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The Blue who might play the greatest hand in their future

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CARLTON eyes will spend Thursday night keenly focused on a series of No.1 picks.

The oldest set to feature in this week's season opener, Marc Murphy, will be playing his 250th game. The youngest, Sam Walsh, will be playing his first. Perhaps the most debated, Matthew Kreuzer, will again miss as he battles yet another injury problem.

But ahead of season 2019, as the Blues embark on 'phase two' of the club's rebuild, it's Jacob Weitering who might play the greatest hand in the side's future fortunes.

In many ways, the likes of Weitering and fellow fourth-year Blues Harry McKay, Charlie Curnow and David Cuningham are symbolic of the Brendon Bolton and Stephen Silvagni-led 'reset' that was undertaken at Ikon Park in the summer of 2015-16.

They are four of five first-round draft picks on Carlton's list recruited during that off-season, with Matthew Kennedy – later traded in via Greater Western Sydney – the other.

It's why the club has made no secret of its desire for those fourth-year players to drive its improvement this season and has spent the summer dialling up the heat on such talent.

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Both publicly and privately, it has been made abundantly clear that the expectations on that particular collection of young talent will grow ahead of the upcoming season.

"This is the group," Bolton made clear on Wednesday.

But while the Blues are confident that crop will lead the club to a promising future, there have been setbacks along the way throughout the early years of their AFL careers.

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McKay and Cuningham have dealt with injury issues – in fact, this summer has been the first where both will have taken part in a full pre-season – while Weitering has suffered from form and confidence setbacks that resulted in a frustrating stint in the VFL last year.

But the potential is there and clear to see. Now, it's just about tapping it.

For young tall forward duo McKay and Curnow, picks No.10 and No.12 respectively in Carlton's 2015 NAB AFL Draft haul, their enormous upside is evident.

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Their ability to mark strongly overhead, produce moments of magic around goal and help to kick winning scores is clear. Doing so more regularly will be the aim this season.

For Cuningham, the Blues are hopeful a more defined role through the midfield and forward line will see his consistency grow.

Indeed, if Cuningham's three practice games this summer are anything to go by – which have yielded seven goals and a series of clever moments – that looks a likely outcome.

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His breakaway speed, finishing ability and time in congestion has fans eager to see more.

But if it has been Weitering's fluctuations that the Blues have been most concerned by, as the No.1 pick from that class it's also his improvement that they are most excited by.

Carlton has pointed to the slow burn of Richmond premiership star and five-time All Australian Alex Rance as just how long it can take for a key defender to fulfil their potential.

Rance, a first-round draft pick back in 2007, spent the formative years of his career not even playing for Richmond's VFL affiliate Coburg, but with its development squad.

The Blues hope Weitering, too, will learn from early setbacks in his promising career.

Speak to Carlton's coaching staff and there's confidence that the learning curves endured by Weitering over the last 24 months will also strengthen the young defender's resolve.

Weitering was the No.1 pick in the 2015 draft. Picture: AFL Photos

The Blues have hardly made it easy on the 21-year-old. The smarts, positional sense and intercept ability he displayed at junior level are hard to replicate in an AFL environment, especially one where the backline he features in has so regularly been under siege.

While Weitering has looked lost at times over the last two years, it's difficult to find a Blues defender who hasn't with the ball entering their defensive 50 so rapidly.

Bolton is happy for his key defenders – Weitering, Liam Jones, Caleb Marchbank and Lachie Plowman – to zone off their man. But it's easier for them to do that when the ball is arriving with some type of midfield pressure. Recently, that simply hasn't been the case.

 

It's why Carlton has spent large portions of the summer focusing on delay – slow the opposition ball movement and allow your defenders to find their feet behind the footy.

As that has grown across pre-season, muscle memory has clicked into gear for Weitering.

His marking, spoiling and intercept work was a feature of Carlton's JLT Community Series campaign and was a reminder of why he was so impressive as an underage prospect.

As the Blues build stronger depth through their midfield – adding Walsh and Will Setterfield to a group that already features Patrick Cripps, Paddy Dow, Zac Fisher and Sam Petrevski-Seton – the effectiveness of Weitering and his backline teammates will grow.

A forward line group that now has athletic talls McKay and Curnow, as well as a more balanced smaller group headed by Cuningham, starts that press from the front.

It's no surprise most of those building blocks were assembled in that summer of 2015-16.

The pieces are in place for Carlton's improvement this season. Now, it's up to the exciting crop of fourth-year talent to be leading that charge. 

CARLTON'S FOURTH-YEAR CROP

Pick No.1 – Jacob Weitering
Pick No.10 – Harry McKay
Pick No.12 – Charlie Curnow
Pick No.13 – Matthew Kennedy (originally recruited to GWS)
Pick No.23 – David Cuningham
Pick No.53 – Jack Silvagni