The view from V.
After 2 hours, 2 TDs, a zillion missed FGs and one hell of a sunburn, one of the most pivotal spring games in the Patterson era is officially in the books. Pivotal not only because of the expectations we set for ourselves out in Pasadena, but also because of the mega-turnover we've had at some very important positions. However, I think more so than ever this is a spring game where we didn't necessarily expect many surprises; between the advanced obsession we've all been generating as the years have progressed as well as the ease of availability when it comes to practice reports and prospects, we all pretty much assumed we knew what to expect. Dwight Smith was finally going to get some playing time. Casey Pachall was going to be the first team QB. We're going to be very young in our secondary. But, as with anything, there are always a few surprises, some good, some bad, that will jump out at you the first time you see them. So, culled from some hasty iPhone notes I scrawled, here is my best summation of what happened Saturday.
- The QB Battle. With no Rooster under center for the first time in years - I wasn't even married then! - this was inevitably going to be the most scrutinized aspect of the spring and summer practices. And when you started hearing rumblings out of early practices that Matt Brown was quickly gaining ground on Casey Pachall and had a legitimate chance of overtaking him as the starter, our antennas were collectively extended even more than our post Rose Bowl Frog boners. However, and I think anyone who was there Saturday will agree with me, there is little doubt in my mind that Casey Pachall will be the starter when we take the field in Waco to kick off the new season. It's not that he flat out dominated Brown, but he certainly looked like the better option. The thing that really stood out to me about the game was that, other than a few scattered plays, we never really stretched the field with our passing game. It's puzzling because everyone wanted to see what these two guys had as far as arm strength, but it quickly became clear that we're going to use our embarrassingly deep running back corp to control most games. The ground game is going to be a huge bonus because both QBs clearly need some development in the passing department before attempting to use their arms to win us games. But, from the little we saw, Pachall clearly has the throwing edge. He didn't get many chances to air it out, but a couple of times he did and hit Antoine Hicks perfectly in stride... only to have him drop both of them, one of which would've gone for a score. I can only recall one pass where he floated it and would've been picked had the receiver not made a play to break it up. And, after shaking off a few jitters, his short passing game was spot on, although a couple of those early short arms were due to line pressure. Despite the 10 pounds of ink weighing him down, the kid -caution: cliche coming -throws a very tight ball and could fit it into some very tight spaces. That's what she said. A few times he split multiple defenders and hit Skye Dawson perfectly in the ole bread basket. Then later in the scrimmage, he hit Waymon James PERFECTLY in the flat over the heads of a couple of defenders for a nice gain. I'm not clear on his exact numbers, but he had no picks and no balls I can remember that should've gone for picks. I'm not ready to say he's our next BCS Bowl winning QB, but all of the signs are there that he will be fully capable of leading this team into the Big East. As for Matt Brown, he's just not ready. Yet. For one, he's going to have to add some weight unless he wants to spend a lot of time on the trainer's table, especially due to our currently shoddy line play which I'll get to later. The roster listed him at 6'1", 195, but that seems a stretch. On top of that, he has a handful of adjustments to make before he can run an NCAA offense because he made some very, very poor decisions, including a pick six. There were a couple of other passes that should've been picked as well but the defender could not come down with it. But, I'm making it sound like he was an outright disaster, which couldn't be further from the truth. He had several good throws, including one on the run where he hit his man perfectly on the sidelines at about 10 yards out. The one place where Brown does have an edge, however, is the read option where he showed quickness and speed that, had they been available to Rooster, could've won him the Heisman. He can absolutely fly, and not just when a play breaks down - he had runs where he took it straight up the gut and never got close to being touched. A couple of times he would've gone untouched to the end zone, a-la Marcus Jackson at SMU. He did have a couple of plays where he misread the defense and handed it off when he shouldn't have and vis versa, but once he settles down and gets a feel for the college game, he could be very, very dangerous in this offense. But until that day, Pachall is your guy.
- The New Offensive Line. From what I could tell, and it was sometimes difficult to because of the rotations, our starting O Line should be some combination of Spencer Thompson, James Fry, Jeff Olson who played a little left tackle, Kyle Dooley and Blaize Foltz... in other words, the whitest offensive line this side of the Big Ten. Eric Tausch and Ty Horn got a lot of reps in as well, continuing the trend. As with anything new though, there were definitely some miscues. They didn't get completely dominated, but the fact that the starting offense only put up 7 points has to fall somewhere on them. They looked fine in run blocking, although our talented RBs could've had something to do with that, but pass coverage was a clear issue. The guys simply couldn't hold their blocks for an extended period of time. I' d say they gave up around 3-5 sacks on the day which is something that is going to have to be fixed, especially when it comes to maintaining the confidence of a young, first year starting QB. I personally think they'll be fine, and we have to give them the benefit of the doubt of going up against the defending #1 defense in the nation, but Patterson can't be pleased.
