The final score showed a 21-10 ‘win’ by the White team over the Maroons. Two of their touchdowns, the first and last, came on pick-sixes by defensive backs Cameron Dantzler and safety Brian Cole. The one in the middle was on a one-yard dive by senior back Dontavian Lee.
All the Maroon points came in the second quarter, when the clock was still being kept for real, with a five-yard keeper by quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. On the last play of the period Brad Wall was able to knock through a 26-yard field goal.
But scores were just part of the story. Plays were what Mullen and staff counted more, both made and un-made. Plus not everything was as it seemed. Take, most obviously, the four interceptions tossed by returning starter and all-SEC candidate Fitzgerald.
On the box score a very bad day; to the head coach? It was a still-developing veteran taking some shots and risks that real games don’t allow. Otherwise Fitzgerald was 14-of-27 with 127 yards, throwing to a limited lineup of targets as well.
Which was the same for freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson as he was just 6-of-20 for 80 yards and three sacks. Mullen wasn’t worried since Thompson was restricted from running at all and forced to be a thrower, in a spring where by all rights the kid should still be in high school.
The day’s offensive star was soph running back with his 108 yards on 17 rushes, almost twice as much as senior starter Aeris Williams (55 on 9) netted in a shorter stint.
Realistically the spring game was going to belong to the defense anyway. They took advantage with five forced turnovers and some fine tackles for losses up front. This is good news as new coordinator Todd Grantham’s system is still only partly installed with more to get done in August.
The defense was without some starters too. LB Leo Lewis and S Brandon Bryant were among the first-team holdouts on that side; while on offense WR Donald Gray and tight ends Farrod Green and Justin Johnson didn’t take a snap. Only Gray even dressed. WR Keith Mixon fielded some punts but did not run a route.
And of course the offensive lines were a patchwork all spring with expected starting center Deion Calhoun and left guard Elgton Jenkins missing all camp for injuries. Fortunately no other blockers were hurt in practices and everyone is supposed to be ready by August.
Maybe the ‘surprise’ of Saturday was Mullen informing there will be one more practice after the spring game. He has done this before, of course, just not for a few years. The nature of this team though had the staff save one of the 15 total dates for after the spring game. It will be a review-and-refresh session ahead of sending everyone on their off-season and summer plans. Mullen promised to update all injuries after camp is completed.
The full transcript follows.
What was your opinion of the spring game today? “Not bad. Not bad, I mean a lot of first opportunities for guys to come out and make plays. I saw some guys make some plays in their first chance and opportunity to do that out here, really playing in front the crowd.”
“I saw some guys with some missed opportunities. Next time we come out and play here in front of a crowd it’s for-real. So we’ve got to start making those plays.”
Did you decide to call it off early? “No, I mean, we called 30 seconds early! It was a running clock in the second half.”
Cam Dantzler had some big plays today, has that been consistent in spring? “No, he’s coming along. He got banged-up a little earlier this week. To see him come and not be at 100% though, but learn how to play through things, that’s a big thing for young players.
“It’s great when everybody feels good. And when you don’t feel 100% can you still make those plays? And it was good to see him make those.”
What are your thoughts on the defense, guys flying around? “Yeah, you see, you know the defense I want to play here, which is guys flying to the football as hard as they can. Trying to go make plays and playing an aggressive style of defense.”
Talk about what you saw of the offense and Nick Fitzgerald? “They did alright. I mean we sat a lot of offensive guys today. And I think if you look at the guys, our main running backs: 6.4 yards a carry, 6.1 a carry, 4.5 a carry. It showed we were able to run the ball.”
“And we’re doing it without two starting linemen in there. Both starting tight ends are gone, and three starting wideouts didn’t play today. So we kind of limited the number of weapons maybe that were out there on the field.”
“But just going out there and doing what we do, I got to see some things that I thought were pretty good.”
Do you feel you accomplished everything you wanted to in spring? “Well, we get another practice Tuesday. So there are a couple of things I want to get done Tuesday. And we’ll see from there.”
Will you give an injury update after the spring? “Yeah, we will. After the spring.”
What were you seeing from Nick Gibson? “I think you see it today, we kept it really simple for him. We weren’t real complex in what we were doing. And you saw, he has some ability running the football.”
Now what we’ve got to see are the other things from him. You know, that’s always kind of been the case. Route-running with pass protections, blocking, some of those things of just the consistency of performance. He’s got the running part down! We’ll see the complete game that he needs to play with.”
What did you see from Keytaon Thompson today? “I thought he was very poised. I mean, you want to put him in a situation, first time playing in front of a crowd. I loved to see the poise that he had.”
“And when we take one of the things, he’s such a great and dynamic runner; to take that aspect of the game away and still see can he keep his poise and manage and do those things on the field. And he was able to do that.”
“I thought he’s done that all spring and been pretty impressive for a guy that really is not even a freshman yet.”
What were your impressions of Fitzgerald today with the interceptions? “But I’m fine. The great thing, you see is he keeps firing. A younger guy that might bother him. A veteran guy, it’s not going to bother him. A veteran guy, he’s going to be out there, he’s going to keep firing. A guy doesn’t run the route the right way, he gets picked, he’s going to come right back to him and still trust him and give him another chance to make plays.”
“That’s him. And it’s good to see him have that confidence in his game and in his growth.”
Do you chalk that up to quarterbacks trying to find more chemistry with the receivers? “Yeah, well, any time you split the team in half you’re so watered-down. So I don’t mind. He’s trying to make plays. And for him, as you get a little bit older as a quarterback, practice is a time to see what you can do. Practice is a time where you might take some more chances and some more risks and see, do I want to try to make this throw? Do I want to try to get that read, or fit this ball in here or there?”
“And he understands all of that. He understands where he’s going with the ball. It’s good to see. I wasn’t disappointed with him today at all.”
Even with the watering-down today, how much has both sides of the team retained all that has been installed? “I think a lot. I think we’ve had a pretty good spring that way. Of guys building a foundation for us to move forward on.”
“So one of the things, we’ll go back at the end of spring, we’ll evaluate everything that we did. Find what these guys do well, what they do poorly, and move on from there.”
Moving on, what is up to the guys to do over the summer? “That’s so big. After Tuesday, I mean we haven’t set the start date yet but it’s late July, early August the next time we’re on the field practicing. And that’s a long time.”
“So the key to success they coming out and are they at the same level or above of how we walked off the field? When we walk off the field Tuesday, we cannot take a step back as a team, as individuals, as anybody.”
“Now we might not take huge steps because we’re not practicing as a full team all the time. But we’ve got to maintain and maybe a slight increase of where we’re at within our technique, our everything. Understanding of the offense, defense, kicking schemes, as we get ready for fall camp.”
What does Brian Cole add to the secondary? “He has some speed, made a couple of plays, that was pretty good of hm. So it was good to see him out there today.”
“But a bunch of those guys out there making plays, some new faces making plays, was pretty good.”
Is depth a strength for this defense? “Well, I don’t think we’re there yet at all. I think there’s still a lot of young guys and new faces on that defense. Not a lot of seniors. But if we keep progressing…”
“I’d love to get that way where we do have some depth on defense”