The weather report for today was for sunshine and some clouds with a warming temperature that promised to take the rigid chill of winter away. Yesterday gave us that warmth with blue skies in the background of some lovely pink flowering cherry trees. Today—all we got was the promise; it started and remained in the low-forties, and the frigid breeze made it another very cold spring scrimmage. It seems the offense performed like a bitter day, while the defense seemed to thrive on it. I hardly know where to start!
Bottom -line? The offense was dramatically underperforming expectations and the defense has gone far beyond what I would have thought we’d see from new starters.
The QBs rarely had a chance to set and throw the ball, which is what I recall seeing last year as well. We did not have a good passing game last spring due to the unusual pressure applied by the Green Shirts, and it seems to be a repeat performance this year from the blitzes or defenders beating their man and the blocks. Thomas had Cole open over the middle for a TD but a second after Darron got his feet set, he was facing a head-on blitz from both Kaddu and Clay as they were a fraction of a second from obliterating DT. Thomas had no time but to throw it away; you cannot throw accurately if you can’t get set, look down the field and deliver the ball. This was an ongoing pattern today. Even when DT did connect with Cole on a nine yard crossing pattern— he released the ball an instant before Kaddu nearly took his head off. I saw Thomas do an excellent play action fake and roll out right and he could not even look downfield or begin to aim a throw as he had Hanna and Hart showing tremendous speed and bearing down on him. It was another ball thrown OOB away. Later we see Wade Keliikipi overwhelm the center on a short yardage 4th down to stuff the play for a loss. You don’t know from one play to the next who the defender will be that makes a major stop! You gotta love what our defense is doing!
We had one play where we only rushed three and dropped into our 3rd down, eight man zone defense and Darron must have had six, maybe seven seconds to throw but NOONE was open. The DBs stuck to the WRs with no separation, and the only thing Thomas got from them was a block outside as he ran OOB short of the first down. These DBs were not allowing any space and the QBs rarely had anyone open on the few times they didn’t have savage pressure. Bennett was trying to thread the needle on an outside pattern about 15 yards downfield when we saw some basketball type of hops from Terrence Mitchell going up and catching the ball on end of his fingertips after timing it all to meet the ball at the highest point of his jump. Troy Hill picked up one of a ton of fumbles and ran over 80 yards to score as his speed down the sideline was another reminder of Walter Thurmond; his physique, body language and results SHOUT major player.
I cannot remember having so much talent and depth in the defensive backfield, and this is without Eddie Pleasant playing due to his injury. So many times our QBs were trying to make something happen when the play was not really open, which gave our very athletic DBs the chance to converge on a pass like a hunter-killer pack in the Atlantic. We saw BB throw a sweet spiral down the middle, but as the ball was getting there it was obvious the WR was NOT open, and in fact was tightly covered. He and Anthony Gildon went up for the ball, and #18 made a wonderful play knocking the ball out of the WRs hands and away. Behind these two was safety Brian Jackson who also took a swat at the ball, and as he was falling moved his body to be near where the ball was dropping. He caught the ball for the pick while on his back! Holy Crap.
Frequently the offense would get a good drive going and the defense would make a big play to stop it. We had a max pass protect package on one 3rd and long and after BB did his play-action fake he turned around and was face-to-face with Remington who did a wonderful swim move with his shoulder and arm to “ole” his blocker like a bullfighter does with his cape. Another ball thrown OOBs and another drive stopped! We later see DT get his feet set and throw over the middle to a WR crossing until we see a blur of green leap upward in the middle of the path of the throw to reach up and tip, and then stop the ball! Dion Jordan did an amazing athletic move to get up there and effectively BLOCK the pass, but seven yards downfield. Gravity did its thing and pulled Jordan back down, but as he was stretched upward and awkward—he fell in a pile on the turf. Yet he had the presence of mind to know that the ball was coming down slower than he, so after hitting the turf he bounced and scrambled over and stretched out AGAIN to catch the ball at the ends of his hands without letting the ball touch the field. Good Grief what an interception!
My feathered friends—this defense is hungry, it’s fast, it’s confident as it is obvious they know what they’re doing. This does not look like a defense replacing six starters; it looks like a veteran group that is replacing one or two starters, if that. The rotating and platoon play is really demonstrating its value as this defense (I have never said this in spring before) looks like they could lace it up and play a game RIGHT NOW. The Motto, “Fast, Hard, and Finish” is what you see from this defense and it is a group of players and coaches that I am very proud of as I don’t see how it gets much better than today. The heck of it is—an old fart of an Offensive Lineman like me can see how playing on this defense would just be a blast! They use strength, they use technique, they use speed, and they love to screw with the opponents heads. You don’t know where they are coming from, and it takes a toll. As Chip would say, “they are truly having fun playing football.” Baby, it looks that way!