- The New Defensive Line. On the other hand, the new defensive line looked like they're going to be just as good as anything we've seen under Patterson. Perhaps not Ortiz/Blake good, but they're going to give teams fits. Stansly Maponga looks to have added some muscle in the off season and was playing as expected, and Braylon Broughton is simply the largest human being ever. This one time I will refrain from the whole "IF THAT GUY EVER FIGURES IT OUT..." thing because this is clearly his last chance, but I think we're in for some pleasant surprises. And DJ Yendrey and Jeremy Coleman, having gotten some great experience last year in Kelly Griffin's absence give us line penetration that we didn't necessarily have with Griffin and Cory Grant. They'll eat up space, but they'll get in the backfield as well as evidenced by a HUGE stuff Coleman had on a run play. It should be a lot of fun to watch them do battle next year.
- Deryck Gildon. I plan on a section here in a minute outlining the play of all the new guys, but I feel like Gildon deserves his own highlight. Simply put, he's as dominating of a linebacker at his current level that we've seen in quite some time, which is clearly a HUGE statement. I tried not to overreact too much to his pick six as Matt Brown air mailed it directly into his arms and he had mostly a clear path to the end zone, but even after that he was all over the place. And he hits with a pop that would make Robert Henson cringe. The coaching staff has clearly been lauding him all spring, but they didn't make it obvious enough how talented the guy is. He's not going to take Tank or Tanner's starting spot next year, but I can easily see him sliding into the third "starting" LB role that guys like Henson and Daryl Washington have occupied in the past. He was perhaps the greatest development to come out of the spring game, at least for me.
- Receivers. Can't believe I've gotten this far without giving these guys a shout out. You'll all be very pleased to know that after basically taking the year off in the play calling, Skye Dawson is going to be a major feature in the offense this upcoming season. I can't remember too much specifically, but he caught several quick passes and even a couple of longer ones where he made a move on his defender to pick up extra yards, including one that is going to require off season ankle surgery for the DB. We weren't able to see his vertical speed on display, but just know that if the coaching staff thinks there's a situation where Dawson can make a big play, they have full faith in him. On the other side, Josh Boyce was still clearly feeling the effects of the leg injury he suffered early in the spring, but if that's how he plays on 1.5 legs, he could be in the Biletnikoff discussion this post season as long as he can get enough catches. He made our secondary look SILLY. And, it was all due to his quickness - he caught a lot of short passes in the flats and had no problems making one move to make the defensive backs fly past him to so he could pick up yards. He'll do well to let that leg fully heal over the summer, but if anyone was worried about a sophomore slump, don't. As for Hicks, I touched on it a bit above but seriously, what has happened to him? His second drop was somewhat excusable as he took a decent hit that popped the ball out. His one in the end zone was not. The same guy that made one of the better catches in TCU history at Clemson can't catch a wide open pass in the end zone? There were lots of grumblings from our section along the lines of, "Ugh, Fiesta Bowl flashbacks," which isn't completely fair, but Pachall couldn't have handed him the ball any easier. This has to be fixed or he's going to be on the bench more often than not. A guy who could take advantage of Hicks' slide is Ethan Grant, who is going to be a nightmare for safeties in coverage out of the slot. He only caught a few balls, all of which were close to the line, but he's extremely quick and should help ease the loss of Jeremy Kerley. A couple of other guys, including seemingly 10th year senior Johnathan Jones and tight ends Walker Dille and Robert Deck had catches, but look for Hicks, Dawson and Boyce to be your main dudes next year, although you can't rule out Ladarius Brown and Brandon Carter having an immediate impact.
- The Man, The Myth, The Legend. Yes, he played. Yes, he was every bit as good as advertised. No, he did not once again spend the majority of the spring game on a training table. I consider these to be good developments. Since we saw him this time last year his amount of talent shouldn't come out of the blue, but if he can remain eligible and healthy, Wesley, Waymon and Tucker just got some of their carries took. For one, Smith is bulkier than any of them - well, not Waymon - and he cuts shockingly well. He also rarely goes down on first contact and has the ability, speed and strength to run parallel to the line waiting for a hole to open up before blasting through it. He had probably 10-15 carries Saturday and I can't remember any of them not gaining at least 3-4 yards. He's ready.
- Other Running Backs. Oh yeah, we have more of them. To put it one way, Jercell Fort scored the offense's only TD of the day, and he probably won't sniff the field more than a handful of times next season. So yeah, you could say we're deep. Ed Wesley didn't see much action as he's still handling an injury, but Waymon and Tucker were as good as we remember. Tucker, especially, seemed to have taken care of whatever was holding him back a bit this season, exploding through holes and running over defenders like we remember him doing. In arguably the play of the day, Tucker took a handoff up the middle and hurdled the D line for a 10 yard gain. More of that, please. The Human Bowling Ball rolled along as expected, blasting through the line like the Kool Aid man blasting through a wall, a comparison which I mean completely complimentary. And oh yeah, Aundre Dean! Seriously, I'm EMBARRASSED at how easy my job is if I'm Coach Fuenderson. Dean may have been the best of the bunch, at least at times, running just like the guy who was once one of the top RB recruits in the country coming out of Katy. Like I said above, these guys are going to make Pachall and/or Brown's development much, much easier.
