So I went into the Black and Gold game cautiously excited. Cautious, because I knew that many of the biggest changes will not be seen until the recruits start to show up and the coaching staff has a whole summer to work.
Watching the game I was pretty nonplussed, but as I think back, there were some good signs that the product on the field might just be able to keep up with the talk off the field.
While the improvements weren't mindblowing, the Black and Gold game gave plenty of reason to believe that the coaching staff will be at least solid and should be an improvement over the arrested development we've seen in the last couple years.
This was the first spring game I've watched for any college football team, so I'm not used to trying to adjust to the talent level of having no outgoing seniors, no incoming freshmen, and the remaining talent split in half.
The other really tough thing, and maybe the biggest (and worst) impression made, was that the offensive line was so thin and had to play both ways, that it was tough at times to really evaluate the rest of the team because the O-line was getting dominated a lot of the time.
In the end, the game was a reminder that this won't all happen over night, but you can see that improvements, however subtle, are being made.
I'll go position by position.
*Larry Smith at times looked like the same old Larry. When he loses the pocket, he's either scrambling or throwing a bad pass. I don't think any amount of coaching is going to teach him how to move the pocket, reset his feet and make a good throw. There were also several times where you saw some of the same poor accuracy that drove us nuts all the time. But when you see the stats, you realize he completed a lot of passes. He had a great deep pass to Krause just short of the goalline, and then on your typical Vanderbilt 3rd and goal from the 23, he made a great pass to Matthews. He also was much better on the screen passes than he's ever been before (more on the screen passes later).
As for his field vision, it's not clear whether it was better or if the playcalling helped. There were times that he did well looking off safeties and then going to what appeared to have been his #1 receiver all along. They were open so we didn't have a chance to see his progression, but Larry contributed to their openness.
He finished 16 for 26 for 233 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT.
*Charlie Goro was solid, but not much to believe he'll surpass Smith. Had a great TD run (though it was due in part to the fact that the defense didn't realize he wasn't off-limits for tackling). Didn't try really anything more than short passes, but he also didn't have many weapons and like Smith was constantly under pressure. Still, other than an AWFUL screen pass that got picked, he did OK, and while I doubt he'll be anyone's favorite to grab the spot, he could compete.
*John Townsley was an interesting addition. One of the six walk-ons to make the team. He's not going to be pushing to get on the field probably ever, but he looked like he belonged on the team, so that was cool for him. He also took a couple shots down field, and while the accuracy wasn't great, he did show a nice arm.
In general, the RBs didn't have much chance to succeed with the line like it was. And we didn't call a ton of runs anyway. There were several statue of liberty plays which were kind of fun, and both RBs completed a pass.
*Zac Stacy was pretty solid typical Zac. A grinder with an ability to get a few yards when he shouldn't. But with the line, there were few chances for him to show much more than that.
*Wesley Tate did show some of that dangerousness going 40 yards on 9 carries. He showed some good moves in the mess, and 9 for 40 is pretty solid given how poor the line was doing.
Additionally, we had fullbacks, didn't see a ton of them as you'd expect from a FB, Marc Panu had one catch, but we'll have to keep an eye out for who fills these roles and how they are used.
One of the best showings of the night came from the WRs. Jonathan Krause and Jordan Matthews were terrific and it looks like the new staff realizes that (where the old guard seemed to favor the veteran terrible WRs over the talented young ones).
*Matthews had 7 catches for 103 yards and a TD. He caught at least a couple passes going across the middle in the 15-25 yard range, the kind of 1st down passes that we rarely have seen the last 2 years, the kind you need to have any chance at converting the 3rd -and-longs we are so accustomed to.
*Krause had the play of the night, a deep ball (yeah, that's right a completed deep ball) that Larry dropped in nicely and Krause fought for the ball all the way to the ground.
*Udom Umoh had 2 catches for 30 yards and caught everything that came to him, he was also wide open inside the 10 early in the 1st half, but Larry missed him.
We even had a Brady Brown sighting; he had 2 catches for 14 yards.
Both Krause and Matthews also had several screen passes go their way which they tended to get solid gains on.
The more I think about how good Krause and Matthews are (as everyone but the coaches noticed last season) the more excited I am knowing that the offense, with all those RBs, including a hopefully healthy Tate along with Norman, Stacy, and the new recruits, and can't help but be better than we've seen the last couple years if we actually have some threats at WR.
The one thing that concerns me a little is that we didn't see much of Brandon Barden. He had 1 catch for 6 yards. I understand if CJF's offense doesn't rely on the TE a lot, but he's one of our best weapons, a true SEC caliber TE, and he needs to get the ball. When you're trying to turn the ship around, and you know you have fewer weapons than most of your opponents, you can't squander one of the few good things you already had going.
Fitz Lassing had a couple targets at TE for the Gold team. I'm not sure if he'll be more at the TE or FB this season (or anywhere else for that matter).
I didn't notice Austin Monahan, who wasn't listed as injured, anywhere but the sideline.
Well this was rough, and I'm not at all good at telling who is or isn't doing well on the offensive line, but it wasn't good. It was depth more than anything that was the problem, but that's going to be the problem all year too. This position, more than any other, we will need to stay healthy and we may need some freshman to step in and contribute.
DT and DE
This might actually turn out to be a strength this season, but it's hard to tell just how good they are given the weakness of the o-line.
