TAHLEQUAH — Northeastern State’s itinerary for the month of August had Wednesday’s practice — the first practice of the fall — listed for 9 a.m.
Kenny Evans, though, had something planned before his players could take the field.
A trial run. Literally.
“We started at 6 a.m. with a mile run,” the NSU head coach said. “Before we ever got into any practice time, they’d already done some work. And everybody made their times, which is a great indication of their conditioning level.”
Following the early-morning run, the RiverHawks conducted a two-hour practice on the steamy surface of Doc Wadley Stadium. The first practice leading up to the 2012 season consisted of players in helmets and shorts only. (Days in shoulder pads and full pads will come later in the week).
“You can only do so much [in helmets and shorts], but people were flying around and the effort was great,” Evans said, diagnosing his team’s first time out. “There was a lot of teaching, and it was learning a new system for a lot of guys. That’s the biggest thing we did.”
For senior starting cornerback Vernon Jones, the first day of practice was a welcome addition to his daily agenda.
“Now I have something to do,” said Jones, who immediately shed his shoes after practice, citing Gable Field’s sultry playing surface.
“During the summer, I didn’t have anything to do during the day. I’ve been dreaming about (getting back on the field).”
Jones described the RiverHawks’ first day of practice as a success.
“Everyone is fitting in well,” said Jones, who intercepted four passes (one off the team lead) and broke up eight others during his junior campaign. “There was no arguing. We came in together and as a unit this time. So I’m looking for big things this year.”
Despite losing defensive ends Travis Boswell and Beau Beathard, and All-American cornerback Nate Robinson, Jones foresees plenty of potential in this year’s defense.
“I think we could be top five in the conference,” Jones said. “I’m raising the bar for us, so we have to step it up.”
One key addition to the RiverHawks’ defensive unit is safety Victor Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior who transferred from Oklahoma State. He, along with some others, caught the eye of Evans on the first day.
“You notice people that can move; I thought (Oklahoma State offensive line transfer, Michael) Bowie moved really well,” Evans said. “Mike Smith, another offensive lineman from Catoosa, moved very well.
“Defensively, the safeties, with Kyler (Harris, the former Muskogee standout) and Victor Johnson, those guys can fly. (Defensive back, Marcus) Cotton caught my eye a couple of times. We’re just in helmets, so I had to tell him to back off the contact a little bit. He probably thinks I didn’t like what he did, but as a defensive coach I did. I just don’t want to get someone injured.”
A huge benefit for Jones is the luxury of going against a high-powered wide receiving unit, which consists of Cruz Williams, Montre Nelson, Chucky Bryant, (Wagoner ex) Jermaine Sherman and Jahmai Coleman.
“It’s making us work on technique, and it’s making us better for the other teams we’re going to be playing,” said Jones, a 5-11 defensive back who in practice routinely lines up against guys 6-1 or taller on the offensive side of the ball.
“[Going against those guy] is definitely working us and pushing us.”
The worst-kept surprise ended with Bowie, the former Oklahoma State lineman, stepping on the practice field Wednesday.
The 6-foot-4, 325-pound senior left tackle will have one year of eligibility remaining with the RiverHawks, and he is eligible to play right away.
Bowie started five games late in the season and was projected to be the starting left tackle for the Cowboys this upcoming year. He was released from OSU, however, and chose to play his final year with the RiverHawks.
Bowie, recruited heavily by quarterback Johnny Deaton after his release, was on campus this weekend. Deaton’s overnight bag he had at the MIAA media day on Monday was an OSU bag with Bowie’s name on it.
Evans was finally able to comment after getting him on the field.
“Michael will be a huge addition to our offensive line,” Evans said. “He went through his first practice with us today, and you can tell that his talent level is as good as you’re going to find at this level. I’m really excited for him to put on the pads so we can see what he can do at game speed.”
Bowie played in all but one game last year with OSU, and he earned the starting job late in the season. He never allowed a sack on then-quarterback Brandon Weeden. He also helped lead the Cowboys to a 12-1 record, a top three national ranking and a victory over Stanford in the 2012 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
”I’m glad I’ve been given the opportunity to finish up my last year with a team like NSU. I expect nothing but the best from myself in my final year of college football. I just want to improve my technique, get better with my hands and help my team win games,” he said.
Bowie will be eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft, and he is projected to be selected anywhere between the second and sixth rounds.
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