Special teams had some improvements as the punting was better over last week, and the consistency in placekicking continued as well. Robby put a KO two yards deep in the end zone as Harris caught it and began to run out. Now I had my doubts about him even doing KO returns as he looks like he could be knocked over by the wind. Yet he brought it out and blew through the first wave of defenders with a speed rarely seen on returns because when you are visually taking it all in and processing decisions—it becomes natural to NOT be at your top speed. Cliff didn’t hesitate, after that first wave he cut left, stopped and jetted right with such acceleration that astonished everyone on our sideline. He was shifting down and getting into a higher sprint speed when a last defender cut his legs at just short of the 50 yard line. Wow.
The offense underperformed because of turnovers discussed in other reports, and the superlative play of our defense. Yet the lack of a big-play receiver to me was HUGE, as we did not just eschew the long passes; heck we were not even a medium range pattern passing team. We did short passes when we could and the defense knew that no one could beat them deep, so they crowded closer and suffocated our passing game. We need a big play speedster Wide-Out NOW. The QBs looked bad because the WRs did not get open; players like Tuinei, Cole, and Hoffman will do fine when we have a WR or two that vertically stretches a defense and these guys clean up as second and third options. They are not “Go-To” guys, and today really illustrated that issue. Our QBs cannot make passing plays when they have little time to throw and no one open.
There were some interesting things on offense today, as there was last week that I will refrain from commenting on unless we see them in the spring game. Suffice it to say that Chip keeps you guessing as to what his intent is. We did have some power formations that allowed the offensive linemen to root out the defenders and we had some nice drives that went for 30 yards or so this way from an old school running downhill approach. I noted that we did a bunch of power plays out of the Spread formations with the usual pulling guard, but even when we ran a typical Inside or Outside Zone Read—the QB never kept the ball. I assume because they were wearing the Red Jerseys, and with only two QBs left that we wanted to primarily practice with, that no chances are being taken. Yet it sure helps the defense when they know in advance that an Outside Zone Read is going to the RB and they can sell-out that direction. I also wonder about the importance of the QBs getting enough practice at those split second decisions in the Zone Read. A ton of power running and short passes, with no long-ball receivers—hmmmmm.
A couple of plays impressed me as we ran up to the LOS and snapped the ball FAST. It must have been only five or six seconds from the last play ending! I know that sounds nuts, but it sure seemed that fast and there is precedence for going that fast from the USC game this last year. This time we bounced up, ran to the LOS and snapped the ball. As amazing as it sounds—our own defense wasn’t set, as they weren’t even up to the LOS yet! Thomas fired the ball to Tuinei for a Bubble Screen and he powered past a surprised defender for the first down. It was a key third down play in this drive and shrewdness of the play was notable. Better be ready with this offense!
Early in the scrimmage saw a sweet shovel pass to Barner who stopped, stuttered, and slashed for an impressive thirteen yards primarily done with quick feet and not that much actual running. Later we saw Bryan Bennett take off to the left sideline with Barner on the inside, thus another Shovel Pass/QB keeper option. The defense was ready for it and I saw two green jerseys matched up with the two backs with white shirts on, thus I thought, “Uh-oh” as they got it precisely defended. BB recognized it faster than I could ascertain the play and just took off. He runs so upright that you don’t think he’s going that fast until you see him leave green jerseys in his wake. Those guys had angle on him and he just used his natural speed to get him fifteen yards before being run OOBs. Gentlemen—that was Dennis Dixon speed I saw on that play. You can coach people all day and not get that kind of speed out of them! I thought I saw that kind of speed from Bryan inside the ‘Mo Center on the first Saturday practice I went to, but you can never be sure until the real hitting starts. Oh yeah baby! Those jets are for real!
Do remember that spring is when experiments are done to see where Offensive linemen can best play. The attempts that didn’t work out do make the defense look good. I saw Mana Greig at center who blew some shotgun snaps, but was quite good at creating a surge up the middle for short yardage situations. Between Coach Kelly and Helfrich and some arrivals this fall we’ll be ready for LSU, as the only real negative at this point is knowing that we have only the Spring Game left—and then no football for months! Say it isn’t so!
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