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Popek out approximately 3 to 6 weeks; race at tight end wide open

Posted Aug 12, 2010 by Scott Carter

Updated Aug 12, 2010 at 09:29 PM

VERO BEACH – An MRI on the right knee of sophomore offensive lineman Mark Popek revealed a second-degree MCL sprain, which is expected to keep the Plant City High product sidelined from three to six weeks.

Considering Popek had to be carted off the field late in Wednesday night’s practice here at Dodgertown, USF coach Skip Holtz was optimistic Thursday that the diagnosis gives Popek an opportunity to return and be a factor sooner than later.

“It’s better than worst-case scenario,’’ Holtz said. “When you saw it on film and you saw what happened to him, I think it’s a best-case scenario. We need him on this team and we’re just hoping for a speedy and healthy recovery.’’

Popek was able to begin rehabbing the knee less than 24 hours after being injured. Popek started five of the last six games last season as a freshman and has improved significantly according to offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler.

“He was playing like a starter,’’ Shankweiler said. “I would say the difference between him now and in the spring, he has probably made the greatest strides.’’

BOUNCING BACK: USF practiced in shells (helmets and shoulder pads) on Thursday and won’t return to full pads until the first scrimmage of camp on Saturday.

Holtz plans to let the players sleep in Friday to give them some extra rest. He did like Thursday’s performance more than in Wednesday’s sluggish practice.

“A much better day. I thought they responded very well,’’ Holtz said. “I think they are tired. They’re mentally fatigued, they’re physically fatigued, but I give them a lot of credit. There are a lot of guys out here pushing through a lot of things.’’

BACK IN THE MIX: Senior RT Jake Sims returned to practice on Thursday after missing the first three days in Vero Beach to recover from concussion-like symptoms that also plagued him late last season.

Sims has started 19 games the past two seasons and is listed as the starting RT on the depth chart.

“It felt great to be back out there,’’ he said. “It was taking some precautions. I don’t want to come back too soon and make it worse.’’

RACE WIDE OPEN: Following spring practice, sophomore Jeff Hawkins was listed as the starter at tight end. However, Hawkins has been slowed in camp due to lingering concussion-like symptoms and has not practiced the last three days.

Holtz said he expects Hawkins to return in the next day or two, but with Hawkins sidelined along with another redshirt freshman TE Chase Griffiths (concussion-like symptoms), Andrew Ketchel, Andreas Shields and newcomer Kevin Gidrey have gotten most of the reps.

Shields, slowed by an ankle injury recently, looked sharp in Thursday’s live drills, and Gidrey, a fifth-year senior who played for Holtz at East Carolina, has also made progress.

“It’s wide open,’’ tight ends coach Larry Scott said Thursday. “The best thing that you can do is add as many players as you can to increase the competition level.’’

BULL BITS: CB Quenton Washington did not practice Thursday due to a sore hamstring, and WR Victor Marc has missed much of the last two days with a sore knee … With Popek out and Sims just returning, true freshman Quinterrius Eatmon has stood out in drills. “He’s not a guy when we came into camp, ‘Oh, let’s see if we can play him.’ But I tell you what, every rep he is taking with the twos and threes, and he’s getting better and better,’’ Holtz said ... WR T.J. Knowles, who has looked impressive in camp, was sidelined due to heat-related issue most of Thursday’s practice.

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