Fitting Finale

The Rebel offense "won" the points system Grove Bowl 15-12, but in reality the offense vs. defense showdown was nothing more than an extension of the whole spring practice - a lot of effort and enthusiasm.

The Grove Bowl Saturday afternoon in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium really wasn't a game, but it was a story, a story Coach Hugh Freeze emphasized all spring training and reemphasized after the annual affair.

Technically, the offense won the spring-ending battle over a game defense 15-12, but Freeze was not factoring that into his final spring evaluation.

"I have coached in a lot of spring trainings and I can't remember one being better in the area of effort," he began. "Obviously, there are a lot of things we can clean up, but I don't know if I could have asked for any more effort than they gave us for 15 days.

"We got the most out of them we could get. We had an extremely physical and competitive spring, but they brought it every day."

Why this spring? Why now for the extreme effort?

"Added depth brought out a lot of competition. Our staff being together for three years and some of these kids knowing our system. A new influx of quality players and a good core group of leaders emerging - there are a lot of reasons," he continued. "Whatever it was, it was the perfect storm in terms of effort and I couldn't be prouder of them from that standpoint. They brought it every day."

The plan all along was to have a very physical spring, which the staff was allowed to do based on more capable bodies available for spring training.

"We made a conscious effort to have a tough spring," Hugh noted. "We are not where we want to be depth-wise, but we are at the point now where you can't take the next step in this journey if you aren't physical. If you really want to be in the upper echelon of this league, spring practice has to be physical and demanding and intense.

"The past two springs, we had to be very careful, but this year we were able to press the accelerator a little bit and have a physical, competitive spring."

It was a true team effort, according to the Rebel leader.

"We had a lot of guys step up their games to a new level. It wasn't just that heralded 2013 class - although a lot of them stepped up, it was a team effort of guys taking their games up a notch," he stated. "That class in general gave us a great foundation for the future, but we have some guys who joined us at spring semester, a couple of transfers and some of the older players who notched it up too."

On the day, the defense started strong by forcing two turnovers - a fumble by WR Laquon Treadwell, who caught two passes for 46 yards and a TD on the day, and a fumble by TE Evan Engram, who also had two catches for 77 yards on the outing.

But after trailing early, the offense started putting some things together and gaining momentum, particularly against the number two and three defenses.

Jordan Wilkins
File Photo

TB I'tavius Mathers, who finished with 121 yards on four carries, ripped off a 95-yard run to get things going. Then Kincade found TB Mark Dodson for a 24-yard TD pass and the offense started rolling, gaining a big margin with only the Red Zone portion of the competition to go. In that period, Wallace connected with Treadwell for a 25-yard score.

"I thought it was tit-for-tat in the Red Zone. The defense finished strong," said Freeze. "We ran the ball well, we threw it around OK. It was a decent, competitive day."

Random Notes:

* Who's the number two QB? Devante Kincade was 5-8 for 57 yards with a score and no interceptions. He also rushed for 38 yards on six carries. Ryan Buchanan was 6-10 for 100 yards on the day throwing the ball. Tough call right now. . . "That's a great problem to have," Freeze said. "It's better than not having choices, for sure. It wasn't too long ago we weren't sure who our number one was going to be. I am excited about the level of competition between Ryan and DeVante. Jeremy (Liggins) also keeps throwing his hat in the ring by making plays here and there, especially in short yardage situations. We have some decisions to make with him this summer that entail a lot of factors we have to manage and figure out. I'm just glad we have him on our team. Kincade and Ryan do different things. Ryan has some natural pocket presence hard to teach. He knows where to go with the ball. Kincade can do a lot of things with his feet and has a strong arm. I'm excited we have that competition going on."

* Key "other" stats: Passing: Bo Wallace 10-21, 152 yards, 1 TD, no interceptions. . . Rushing: Jordan Wilkins 26 yards on seven carries; Eugene Brazley 6-28; QB Kendrick Doss 4-27; Liggins 6-21, 1 TD. . . Receiving: Dodson 2-69, 1 TD; Cody Core 4-51. . . Tackles: Cody Prewitt 10, 2 FF; Marquis Haynes 7, 2 QB Sacks; C.J. Hampton 5; Bird Bryant 4, 1 FR.

* Freeze's expectations moving forward? "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt we are a better team than we were last year," Hugh said. "I have no idea what that means wins and losses because nobody in this conference is going backwards. Nobody is going to step aside. The expectation I have is that the team wins every day until the opening kickoff in Atlanta against Boise State."

Cody Prewitt
File Photo

* The offensive line has been a spring question mark due to missing players and inexperience. Freeze discussed their development. . . "Matt (Luke) has done a great job with them," Hugh assessed. "We didn't have Aaron Morris or Christian Morris. We were playing with some walkons in our two-deep, but I have seen kids like Robert Conyers, Ben Still, Daronte Bouldin and Austin Golson step their games up. All those guys play hard for Matt because they love him. He's an outstanding OL coach - that's why I hired him. He needs help there, and everyone knows that, but maybe that's coming in the fall with some more quality players and get a couple off injury. But as for this spring, they have definitely improved quite a bit."

* Freshman DE Marquis Haynes had two QB sacks on the day and was quite active. "Marquis is going to be a player. He reminds me a lot of C.J. Johnson as a freshman, but he's not the only one who came in here at second semester who changed the look of our team. Fadol Brown, Christian Russell and C.J. Hampton also changed us for the better, to name a few. With Marquis, we can win more one-on-one pass rushes, which after C.J. and carlos went out last year, we didn't win many. Marquis has that type of twitch and explosiveness to win one-on-ones. They all change our team."

* Most improved this spring? CB Cliff Coleman and WR Collins Moore, and throw in Mathers. "I think I'Tavius can be special. He has made great runs, making guys miss in space, breaking tackles. He has really improved," said Freeze. "Collins has just made plays, day-in and day-out. Cliff is mature and has gotten stronger and more fine-tuned at his craft. Christian Russell and Temario Strong also had good days today at MLB. DT Bryon Bennett has really turned a corner too in terms of his buy-in with doing the little things. If he stays on that path, he can have a special year next year, his senior season."

* Injuries on the day: LT Laremy Tunsil turned an ankle. Nothing serious. Everyone else came out of the scrimmage healthy and that has pretty much been the storyline of the spring - limited injuries and nothing serious.

* The Rebel coaches experimented with some position moves today for depth purposes. When Tunsil went down to an ankle injury, Golson moved to LT and Conyers went to RT with the first unit. Both looked very comfortable and did their jobs. . . Deterrian Shackelford, who won the Chucky Mullins Award Saturday morning for the second time in his career, played mostly MLB, but late in the practice switched to DE and had a quarterback hurry in limited time. . . DT Issac Gross also played some DE for a couple of series and also had a negative yardage tackle from that slot.

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