Jake McGee and the rest of the offense were impressive in this weekend's Orange and Blue spring game.
I think we can all agree that discussing the outcome of the game isn't really meaningful. Playing a scrimmage with modified rules (no contact on the QBs, etc) and players changing sides mid-game means that the outcome isn't important. What is important is seeing the individuals in action, and analyzing specific matchups.
So, who impressed? Who didn't? What worked? What didn't? Jump to find out.
I cover the special teams (ugh!) and the offense below. The defense, and a complete wrap up, with follow later this week. Please allow me a bit of leeway, as I watched the game online, and the camera work was terrible.
The number 1 thing that has to be discussed about the spring game, regardless of which team you are discussing, is the special teams. They were atrocious. This unit killed the team time and time again last year, and might've been worse this weekend. It isn't like this was a case of the punt block team being too good (for example), this was unforced mistakes. Muffed punts, bad snaps, and missed FGs were all on the menu. That's a trifecta that can absolutely cost this team football games in the fall. Anthony Pointdexter is the special teams coordinator, but we've been told over and over again that the entire coaching staff works with special teams. Whoever is in charge, they need to whip this unit into shape.
The punt return problems have been an issue for a long time. Honestly, they've been a problem since Alvin Peaman left, way back in 2005. Why can't we find somebody to return punts? It is mind-boggling. Last year, we primarily used Dominique Terrell, and he was basically terrible. On some of the more important plays, we used RB Perry Jones. He wasn't much better, and even he muffed a punt. The problems all seem to come down to decision making. We fair catch when we shouldn't, we don't fair catch when we should. We come up to catch punts that we shouldn't, and we let other punts go that we should be coming up on.
Is the problem coaching? Is it a matter of personnel (not having the right players, or not using the ones we do have properly)? I'm not sure anybody knows. Obviously, the coaching staff is aware of the problem, and will work on it.
I'm less concerned about the bad snap and the missed FG. Matt Fortin was the long snapper last year, and did a fine job. I'll give him a pass for his first snap of the game. And we knew coming in that PK was going to be a problem area. Ian Frye looked solid, Drew Jarrett looked ok, and the miss was by Alex Vozenilek. Vozenilek is primarily battling for the punter spot, and he did ok there. Not great, mind you, but ok. We have two promising kids coming in this fall who will battle for the two kicking spots.
One thing I did like about the special teams was seeing LaRoy Reynolds in punt coverage. I would like to see use more starters on the special teams coverage units. As a leader on the defense, Reynolds obviously has enough responsibility, but he would be a scary sight running down the field at a PR. His presence lone could force some fair catches. And, as we saw with Dominique Terrell, he can absolutely blow up a PR.
The final score of 20-17 may not look like much, but keep in mind this was played with only 8 minute quarters. The offenses were outstanding. It is tough to say, for sure, how much of that was truly offensive success versus defensive failure, but there were certainly plenty of highlights.
Michael Rocco was solid, completing 12-21 passes (not a great completion percentage, but his 21 passes went for 194 yards, which is a stellar 9.2 ypa. That'll work. Really, though, was anybody worried about Rocco? I sure wasn't. The real questions were on the other guys.
David Watford was ok. This format isn't really for him, because the "no-contact on the QBs" rule takes away a big weapon of his. In fact, he may well have scored a rushing TD if not for that rule. The interception Watford threw was troubling, because it wasn't a difficult read, and it was a pass he shouldn't have thrown. He was lucky that it wasn't a TD the other way. Still, the most worrying thing about Watford was the repeated procedural penalties against the offense when Watford was in at QB. When a false start or an illegal motion happens once, you can place the blame on the player. But when they happen over and over again (I believe I counted 5 total procedural penalties covering both offenses when Watford was the QB), you have to look at the QB.
The QB that I was most excited to see was Greyson Lambert (Lambert doens't have a profile on sbnation yet, so this link points to virginiasports.com). He got a good amount of run, taking over the 2nd team offense for the entirety of the 2nd half. In short, he looked good. Is Watford in danger of losing the backup QB job? Of course not. It is my sincere hope that Lambert redshirts this year. Something tells me that if we need Lambert to play this year, we're in big, big trouble. But Lambert showed me that he can absolutely play. Obviously, Rocco is going to be the #1 QB for the next 2 seasons, but Lambert may end up on top of the depth chart in 2014.
Moving away from the QB position, there were a number of standouts. One of them was Perry Jones, which should come as no surprise to anybody. Despite the talented underclassmen we've got at RB, Jones is still going to be the #1 back for this coming season. Jones was also named a team captain for the second consecutive season. Other RBs also looked solid. Clifton Richardson looked more comfortable in the passing game, and still had the same look while running the ball. Kevin Parks didn't get as many touches as the other backs, but still scored on a swing pass from Lambert. On that pass, Parks broke about 5 tackles, and fought his way into the endzone. Fans will recall seeing that same level of effort last year. All three RBs looked strong, and will provide one of the top RB combinations in the ACC going forward.
But seriously, the star of the show was RB Khalek Shepherd. Shepherd ran for 102 yards, including a 75 yard TD on an inside draw. Shepherd was impressive in last year's spring game as well, and yet had trouble getting on the field, so maybe we shouldn't get too excited. I think Shepherd will absolutely be one of the primary KR men, and perhaps may get a look at PR. Considering the issues we had at PR last season and this weekend, Shepherd may as well get a shot. The 75 yard run was obviously a highlight, and credit Shepherd for running the play well, but it was a great play call and managed to catch the defense in an inside blitz, so Shepherd was able to run by the LBs before they could react.
