On a gorgeous day up at Rice-Eccles Stadium, football was back. While it was only a spring game, a glorified scrimmage, it was great to get a final taste of football before the long summer arrives.
The Utah offensive coaching staff has seen its fair share of changes this offseason. Coach Whittingham brought in Dave Christensen to run a no-huddle, high tempo offense. The results of that change demoted Dennis Erickson to running backs coach, and forced Brian Johnson to move on to Mississippi State. Aaron Roderick moved from coaching wide receivers, to the spot vacated by Brian Johnson, quarterbacks. Out was Dan Finn at offensive line coach, in was Jim Harding, Christensen's o-line coach at Wyoming. And lastly, Taylor Stubblefield was added as wide receivers coach to fill out the staff.
With all these changes and 14 spring practices, what did we see at the annual Red/White spring game? Let's break it down by position group.
Players Held Out: Jeremiah Poutasi, Junior Salt
Out of all the days in spring ball to evaluate the offensive line, today may have been the worst. With two starters being held out, and the unit being divided between the two teams, there was no way to have continuity. With that said, the line for the white team had the most game experienced players, and most of the players that will be on the two deep this fall, including Isaac Asiata, Andrew Albers, and Marc Pouvave, and it showed too. While they had some up and down play today, the line for the white squad was solid. They created great holes to run through for the likes of Dre'Vian Young and Devontae Booker. They also gave solid pass protection for Adam Schulz and Conner Manning most of the day.
The red offensive line was inconsistent at best all day, especially true freshman Jackson Barton. He struggled from the very beginning, having to hold players from getting to returning starting quarterback, Travis Wilson. While they did manage to create some good running lanes, from time to time, the pass protection was spotty and the pocket would collapse very quickly on whoever was behind center, causing a sack, or forcing the QB to break the pocket to make a play.
What do we need to see this summer from the O-line going into fall camp? Continuity and constancy. Find the right five guys and find homes for them. There was a lot of mixing and matching this spring, and that needs to be resolved early on in fall. Also, get in shape to run this new high tempo offense. Poutasi has leaned up a little bit, but the whole crew needs to have that mentality so they have the endurance not only to last a game, but a whole season.
Wide Receivers / Tight Ends
The two big names on the outside were not playing today, with Anderson and Scott sitting out. So the question was, who would make a case to possibly be that number three receiver in the fall?
Today, one name jumped out, Dominique Hatfield. Hatfield had 93-yards on the day, and opened up the scoring with about a 45-yard pass from Adam Schulz.
Not far behind, Brian Allen made a huge play today with a 55-yard catch, juke, and run after receiving a swing pass from Travis Wilson. Those were the two names that kept coming up the most from the wide receivers. Geoffrey Norwood also had a very nice day, racking up some nice run after catch yards on multiple occasions.
One surprise was seeing Micah Thomas taking some direct snaps, as well as some sweeps at the wide receiver position. It seems that his speed is something that the coaches see as a possible weapon.
Tight end wise, it was nice to see Westlee Tonga back on the field. He was involved with Conner Manning on multiple crossing routes, including a pretty touchdown catch from Manning from about nine yards out.
What do we need to see this summer from the wide outs and tight ends? Building a rapport with the quarterbacks, and building competition for that number three spot, behind Dres and K-Scott. Also, putting K-Scott in carbonite until the opener to make sure he is healthy for the season is a must.
Here is the group that stole the show today. Bubba Poole, Devontae Booker, Troy McCormick, and Dre'Vian Young had enough highlights to hold Ute fans over until the fall. Devontae Booker highlighted the group with over 100 yards on the day and two touchdowns, by just running people over. Multiple times in my notes I had, "Booker running fools over." It took multiple bodies to bring down Booker, and his elusiveness at the point of attack got him into the secondary all day long. On the white team, along with Booker, Dre'Vian Young showed some speed and was able to pick up 37-yards on the ground. In the second half, Booker and Young proved to be a lethal one-two punch for the white team, picking up yards in chunks.
