Every year after spring drills, there is a recipient of the Ed Conway Award, which goes to the most improved player on offense and defense. This year, there were two recipients of the award on defense. Head Coach Todd Graham admitted that the number of players who improved weren't limited to just two, making it a difficult decision for him and his coaching staff.
"I hate to point out two guys on defense because I don't know two guys on our defense that haven't gotten better," Graham added. Anthony Gonzalez was the recipient of the Ed Conway Award as the offense's most improved player through spring drills. Tyrone Ezell and Buddy Jackson were selected on the defensive side.
Gonzalez was the starting quarterback for the Gold team, as he completed 9-of-26 passes for 82 yards, with two interceptions. Those numbers aren't representative of the way Gonzalez improved through spring practice. Though he was impressed with Gonzalez' strides, he feels the summer will be crucial for Gonzalez, as it will be for all players.
"Anthony Gonzalez was another winner for us," Graham said. "Anthony just keeps getting better, he just does everything right. As he develops physically and gets stronger, I think that he's going to be a special player."
Gonzalez is just as aware of his improvement as much as he's aware that he has to continue to improve.
"I'm excited about (the award), just come to work every day," Gonzalez said. "A lot of improvement, definitely going from (the previous) offense to (the new) offense, from high school. Each day, I was just working to get better each day, up to today."
Ezell is the clear backup to Myles Caragein at the nose tackle position. Throughout the spring, Graham could not say enough good things about Ezell's development.
"Tyrone Ezell is just absolutely phenomenal," Graham said. "I've been so impressed with him. I hate to point out two guys on defense because I don't know two guys on our defense that haven't gotten better. Ezell is going to be an inside force for us. He had a great spring."
Ezell finished Saturday's scrimmage with two tackles, and a pass deflection. Of the three recipients, Jackson had the biggest impact on the scrimmage, returning the opening kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown. Jackson has been running with the first-team at corner this spring, and looks poised to make an impact in 2011.
"Buddy Jackson has really impressed me," Graham added. "Coming in with our program, and the emphasis that we make – he has really flourished. I really like him and he has made a tremendous turnaround as a player."
There were a number of other players Graham had to choose from—especially on defense. Two players who might be scratching the surface making an impact are Carl Fleming and Emanuel Rackard. Fleming led all defensive players with 12 tackles on Saturday. Rackard is a walk-on at linebacker who was second on the team with 10 tackles on Saturday. He also had the lone defensive touchdown of the day, scooping up a Tino Sunseri fumble, and returning it 10 yards for a touchdown. Rackard also tied T.J. Clemmings for the team-lead with three quarterback hurries.
"I wish I could sit up here and tell you the individual story for each one of these guys," Graham said. "Emanuel Rackard is a walk-on. He's always been able to overcome big odds to be where he is at today. He scored a touchdown today and I think that was most exciting for him."
Graham also cited Khaynin Mosley-Smith as a player who improved significantly throughout the spring.
For Jackson, one of the defensive recipients of the Conway Award, he feels the reward for his improvement is only the beginning of where he needs to get himself to be ready for training camp in August.
"I wanted to be coachable all spring, to go out and compete," Jackson said. "I wanted to validate a starting job, and I feel I have done that. It's going to be interesting with (Antwuan) Reed coming back, but we're just going to compete. Me, personally, I'm going to be coachable, do what they ask and compete every day, compete hard every day. It's my last year here, it's my last go-around, and I'm going to give it all I've got."