While Shepherd was the star in the backfield, there were a number of breakout performances on the outside. The first is Dominique Terrell, who led the Orange team with 61 yards receiving. A lot of those yards came after the catch, as Terrell made a number of moves to make people miss and pick up extra yards. Most importantly, Terrell looked much more comfortable on the field than he did at any time last year. Terrell gets knocked down a bit for the muffed punt, but in the offense, he looked good. Terrell's counterpart, Darius Jennings also looked ok, despite getting less touches. Jennings was looking pretty good late last season, so I am excited to see that combination on the field in the future.
Obviously, the top WR on the team is Tim Smith. Smith had a couple of early catches and then seemed to fade as the younger guys got more reps. Smith is going to have a big year, I promise.
Another WR who impressed was Miles Gooch. Going up against the 2nd team defense, Gooch was open and dangerous all day long. At 6'3" and over 220 pounds, Gooch provides a look that the other WRs on the team can't match. Simply put, he is a beast. Seriously, look at him; he doesn't look like a WR, he looks like a LB. A lot of ACC CBs are going to have nightmares about trying to tackle him in the open field.
One position we were all interested in was TE. Last year, the TEs, as a group, had minimal impact on the offense. We were looking forward to seeing if that group could be re-inserted into the gameplan. Well, we certainly got a glimpse of that. Jake McGee, Zack Swanson and Paul Freedman were all fantastic. Jay Mathis was, well, not fantastic. While McGee, Swanson and Freedman all made tough catches downfield, Mathis had a couple of drops on easy passes. McGee was the real star of the show, as he had some big catches for both teams.
McGee showed his speed and athleticism, as well as good hands. At just 235 lbs, McGee isn't much of a blocker at this point, but as a receiver he can be a real weapon. Freedman is probably the best blocking TE we've got right now, but he also showed a nice ability to go up and get a pass. Swanson is something of a wild-card, because he has been moved to FB, but his presence in the backfield provides yet another weapon for Rocco, Lazor and the offense. The question remains if Swanson can be a true lead blocking FB. Coverted LB/S LoVante Battle also got some run at FB (for the 2nd team offense) and had at least one catch. He is clearly still learning the position, but he has the athleticism to be dangerous with the ball in his hands. He also needs to learn the nuances of blocking at the position.
So, that does it for the skill positions. Yes, the game was exciting, with a number of big plays and solid performances from pretty much all the skill position guys. However, all of that will be for naught if we don't have a solid OL. And the spring game did not do much to answer that question. Obviously, with Oday Aboushi and Luke Bowanko out, the OL wasn't at 100%. But Matt Mihalik struggled a little bit at C, snapping one over Rocco's head and also allowing far too much penetration from the DT duo of Justin Renfrow and Will Hill. (We'll talk a little bit more about that with the defense.)
Obviously, the DTs aren't solely Mihalik's responsibility, so some of the blame must go to OGs Cody Wallace and Connor Davis. The difference there is that I'm not certain either Wallace or Davis will be starting in the fall. In fact, I'm positive Davis won't be, because that spot is reserved for Luke Bowanko when he returns. Wallace will be in the running to replace the departed Austin Pasztor, but Sean Cascarano may have a leg up there, even after missing the spring camp. So, while Wallace and Davis need to improve, Mihalik simply must get better. I'm sure that OL coach Scott Wachenheim will spend the summer getting Mihalik as prepared as possible.
We know what to expect from Morgan Moses at this point in time, and he did not disappoint. On the other side, redshirt freshman Jay Whitmire took a majority of the first team snaps and also held his own nicely. Oday Aboushi will be back in the fall and will man the RT spot, but Whitmire has earned a spot on the 2-deep. Furthermore, Whitmire is now the frontrunner (along with Kelby Johnson) to replace Aboushi and Moses in 2013 (assuming Moses goes pro, which I believe to be a good assumption).
It is nice to know that the OL has as much depth as they do. The 2nd team OL group was made up almost entirely of underclassmen, including a few walk-ons. It can be difficult to judge the performance of the OL when facing the 2nd team defense, but I was impressed. The OTs were Kelby Johnson and walk-on Nick Koutris. Outside of the interception, which was a pass deflected by DE Rob Burns, you didn't hear the 2nd team DEs called much. Johnson, in particular, was very good. There is a reason why Johnson played as a true freshman last year. He will be on the 2-deep this year.
The interior line was no less impressive. The walk-on duo of John Pond and Jon Goss at OG, seemed to hold their own against the Orange team DTs, and at C Ross Burbank was solid. Burbank and Mihalik will go into fall camp fighting for the starting nod at C. Mihalik has the edge, due to his experience, but Burbank appears to be a more natural center.
Let's sum everything up. At RB, we've got Perry Jones, Kevin Parks, Clifton Richardson and Khalek Shepherd. That's the order on the depth chart. And the 4th guy there was the one with over 100 yards rushing. At WR, we've got Smith, Terrell, Jennings and Gooch (not to mentioned walk-on WR James Valeiras, who had a strong game as well). Again, that is basically the order on the depth chart. How about TE? Paul Freedman, Jake McGee, Zack Swanson. Colter Phillips didn't play, but he's still the #1 TE on the depth chart. Simply put, we have an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions. Oh to be Michael Rocco or Bill Lazor for a few days this fall.
The OL will be the big question mark this year. If guys like Bowanko and Aboushi (and Cascarano to a lesser extent) can return healthy from off-season surgeries, our offense will be very dangerous. If not, we've got some question marks, especially on the interior. The Hoos offense finished 4th in the ACC in total offense, with a hair under 400 yards per game. This offense figures to be much improved next season, which should be a scary thought for the rest of the ACC.