For the red team, Bubba Poole had a quiet day with a couple nice runs, until the end of the first half when we took a pass from Brandon Cox, broke multiple tackles, and took the ball over 70 yards inside the five-yard line before getting caught. Troy McCormick had over 100 total yards on the day. He showed the ability to jam it into the end zone on a nice run up the gut on 3rd and goal, on the red teams first scoring drive. Where he caused the most damage was out of the backfield, racking up 67 yards receiving. Whether it was on screen passes from either Travis Wilson or Brandon Cox, or being a check down, once McCormick got the ball in his hands in the open field, it was electric.
Right now it looks like Poole and Booker are your primary running backs, but I expect to see McCormick out on the field a ton this fall. Whether it's as a pass catching option out of the backfield, or lined up in the slot, he's too much of a weapon not to use.
The area everyone is always interested in is quarterback, especially after Travis Wilson's brain injury last season. Let's look at the QB's one-by-one
Travis Wilson had a very average at best day. Wilson was 7 of 12 for 116 yards and a touchdown. Early on in the scrimmage he seemed uncomfortable and unsure of himself. He was zoning in on targets, holding the ball too long, or was having the pocket collapsed on him by a shaky offensive line. After the first couple series, Wilson seemed to settle in and play some solid football. He looked best on the move, whether it was on a boot leg pass, or a screen pass to Troy McCormick, he looked more confident when he had the option to run. When he did tuck it and run, he was pretty nimble and quick, which is easier when you are not to be touched by the defense.
For Wilson right now, you can tell it's still about getting into a grove. Which in both last weeks scrimmage, and today's spring game, he started slow, and then settled into the pocket and looked good overall. He's got to continue working on strength and getting into that routine of playing football day in and day out, especially since he basically couldn't touch a football for five months.
Manning was not comfortable the first series he was in the spring game, missing his first couple of targets. Similar to Wilson, he settled in and played really well. Manning was 9 of 12 for 86 yards and a touchdown. The key with Manning is that he is methodical and surgical the way he quarterbacks. He's happy to spread it around and take the 10- to 15-yard throw. He only tried to go deep once, to Hatfield, but over threw him by about a foot. He got the ball out quickly all day, and was decisive with his throws. He probably had the best day today, overall, of all the quarterbacks.
This summer I'd like to see Manning develop the confidence to go deep more, and be a little more aggressive. Frankly, other than the ability to run, that may be what is currently separating Travis Wilson from Conner Manning on the depth chart. Wilson will push the ball, Manning is more content to be conservative.
Schulz really showed off his cannon in his first series. Rifling a ball over the middle to Hatfield for about 15 yards, then hitting him for the deep touchdown a couple plays later. Schulz was also efficient, throwing 9 of 13 for 110 yards and a touchdown. Schulz is a solid quarterback, but with him, he gets overly excited when he sees a target, creating a lot of bad footwork. He has a lot of one footed deliveries that throw off his passes and create a higher risk for turnovers. If the game slows down for him, he may join the race with Manning for the number one spot, but everything feels so rushed for him, and I think we may have seen the best that he has to offer.
Cox was 5 of 9 today with 126 yards passing and two interceptions. Cox had a couple of the most amazing plays today, and a couple of the most frustrating. When Cox first got in the game, he extended a play with his legs and hit Bubba Poole, who broke tackle after tackle, for about 70 yards down to the five-yard line. A play later Cox ran it in. Cox's next series he committed a cardinal sin and threw across his body (and the field), but somehow found Harrison Handley for a nice 15- to 20-yard gain. Then he scrambled and found McCormick for another big play down into the red zone. The following play, Cox threw what should have been an interception at the five-yard line. Immediately after that, he threw a screen to McCormick, but McCormick got blown up, and the ball was intercepted, ending the scoring threat and the half.
In the second half, Cox had a similar series. He was moving it down the field nicely with a combination of options reads and hand offs to McCormick to get into the red zone. Going in for a score, Cox threw a pick straight to a defender, ending the drive. With Cox, currently, it's feast or famine. He has a great ability to extend a play with his legs, but the decisions he makes once the play is extended can be scary.
As there is with any spring game, you can't really learn a lot from it. It's a lot of fun, but mostly for the fans. There is definitely some offensive talent at the skill positions. There appears to be depth at offensive line and quarterback. It is those latter two positions that must come together and be consistent in 2014 for the Utes to be successful. All of that began immediately after the spring game, and will continue through this summer, where much of the success for next years team will be determined.