There appeared to be an electric current running through the stretch line Tuesday morning. Washington Commanders players, wearing pads for the first time during training camp, stretched a little deeper, talked a little louder and joked a little more. Before individual drills, Coach Ron Rivera called a rare pre-practice huddle and urged his players to channel their energy into hard, safe play.
“First real day with pads!” defensive end Montez Sweat yelled, beaming. “I feel it!”
In individual drills, each position prepared to hit. The offensive line simulated a live rush. The defensive backs, who practice form tackling on dummies during the season, instead picked up teammates and slammed them into a cushioned mat. Defensive tackle Tyler Clark mashed a blocking sled, and as he tried to wrap up teammate Shaka Toney, he accidentally punched him instead.
Over two hours Tuesday, the intensity ramped up, and the soundtrack of crunching hard plastic served as a reminder of the violence at the root of football. Everyone seemed too locked in to the action to notice the muggy, 90-degree heat, and the mood alternated between joy and concern. “Yo, you good?” cornerback Kendall Fuller yelled to receiver Cam Sims, who stumbled after Fuller tried to jump another route.
In padded practices, Rivera pointed out, it’s easier to evaluate players. Coaches see who takes the best angles and who has the quickest reactions. Running backs get a better sense of where to find creases, and linebackers see cleaner fronts. Rivera called it a sense of “realism.”
“Usually it favors the [defensive] line when you don’t have pads on,” Rivera said. “Now that you got pads on, it kind of evens up. You’re trying to really see the offensive line with some of their movements and being able to get some push, stuff like that. Whereas with the defense, watching those guys, [they’re] trying to make sure to get into their creases and holding their ground.”
In 11-on-11, right tackle Sam Cosmi held his own in a battle against Sweat. Several players — including center Keith Ismael, guard Nolan Laufenberg and linebacker Cole Holcomb — got up gingerly after hits, testing a knee or a wrist. In one-on-ones, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen and left guard Andrew Norwell took turns throwing each other to the ground.
Also during one-on-ones, linebackers tried to beat running backs in pass protection. Antonio Gibson showed his growth in the finer points of his position by stonewalling several rushes. But on one of the last reps, linebacker Drew White, an undrafted rookie from Notre Dame, attacked Gibson’s outside shoulder, tried to spin back inside and collapsed. It looked as though his right knee gave out.
Lying on the field, White appeared to be in serious pain, and when he took off his helmet, he smacked it on the ground. A cart ferried him off the field.
Since the draft, Rivera has talked up three young linebackers — including White — and said they were part of the reason Washington hadn’t signed another veteran. It’s possible White’s injury prompts the Commanders to make a move.
UDFA LB Drew White went down after trying to spin around RB Antonio Gibson in a pass-protection drill.— Sam Fortier (@Sam4TR) August 2, 2022
It looked like White hurt his right leg/knee and was mad. He took his helmet off and smacked it on the ground. Ron Rivera & Co. came to check on him. White was carted off. pic.twitter.com/uZoNhepz38
The offense, which has struggled in camp, seemed to gain the footing Rivera predicted. One of the loudest “oohs” of the day came after a diving catch by undrafted wideout Kyric McGowan. Taylor Heinicke underthrew a deep ball, so McGowan adjusted and laid out, landing so hard on his right shoulder that a flap of his shoulder pad stuck out of his jersey.
After a few successful runs, including one by rookie Brian Robinson Jr., running backs coach Randy Jordan began dancing as defensive backs coach Chris Harris had earlier in camp. Sweat, who had taken a knee with the running backs after wrapping up J.D. McKissic on one play, grinned and flicked his water bottle, spraying droplets on Jordan and assistant running backs coach Jennifer King. They laughed.
“Nice little jump cut [by Robinson],” Sweat conceded. “I’ll give him that.”
In the same period, Gibson took a handoff, hit a small hole and bounced off several bodies as Holcomb ended up on the ground. Holcomb got up slowly and exhaled heavily. Linebacker David Mayo ran toward the defensive huddle, motioning for Holcomb to come out, but Holcomb waved him off, and on the next play, Holcomb dived back into the fray.
“It was fun,” Holcomb said of having pads on. “I mean, I was talking all morning. [This is] when the real football starts, so I was super excited. I was maybe a little too excited, jumping the gun out there, lunging a little bit. But, you know, it felt good to get [pads] back on.”
After the post-practice huddle, players offered happy birthday wishes to superfan Melba Jacobson, who was celebrating her 98th. Then Holcomb dropped his shoulder pads and motioned to linebacker Bryce Notree, a rookie. Notree stacked Holcomb’s shoulder pads on top of Khaleke Hudson’s, which were already on top of his own. Notree joked that it was a good thing for him that football has in recent years changed to favor lighter, faster players.
“These [pads] aren’t heavy at all,” he said.