They call it Jugs. No, it's not the movie with Raquel Welch as the hot paramedic who rides with the unlikely pair of Bill Cosby and Harvey Keitel. This Jugs is a simple blue machine that stands on a tripod and shoots footballs at 40-plus miles per hour. A trainer puts a football into the contraption (which looks conspicuously like a torpedo loader), then Jugs shoots the football. Whoever is in the way either catches it or gets drilled in the face. Imagine being placed in a batting cage except that you are a lot closer and have no bat.
Go to a University of Memphis football practice and you will hear Jugs purring and chunking, purring and chunking. Player after player stands in the line of fire and takes one for the team. It's a hypnotic sound, lulling each receiver into that dreamlike state somewhere between the bone-deep tired of two-a-days and the tumultuous adrenaline rush of an actual game. The point of the exercise is simple: Get ready to have the ball thrown to you. A lot.
"We're going to play a bunch of wide receivers and they have to catch the ball," says Randy Fichtner, the U of M's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "[Jugs] gives you the chance to break down the fundamentals of catching the ball: getting ahold of the ball and focusing on the keys -- extending the reach, getting it to a tucked position, making sure you have four points of pressure. And then you run."
Sounds simple, but last year the Tiger offense only had a 53.4 completion rate, had the ball intercepted 14 times, and notched a meager seven passing touchdowns in 11 games.
Fichtner says he doesn't want to focus on those numbers. "I wasn't here last season [so] we're not talking about the past," he says. "But to move forward, you have to understand it a little bit. Seventeen fumbles and 14 interceptions? A defense that is ranked number five in the nation?" Fichtner shakes his head and his opinion is obvious: The offense let the team down last year. Big-time.
So how do you fix it in the off-season? "We don't talk about dropping the ball, we talk about what we have to do to catch it," Fichtner says. "If you keep breaking down the fundamentals and techniques, I believe that people can learn to catch the ball."
Oh, and there's one other thing: repetition, repetition, repetition. "We have a couple receivers out there who are freshmen or redshirt freshmen," Fichtner says. "They haven't caught as many balls in their careers. It's got to be natural to come out of the cut and catch a football. When bodies start flying, you have got to rely on fundamentals." But regardless of experience, Fichtner wants one thing from his players: "All we ask them to do is make the catch," he says. And he means it.
That much is clear to Ryan Johnson, a returning junior and last season's third-leading receiver with 25 catches for 251 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson is also a valuable punt-returner, with a career 40 returns for 408 yards, ranking him sixth on the Tigers' all-time list. He and returning senior Bunkie Perkins (33 catches for 314 yards, no touchdowns in 2000) will be targets for Tiger quarterbacks and opposing defensive backs.
For Johnson, taking time in front of Jugs is a part of life. He knows it's going to hurt, but he has to stand there and take it. "We take time before and after practice, in the middle of practice," he says. "Anytime we have free time we get on the Jugs."
Despite all the practice, facing the gun is never easy. "It's coming fast," Johnson says. "Either you guard your face or you're going to get your head busted wide open."
It gets even tougher when head coach Tommy West gets involved. West brings out a white towel and places it on the ground in front of the machine. West, who isn't wearing pads, then takes a couple of shots from Jugs. Then all the receivers take their turns (with pads).
Next comes the real challenge. West smiles, walks the towel a few feet closer to the machine, and places it down again, cutting the amount of time the receiver has to get his hands between ball and teeth. The ritual continues with West taking his lumps with the receivers. The brotherhood (and masochism) of the process is both mysterious and compelling, like some truth you can't understand until you take a turn. Players and coach sacrifice themselves to get incrementally better with each chunk of the machine.
Johnson doesn't make too much of it, other than citing the drill's usefulness. "It's a challenge," he says simply. "Whoever can get the closest to the Jugs wins. It prepares you for the field."
With each catch, with each repetition of this painful and sometimes dangerous exercise, the Tiger offense inches to potential respectability. "We just want to come together and do the job that we can do," Johnson says. "We know we can move the ball. We know what we are capable of. We just have to go out there and do it."
The U of M's season opener is September 3rd at Scott Field in Starkville, Mississippi, against Mississippi State (ranked 19 by ESPN/USA TODAY and 20 by the Associated Press). Until then, the Tigers will continue to stand in front of Jugs, catch the football, tuck the football, run the football. Repeat.
You can e-mail Chris Przybyszewski at email@example.com.