Colt Nichter had 2 sacks and 2 passes broken up, Tim Fugger, Taylor Loftley, Kyle Woestmann and Johnell Thomas had a sack each. Woestmann, who has apparently been impressive in practice this spring, also picked off Goro on a bad screen pass deep. Loftley had 4 tackles total.
Jared Morse had a somewhat quiet but effective day with 2 tackles, a QB hurry and a pass deflection.
In any case, we knew we had some talent at this position, but we didn't learn a whole lot more given how weak the line was.
As we all know, this is the biggest weakness on our defense, after Chris Marve anyway. Marve had a solid day, 3 tackles, one for loss and a forced fumble.
While none of the other candidates to join Marve in the starting 3 were epiphanies, several had good days and showed some potential.
*Chase Garnham probably had the best day of any linebacker, leading all players with 8 tackles, including 2 tackles for loss (9 yards total loss).
*Andrew East made a couple of big plays with 2 sacks and 4 total tackles.
*DeAndre Jones had 2 tackles (1 TFL), including maybe the biggest hit of the night early during the Black team's first drive. Smith scrambled for a nice gain before Jones, coming from the middle of the field, pasted him, and poor Larry didn't see it coming.
*Archibald Barnes had a really nice day, with 4 tackles, one for loss, plus a QB hurry and a pass broken up.
*Dexter Daniels had 3 tackles.
I don't know that any of these guys will be a really solid starting LB for us, but if we have several guys who can be effective it might be enough, at least for this year while we have Marve. And we'll all just agree not to talk about our LB situation for 2012.
But judging by today, Garnham and Barnes were probably the most impressive. But East made a couple big plays, so it will be interesting to see if he can stay in the mix.
This is clearly our deepest position defensively and they played pretty well.
*Eric Samuels who has moved to safety this spring led the Black team with 5 tackles (1 TFL). He may be a breakout star this season as I've heard lots of talk about his athleticism, and it seems that, given the depth at CB, they are trying to find a place for him to get on the field.
*Kenny Ladler also had 5 tackles and made a great play to pick off Smith, so their may be a tough battle between he and Samuels to get that spot next to Sean Richardson (who also had 3 tackles) in the fall (though Samuels could end up competing for the nickelback spot instead).
The CBs were, as you'd expect, very tough, though the Black team with the starting passing offense had a little more success than I expected against the Gold team with the starting secondary.
- Both Ryan Fowler and Casey Spear were perfect on FG and PATs. Spear had 2 FG, while Fowler had 1 FG and 1 PAT. As we've seen from the kickoffs, Spear has the stronger leg and if he can keep accurate, I think he's got a great shot to take the starting spot from Fowler.
- Neither the coverage, nor the return game made much noise with the exception of the coverage of one Richard Kent punt by the Black team: the gunners (didn't catch who they were) both reached the returner almost simultaneous with the ball and absolutely clobbered him. The returner didn't call the fair catch and it was really close as to whether he touched the ball before the hit or not. Unfortunately, the refs also decided to punt: Either they were early and it was kick-catch interference, or the PR touched the ball and it was a fumble, but when the Black team recovered the ball in the endzone, the refs called a touchback as though the hit just never happened.
It didn't take an expert to notice some big differences in the play calling.
First, and maybe most importantly, NO DAMN NO-HUDDLE. We also saw quite a bit of QBs under center.
We did see a lot of bubble screens, which may get a little tiresome if they aren't working, but they were solid today, and Larry was surprisingly accurate on them.
But as I said, what really was fun was seeing some moderately long passes completed and the one deep ball. It seemed like on those plays that the play calling (and capable WR) made it easy for Larry to find the open spots, and he hit them.
But as I said before, the offensive coaches MUST make sure to find ways to keep Barden in the game as well. He seems to be an especially good option if you are calling those bubble screens often (and maybe getting the safeties cheating to the sidelines) that there would be chances to get Barden into a seem. Likewise if we are running a lot, a play action could really open up the middle for him.
I'll be interested to see how they use the running game, but with Stacy and Tate both having only 9 carries, we didn't get a great picture. It seems like we saw a pretty fair number of delayed handoffs, and most of the stuff was up the middle, though with the line falling apart, there wasn't much time to develop much else.
They did run a few trick plays as you'd expect in a spring game. Two Statute of Liberty plays worked OK. A couple of reverses failed miserably. Each team ran a HB pass, with Tate connecting to Townsley who made a nice catch, and Larry Smith making a nice TD catch on a pass from Zac Stacy to end the game.
The offense did still stagnate for major portions of the game, which at first had me pretty depressed as it felt too much like last season. But I think gains have been made, even if they are subtle.
I think once, Warren Norman gets back and Jordan Rodgers gets a chance to join the QB battle the offense will be in pretty good shape if the line holds up.
All in all, I got from the Spring game that Franklin's coaching might not be as exciting as his recruiting and his desire to take the program forward.
But we also know that most important aspect will be getting the success on the field to keep the fans and the recruits believing we are headed the right direction. While we saw today that maybe the coaching won't be the most flashy, exciting part of the package, that strides are being made to get more out of the guys we knew should be providing more.
So, though it certainly at times reminded everyone that we aren't good yet, that we are still really thin, and that many of our guys have been lacking coaching for a long while, we saw reason to believe that the guys we already have might be able to make the improvements we've been waiting for for years. If that is the case, Dore fans have to be excited at the prospect of what this staff can do as the talent level rises, starting with the arrival of the freshmen this summer.
While it certainly won't be right away, and certainly isn't a sure thing, Dore fans have some solid reasons to believe that the new era at Vandy might be more than just talk.