While Saturday's session was indeed devoid of frills, it was a thrill for most of the fans to see their Cougars in action for the first time this year. Fans have genuinely warmed up to head coach Bronco Mendenhall's straightforward approach, for which the intent is to field the best team possible without the offseason catering that surrounds most programs.
Saturday's exercise was hardly different than most practice sessions that the media has observed during the spring. The big difference was with it being held at LaVell Edwards Stadium, which wasn't only a thrill for the fans but for the players themselves.
"Any time you play here, it's special and it excites you," commented Braden Brown. "Having people here supporting us, it's a great way to end what has been a very good spring for me and for the entire team, I think."
"We love being out here and it always feels a little different playing out here," added cornerback Brian Logan. "It's special and I hope the fans enjoyed what they saw today. I wasn't able to play and most of the starters weren't in there a lot, but I feel we showed fans that we're a quality team that is improving."
The practice session was devoid of offensive fireworks, with the offense reaching the end zone just one time on a drive that featured a lot of running against the third-team defense. Riley Nelson led that drive and finished the day going 3-of-5 for 36 yards while running the ball twice for another 10 yards.
Jake Heaps got the first series of reps, but the defense held the offense to a three-and-out. After a short run, Heaps was sacked by outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy. That was followed up with a long pass that would have gone for a score, except it was slightly out of the reach of wide receiver Spencer Hafoka.
The second series of reps saw Nelson guide the offense to some success as the team focused on the run. Joshua Quezada was the featured runner, rushing the ball three times for 13 yards. Nelson himself ran the ball for a 5-yard gainer before a sack from Vic So'oto ended his series.
James Lark then got the next set, completing his only pass for a short 4 yards to J.J. Di Luigi. Di Luigi also contributed a 2-yard run to go along with a 7-yard gainer from Bryan Kariya. A false start penalty set the offense back on this particular series.
Nelson then got some more work and threw two incompletions, which sandwiched another 5-yard run by himself. It was yet another three-and-out for the offense. Nelson looked to have converted his third-down throw before seeing his pass dropped by Rhen Brown.
The next set, orchestrated by Lark, finally saw some decent gains made by the offense. Lark finished the drive going 5-of-8 for 36 yards and an interception thrown to Jameson Frazier that was greatly enabled by Travis Uale knocking the ball up in the air on an attempt over the middle. The best offensive play of the series was made by Quezada when he took a short pass 15 yards down the field by juking two defender in the open field.
Defensive highlights during the set included Romney Fuga and Jadon Wagner combining for a sack and Connell Hess knocking down a pass at the line of scrimmage. Lark's best work came when he completed a fourth-down pass to J.D. Falsev for 9 yards.
Heaps then got back on the field for the next series and led the team to a successful 48-yard field goal from Mitch Payne. Heaps went 2-of-4 on the set for 26 yards, with his best pass coming on a third-and-long 21-yard completion to tight end Devin Mahina. The defense held the offense to a field goal by virtue of Wagner and Frazier combining for a sack on third down.
Nelson then saw the final set of reps against the third-team defense and drove the offense down for a touchdown. After a 26-yard pass to Mathew Edwards, the offense ran the ball four straight times, with the final run being an 8-yard gallop by Quezada into the end zone.
During a lengthy post-practice interview, head coach Bronco Mendenhall touched on several topics.
-The success of Saturday's practice came with getting in a few more plays than planned, not having any injuries sustained to their players, and by having a lot of the younger players get a lot of quality reps. "In terms of getting what we wanted out of it … I was very satisfied with what we accomplished," Mendenhall said of not only the practice itself, but the children's clinic held just prior to the practice session.
-"The younger the players are, the more influence playing in the stadium will have on them." he said of playing at LaVell Edwards Stadium and how the team's execution related to that. "I think we saw that at the beginning of the scrimmage, and knowing that today's practice was mostly for the younger and inexperienced players, I think that was a little bit reflective, but it did get a little cleaner as it went on."
-The best news from spring practices was only sustaining two significant injuries. One was to Famika Anae, who won't be expected back this fall, and the other was to Marcus Mathews, who will be according to Mendenhall.
-There wasn't even a general thought that this spring would finish with a definite starter at the quarterback position according to the Cougar head coach. "Knowing that we weren't going to have enough offensive linemen to do significant scrimmage work to get enough team reps to really make an assessment, our main focus was to get some good timing between them and the receivers heading into the offseason and fall camp."
-Regarding the players that are emerging at the positions that are being battled for include Terence Brown getting the edge at center, Steven Thomas getting the edge at safety with Andrew Rich assuming his spot at Kat safety, and Mike linebacker still being completely wide open heading into fall camp.
-Mendenhall mentioned that Zac Stout will be tried out specifically to man the Mike linebacker spot along with Austen Jorgensen. While both Brandon Ogletree and Aveni Leung-Wai have cross-trained at both the Mike and Buck linebacker spots, the hope is that either Stout or Jorgensen will emerge at the Mike position, as coaches have determined both of them to be best-suited for that role.
-At tight end, Mendenhall has been impressed with Devin Mahina. "He's showing real signs of his mission conditioning wearing off," commented Mendenhall. "Mike Muehlmann as well, if I were to say, I'd say that those two are dead even. Marcus Mathews was emerging as the number three, but we also have Bryan Sampson and Austin Holt coming in as well, so we're going to be really good at tight end I believe."
-Regarding true freshmen Joshua Quezada and Kyle Van Noy: "Josh was clearly a bright spot this spring. He's a very, very, very good person, he's a good young man and a good running back and I feel fortunate that he's here. Kyle Van Noy is learning a lot about our system and how hard he's expected to play. He certainly has the potential and his biggest work that is in progress right now is adapting to the culture."
-Mendenhall mentioned Jameson Frazier as perhaps being the best surprise of spring and indicated that he may even vie for a starting spot this coming season with his play.