ADA — Late in Saturday’s final Camp Paradise workout at the Craig McBroom Football Complex, tailback Willy Gould took a handoff from quarterback Michael Roberts and charged toward the line.

Darren Briley, a senior locked in a battle with Roberts and sophomore-to-be Ross Nichols for the Cougars’ starting quarterback job, slanted in from his inside linebacker spot in Ada’s new 3-5 defense, met Gould and drove him back for no gain.

As much as anything else, that hit typified the final 70 minutes of spring drills for Steve Dean and his troops — a surprisingly intense session under game conditions that closed out a week of two-a-day practices and answered some questions for Ada’s young coach while leaving a few others hanging until preseason practice for the 2006 campaign begins Aug. 7.

“We’re obviously pleased with a lot of things we saw (Saturday), but we still have a long way to go,” said Dean, who suffered wholesale graduation losses on both sides of the ball for the second straight year and will enter his third season with a new offense and defense and facing a move from Class 4A to 5A. “From the coaches’ perspective, the effort was excellent, and a lot of times you can overcome things with attitude and effort. That was a bright spot the whole week but especially (Saturday).

“I have a good group of kids who enjoy the game and play it the way it’s meant to be played,” he added. “You can X and O them to death, but it comes down to who makes plays, and so much of that is attitude and effort. These kids are having fun, and they’re playing well while they’re having fun.”

With the Ada offense expected to be a lot more pass-oriented in 2006 than in his previous two seasons, Dean’s biggest concern this spring and heading toward the fall is finding a quarterback suited to his new scheme. Roberts, coming off a sophomore season in which he rushed for over 1,000 yards, is the incumbent and, although Briley and Nichols both appear to have stronger arms, Dean said Roberts came out of the spring as the front-runner.

“I think going into fall camp it’s Michael’s position to lose,” Dean said. “There are some obvious things for him to work on, but that’s true for all three quarterbacks.

“Michael’s arm strength has improved since the fall, but he still has a long way to go,” Dean added. “We have to be able to throw the ball vertically. We obviously have work to do in the passing game. We have to be able to hit short passes and quick throws, especially when we’re in our three and four-receiver sets.”

Roberts, Briley and Nichols were all inconsistent Saturday, with Roberts and Briley taking most of the snaps but Nichols exhibiting easily the strongest arm of the three.

Although he missed some open receivers, Roberts threw a perfect pass to Tim Gregory (who was well-covered on the play) for 45 yards down the sideline to set up an 8-yard option pitch to Gould for a touchdown three plays later. The big pass play came one snap after Philip Tweedy turned a routine swing pass from Roberts into a 12-yard gain, and Roberts also hit Gregory (one of the stars of Saturday’s practice on both offense and defense) for 20 yards later in the session.

“Tim’s a good athlete and has the opportunity to be a really good player for us,” Dean said of Gregory, a senior-to-be who also had a good day at defensive back. “He’s quick and fast enough to play in the secondary, and he has good hands.”

Briley was sharp early, connecting with 6-3 sophomore wideout Colton Richardson (who outjumped Gregory for the ball) on a 30-yard pass, but he missed his last five passes. He was a standout on defense, however, making the big hit on Gould (the defensive highlight of the day) and coming back one play later to sack Roberts on a blitz.

“Darren has really been a pleasant surprise at camp this week,” Dean said of Briley. “That’s what you look for — seniors to step up and say ‘this is my time’, and that’s what Darren has done.”

Gould was a force on defense from his linebacker spot, and he and senior Ian Webster and sophomore-to-be Keeslar Stover all had solid efforts at tailback during the morning session.

Webster, considered the Cougars’ best home run threat, scored on a twisting 8-yard run just five plays after fullback Chris Cully exploded for 35 yards up the middle on the day’s longest run from scrimmage.

“Ian’s not afraid to come hit you from the corner (on defense), and he’s converted that to offense,” Dean said of Webster. “He’s got a lot of speed, but he showed today he can also run inside.”

Stover, a 5-8 sophomore who joined Richardson as the top offensive threats on Ada’s freshman team last year and made an impact as a special teams player for the varsity later in the season, showed good instincts cutting back on a couple of nice runs late in practice and also made a couple of big hits on defense and added a sack of Roberts from his spot in the secondary.

Richardson, whose height and athletic ability give him a tremendous upside heading toward his first varsity season, not only outjumped Gregory on the big 30-yard strike from Briley but also patrolled the secondary from his free safety position.

“You can’t coach some of the things Colton can do physically,” Dean said. “We’re expecting big things out of him this fall.”

Although Gould, Briley, Webster, Gregory and others had solid days on defense, the most dominant player on that side of the ball was probably junior-to-be nose tackle Colten Thornton, who had a breakout sophomore campaign and is the only returning starter on the defensive line for the Cougars. Dean said Thornton (who is only about 6-2, 210 himself) is a real key on what figures to be a quick but undersized Ada defensive unit this fall.

“If people don’t double-team Colten, he’s going to make plays, and when they do double-team him the other guys will have to step up,” Dean said. “This defense allows us to play with smaller, more aggressive guys, and we got a taste of that today.

“I was impressed with our tackling,” Dean added. “That’s something we as a staff sat down and said we were going have to improve after last fall, and we have. There were some good licks and some good open-field tackling.”

Other than the inconsistent play of his three quarterbacks, Dean said the only real downside to Saturday’s session was a rash of fumbles by both the maroon and white teams — most of them unforced.

“We put the ball on the ground too much, but this wasn’t the Broken Arrow scrimmage or the Ardmore game (the Cougars’ 2006 season opener),” Dean noted. “We have plenty of time to get those mistakes corrected. This is a young team and the future looks bright.”

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