pontiac, technicalities and the ever-dreaded runaround while waiting for paperwork to clear at the doctor’s office prohibited Ross from participating in organized team activities. All until now.

Saying he most looked forward to “getting in the hittin’ mood” before he took reps with the second-team line this afternoon, the oft-quiet Egg Harbor-native expressed a reserved excitement to be back. “It feels good. It’s going to be weird having pads on for basically the first time this year, but we’ll see how it goes.”

Once he found out he’d be getting back his seasoned left tackle—the position responsible for protecting quarterbacks Chris James’ and Bill Picatagi’s backsides—Acosta said he shared his player’s enthusiasm.

“Oh he’s an experienced player who has played that position, at times been a starter, so we’re happy to have him back at tackle,” Acosta said via phone interview, after the evening’s coach’s meetings.

Called by teammates “one of our most fundamentally sound blockers,” Acosta doesn’t expect anything other than a smooth transition while Ross integrates into the scheme. “Today was his first day back and, as far as his fundamentals, he’s pretty good. He just has to get back up to speed, really. Being out a couple days really slows you down, but he’ll be fine.”

Though a lingering (–) continues to keep his teammate sidelined, Ross’ presence only allows Acosta and Vichroski more flexibility to reorder the unit that—had the season started today—would feature four starters with a combined zero starts last year at their respective positions.

Penciled-in this morning on the Lions’ starting front-five include guards Joe Power and Dan Strasle (sophomores), neither of whom has played a down of college football. Although Joe Mecca (junior) started all 10 games for the team in 2008, all ten were at tackle—his niche before this season’s injuries initiated his inward slide to guard and, now, center.  Lastly, Andrew Mason (senior) had been taking reps at left tackle after missing all of last season as he recovered from an ankle injury sustained in 2006, his freshman year.

In spite of the noted progress of the team’s youth, Andrew Ross may be just what the doctor ordered—pun intended.

“From the beginning of camp to today, as a whole, we’ve come a pretty big step,” coach Bones said about the to-date development of his linemen. “But we’ve still got a long, long way to go.”

The next stop on the O-line’s journey includes Coach Acosta’s plans to continue his periodic expansion of the playbook—pertaining to his running backs in particular.

“We’re looking to continue putting in our spread, no-huddle shotgun stuff and to establish the run game,” he said, referring to the day’s practice schedule.

Recognizing the need to create a multi-faceted attack, Acosta has set his sights on developing his ground game.

“We threw the ball well last year and we know we can throw the ball with a veteran quarterback and with three, solid wideouts, but people keel off you if you don’t run the ball. You just have to run the ball to set up the pass game.”

Tomorrow I’ll preview a backfield that returns two of the conference’s top performers and welcomes another from New York City’s Wagner College, as the Lions’ continue to add balance to the offense.

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