Spring Game Roundup: USC defense thrives; Texas quarterbacks struggle
With spring games occurring across the country, SI.com distills the top news and notes from the weekend’s games.
All 73,506 fans at Alabama's "A-Day" spring game on Saturday witnessed some vintage Crimson Tide defense. Coach Nick Saban's defense highlighted the afternoon by stifling the offense on several occasions with seven sacks, 19 tackles for a loss and four interceptions. Two of those picks came from the arm of quarterback Blake Sims, who is expected to compete with incoming Florida State transfer Jacob Coker for the starting role. Sims completed 13-of-30 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown along with his two interceptions Saturday, and he still looks to be the leader among the current passers at the end of spring. Coker cannot practice with Alabama until he completes his studies at Florida State.
One returning piece on offense is running back T.J. Yeldon, who put on the offensive performance of the day by totaling 95 yards and one score. Center Ryan Kelly, one of three returning starters on the offensive line, said Yeldon's experience is what Alabama needs on offense.
"It is great having a running back like that, especially as an offensive lineman," Kelly said. "To have a guy like that who can miss defenders, obviously not every play is going to be perfect but with a guy like that back there running the ball some big plays can spring up. We just wish we could have done a little bit better blocking to make those big plays happen today.”
Alabama did some work off the field, as well. The Tide picked up four 2015 commitments over the weekend, including two five-star prospects, according to Rivals.com.
Arizona State's spring game went down to the final play. Sophomore linebacker Viliami Moeakiola stuffed running back Jarek Hilgers on fourth-and-short on the last play of overtime, and the Maroon topped the Gold team 29-23. Returning starting quarterback Taylor Kelly completed 7-of-22 throws for 92 yards and one score, and he hit receiver Jaelen Strong for a game-long 63-yard catch. But coach Todd Graham said his offense still has work to do.
"There were way too many dropped balls today," Graham said. "The tempo was way too slow. There are a lot of things we need to work on. But I was very pleased with the competition. I love this team and love the character. We had a great spring."
The Yellow Jackets endured miserable conditions during the team's spring game Friday, weather that head coach Paul Johnson called "as bad as I can remember." The AP reported 40-degree wind chills and freezing rain, which played a role in the Jackets' offense. Tech fumbled the ball 13 times, but there were a few bright spots during the team's final spring scrimmage. Tim Byerly, the roster's No. 2 quarterback behind expected starter Justin Thomas, rushed for 101 yards and one touchdowns and threw for 69 yards with Thomas out nursing a shoulder injury. Veteran B-back Zach Laskey contributed 73 yards and one score on the ground, as well.
The dreary atmosphere in Atlanta ended up taking a toll on Georgia Tech's spring game attendance. The reported attendance was around 1,500, but the crowd looked a little worse in some photos.
The Tigers' redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk was thrown into the SEC fray last season when senior starter James Franklin went down for part of the year with a shoulder injury. But Mauk, now a sophomore, looked like a veteran this spring and solidified his spot as Missouri's starter heading into the summer.
Mauk completing 11-of-15 passes for 129 yards and ran twice for 13 yards and a touchdown Saturday. According to the Columbia Tribune, Mauk connected on 41-of-64 passes for 446 yards and a touchdown in all three spring scrimmages combined. Coach Gary Pinkel said his roster is fortunate to have a returning player like Mauk to lead the offense.
"He is a lot better of a player than he was before, and he was pretty good last year," Pinkel said. "I think for quarterbacks things slow down the more experience you get because you see more. Being a redshirt and still very, very young, he just knows the offense better and reads defenses better which is typical after playing a third of a season."
The Tigers found some strong points on defense as well, with the first-team defense allowing only 32 yards on 15 first-half plays.
