Sunday, May 18, 2008

Goin' Camping.

Goin' Camping. Area players get first taste of life in NFL
By Chip Malafronte, Register Staff

Donald Thomas’ first meeting with Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano at the team’s rookie camp two weekends ago went fairly smooth. After all, they had the perfect icebreaker — both are New Haven natives.

Thomas, a West Haven resident and an offensive lineman drafted in the sixth round out of UConn, began his career as a professional at the three-day mini camp. Sparano, born and raised in the city, was hired to his first NFL head coaching position in January.

“We talked about New Haven for a little while,” Thomas said. “We talked about high schools and some of our favorite eateries around New Haven. But after that, it was all business.”

He also got a taste of Sparano’s humor. The Miami media asked Sparano whether Thomas is his sentimental favorite following the first day of camp.

“He’s a Nutmegger,” Sparano told reporters. “We talked a little bit about some pizza places on Wooster Street in New Haven — Sally’s or Pepe’s. He knows them well. That’s not good.”

Thomas admitted it was a thrill to pull on the Dolphins jersey and helmet for the first time. He also was awed by seeing Bill Parcells, Miami’s vice president of football operations, milling around the field during the workout.

Yet, the star gazing was short-lived. Thomas said he was more concerned with making a good impression on the field. He also wanted to measure up with the other rookies to prove to himself he belonged. That included testing himself in individual drills against former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

“I was able to compete, and that was a real confidence booster,” Thomas said. “Of course, I haven’t practiced with the veterans yet. But I used the three days to soak in as much as I could and learn the playbook. Actually, that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m looking at plays.”

Thomas, back at home the last two weeks, is headed back to Miami today, where he’ll remain. The Dolphins have a mandatory minicamp for all players June 6-8, and preseason camp begins in late July.

Word around Miami is that Thomas has a real shot at winning a starting job at guard.

“I talked to coach (Paul) Pasqualoni (Miami’s defensive coordinator) and (Miami offensive line) coach (George) DeLeone (both are from the New Haven area),” Thomas said. “They both told me if I keep working I have a shot to play next year. I just need to keep getting stronger and pay attention to detail.”


Tyvon Branch had a surprise awaiting when he returned to his home in Cicero, N.Y., from Oakland Raiders minicamp on Monday. His family had compiled all the photographs of him from the three-day camp on the Internet into a collage.

The two weeks since Branch was selected by the Raiders out of UConn have been a whirlwind for Branch. But it’s been an even bigger thrill for his father, Todd Branch, a lifelong Raiders fan. The family home already had plenty of Raiders fan paraphernalia.

“He’s a huge Raiders fan,” Branch said earlier this week. “(Camp) was great for me, but it was really a special moment for my dad getting to see me play in the uniform.”

Branch, a cornerback taken in the fourth round, was moved to safety by Oakland. But his best bet to make a true impact this season is returning kicks. Using his sprinter’s speed — he ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine in February — Branch had two 97-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns at UConn last fall. The Raiders are hoping he can provide a similar spark. He remained after practice to work on returns during the minicamp.

“The coaches told me they like my work ethic and what I bring to the table,” Branch said. “They were saying a lot of good things, but you know, you have to take all that with a grain of salt. It was just rookie minicamp.”

Branch headed back to Oakland today in preparation for the team’s mandatory minicamp in early June.


Brandt Hollander knew the NFL competed at a different level, and three days at Hempstead, N.Y., for Jets minicamp confirmed those expectations.

“My experience at the Jets camp was fantastic, and I was honored to have been included,” said Hollander, a free agent defensive linemen who started for four seasons at Yale.

Hollander was one of 57 players at the rookie camp, which included 50 first-year players and seven players from last season who did not attend rookie camp last year.

“The pace was unlike anything I had ever experienced. In two days, we installed far more plays than I had ever run in college,” Hollander said.

“We worked 16-hour days while we were there. We would wake up at 6, meet for a few hours, practice for an hour and a half, eat, meet, practice, meet again and then sleep.

“By the third day that I was there, we had spent so much time in meetings that I lost all track of what time it was. Being around an NFL franchise opened my eyes to the level of competition on display every Sunday. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Confidence builder

Yale safety Nick Solakian was invited to camp by the Cleveland Browns, one of three Bulldogs to be invited to an NFL minicamp this year.

Solakian, Hollander and tight end Langston Johnson were the first trio from Yale to be invited to camps in the same season since 1988, when quarterback Kelly Ryan, tailback Mike Stewart and tight end Dean Athanasia were invited.

“It was fun,” said Solakian, an All-Ivy selection from Santa Barbara, Calif. “I was pretty nervous going into it, but definitely gained confidence once I got on the field and saw the competition. I played well, but it was frustrating because there were so many guys, and we had to rotate every three reps.

“The whole experience was cool though, going to meetings and practices with NFL coaches,” Solakian said. “They served great food in their cafeteria, basically anything you wanted. The facilities were really nice as well.”

Slow and steady

Langston Johnson, an All-Ivy tight end from Yale, attended the Tampa Bay Buccaneers minicamp.

Yale has two players on NFL rosters, Eric Johnson and Nate Lawrie, both tight ends.
Johnson called the camp for the Bucs “maybe one of the most intense things I’ve ever done in my life (and the camp was non-contact with just helmets).

“The NFL is a crazy world where desperation is taken to the ‘nth’ degree,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the day before the first walk-through session Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden showed a clip explaining specifically how he wanted players to perform in the walk through, right down to pace.

“The next day it started off as a walk through, but a couple of guys started going faster than the walk-through pace,” Johnson said.

“Since most of the guys there are trying to make the team, they didn’t want to look bad, so it basically turned into a full-speed drill, and one of the receivers pulled a hamstring during the walk through. The next day they made us wear cross trainers so people would be forced to slow down.”


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