- Defensive Backs. Question mark 1A, along with the QB situation, was just how are we going to replace 4 DBs from the #1 defense in the country? We found out a little bit on Saturday, and the result were mostly positive, although there will be growing pains. Overall, only giving up 1 score is very, very good. But, there should've been two more big gains from Hicks without a doubt. And a healthy Boyce would've killed them. For now, your two starting DBs look like Travaras Battle - who had a huge pop that made the crowd let out a big "OOOOOHHHH" - and Greg McCoy, with Jason Verrett getting a lot of time in the rotation. I specifically remember Elisha Olabode, Jonathan Anderson and Antonio Graves getting some good reps at safety. I also can't recall seeing much of Johnny Fobbs and literally none of Tekerrin Cuba. Was he injured? Anderson and Graves looked especially solid, with Anderson recording a sack and Graves barely dropping a sure INT. Graves is listed at 6'2", 222 and looks every bit of that. Dude is enormous. Unless Cuba left the team under the cover of darkness like the Colts from Baltimore, I expect him to start next year, as I would Olabode, and it should be a lot of fun to watch Anderson and Graves battle for one the remaining spot, although both will play. I'm not sure if we can match last year's unreal unit, but never doubt Patterson when it comes to reloading.
- Special Teams. While the spring game doesn't necessarily feature a ton of special teams action - no kickoffs and punts are fielded but not returned - there were a couple of takeaways from Saturday. One is that Ross Evans, if we're comparing this year to last, is just not a good spring game kicker. Perhaps the time off and lack of repetition throws his leg off, but had lt4heisman been in attendance Saturday he would've had a LOT of material to work with. He clanged about a 40 yarder off the left upright early in practice, then did the same thing at the end, which caused GP to keep him on the field and try again. He made that attempt but the message was clear - we're not letting the kicker be the difference between us winning and losing a game again. He's going to make the kicks or he's going to be replaced. However, by losing out on the kid from Argyle we've really left ourselves thin behind Evans as neither backup could get anything going either, and the last kick of the day was actually blocked by Kevin White. As far as returns, it looks like we're still ironing out who we want to be the next clap clap with Skye Dawson, Greg McCoy, Travaras Battle and even Ed Wesley taking catches. Think you have to rule out Wesley because of his importance and Dawson because of his size, but it looks like McCoy and Battle could be the two. I also remember it being rumored that Elisha Olabode would be involved in the return game as well, although I don't recall seeing him lined up back there Saturday.
- Newcomers. You saw what I had to say about Deryck Gildon, clearly the standout of the bunch, but a couple of other new guys made an impact. Defensive Tackle David Johnson had a sack where he completely blew through the line and took out Brown. Sophomore DE Jon Koontz had a sack as well. Another guy that stood out was RS Freshman receiver Logan Hodges out of Mansfield, who had several catches and could be a minor contributor this season. Ray Burns didn't make any plays that stuck out, but he should crack the DL rotation this year. And then there was BYU transfer Tayo Fabuluje - I looked it up - who is an absolute beast master at 6'7", 317. He's bounced around between the offensive and defensive lines this spring, but Saturday he took all of his reps with the second team O line. Let's just say if he gets cleared to play this fall - which is not likely, mind you - that shores up a big part of our offensive line depth. He is just a monster.
A few more things I noticed in my notes, hastily described.
- Clifton Murphy - one of the original SMU Hate subjects, you'll recall - is a beast at 6'4", 260, although he looks larger.
- Kris Gardner also looked bigger than I recall at 6-1", 238 and will be Gildon's primary competition at that third LB spot. He delivered a HUGE blow to some poor receiver that surely put a halt to whatever plans he had Saturday night.
- Kevin White had a huge, diving pass breakup late in the scrimmage on a ball that would've gone for a big gain.
- Another thing I noticed was a new 3-back set we're apparently into these days where the QB sets up in the shotgun with a back on either side and then another back behind him. It's kind of like a super pistol, modified wishbone thing, although I'm sure for you football heads out there it has an actual name. Regardless, it's one great way to get more than one of our backs on the field on a given play and was run with some success.
And that's all I have. Not a bad showing for our fans - about 4500, which is 3000 less than last year - considering the early hour, but I would've expected more. I'm guessing a lot of folks gave up simply because they figured parking and seating would be a nightmare, which they were not. The stadium is coming along nicely as well and the crew was working during the entirety of the spring game, although I suspect they may have just been showing off. Also, GP wore shorts, which carried some of the same weirdness of seeing your dad in flip flops. A much longer spring game than usual at two full hours, but clearly the staff has a lot they want to look into before summer break. I'm sure I missed some things, so have at it in the comments if you were there.