The Longhorns' quarterback Tyrone Swoopes threw for 229 yards and three touchdowns while running back Malcolm Brown rushed for 82 yards and two scores in coach Charlie Strong's first spring game at Texas. Swoopes, however, struggled early by missing on seven of his first nine pass attempts and finished 17-of-30 for the day. Swoopes is a candidate to slide into the starting role in 2014 as David Ash recovers from concussions, but the point may be moot by fall camp. Former USC quarterback Max Wittek attended the spring game in Austin as the Trojans' transfer continues to consider Texas as a possible destination. Wittek, who took his third visit to Austin, graduates from USC this spring and would be eligible this fall.
The Longhorns' defense, meanwhile, featured several strong performers. The team combined for eight sacks, with two apiece for defensive ends Cedric Reed and Caleb Bluiett. But Strong saide he'd still like to see more from both sides of the ball.
"When you look at the level of concern," Strong said, "you look at today and you go out and say defensively you would like to play a lot better and get stops and make sure you don't allow teams to just consistently drive the football on you. Then on offense it is all about executing, but that is going to come with focus and with preparation."
Coach Steve Sarkisian's first spring game in Los Angeles featured a lot more defense than offense. The Trojans' defense, led by new coordinator Justin Wilcox, kept USC's offense out of the end zone. Linebacker Scott Starr spurred the defensive effort with a game-high six tackles and three tackles for loss. The defense picked up seven sacks and pressured the quarterbacks, including recently named starter Cody Kessler, who completed just five of his 10 passes for 86 yards. With the offense stalling, kicker Andre Heidari knocked in four field goals.
Sarkisian said his offense has to be more effective by the time the Trojans open the season against Fresno State.
“I hope the offense is more efficient in fall camp,” Sarkisian said. “Historically we’ve been very strong in the red zone wherever I’ve coached. To be a good team we can’t have a third of our squad on the sidelines with injuries like we had today. We didn’t have any serious injuries during the practice so that was good news. We’ve just got to make sure we’re healthy when the season rolls around, because that’s when it’s really important.”
Utes fans hoping for a glimpse at new coordinator Dave Christensen's offense saw some bright spots in Saturday's spring scrimmage. Junior college transfer tailback Devontae Booker reeled off 19 carries and one touchdown, while wide receiver Dominique Hatfield racked up 93 yards and one touchdown on only four catches. A question mark still remains at quarterback, however, as returnee Travis Wilson completed 7-of-12 passes for 116 yards and one score while in a non-contact jersey as he recovers from a head injury from last season. Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson won't arrive until the fall to compete with Wilson and Adam Schulz for the starting role.
In all, Utah's offense reeled off 735 combined yards on 117 plays, though the Utes held out a number of starters on both sides of the ball. Christensen said this spring that the Utes hope to improve their tempo on offense, and head coach Kyle Whittingham said Saturday was the next step in that process.
"The last week or so the pace has been closer to where we envisioned it, but it's still a little off of where we want it to be," Whittingham said. "We'll get back after it and try to get that pace even quicker early in fall camp, but we're starting to get a feel now of where it needs to be."
New Huskies coach Chris Petersen still hasn't made a decision on when to reinstate suspended quarterback Cyler Miles. Miles, along with wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow, has been away from the team since February while facing discipline stemming from an incident after the Super Bowl. But fans got a chance to see what else Washington has in store at quarterback this spring, especially in Saturday's final scrimmage.
Jeff Lindquist threw four touchdowns passes primarily against the Huskies' second-team defense while redshirt freshman Troy Williams struggled a bit against Washington's first-team unit. Petersen said his staff hasn't seen enough this spring to justify using the word "starter" on anyone just yet, and this competition will likely extend into the fall. At that point, Miles is expected to have returned while incoming freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels will have arrived.
“I mean, it’s all nice to have a starting quarterback, but that guy graduated in December,” Petersen said of departed starter Keith Price. "And so, we are at square one. Until one guy establishes himself, we don’t have a guy.”
Though he was limited in Saturday's scrimmage, Shaq Thompson will be another guy to watch on both sides of the ball. Thompson impressed as a linebacker on defense and a runner on offense during spring, much like Myles Jack's performance last year for UCLA. Petersen has said his staff will find ways to utilize Thompson's abilities. ELLIS: Washington unveils revamped football uniforms