The theme of the day in the annual Grove Bowl was to keep it simple on both sides of the ball and allow the players to showcase their talents.
The offense was limited to just 14 plays, the defense was allowed one middle blitz and one edge blitz and the coaches got what they wanted - a fast-paced scrimmage that ended up with the offense on top 31-29 after the game was begun 27-0 in favor of the defense.
As expected, the offense scored on some big plays - a 28-yard TD from QB Shea Patterson to WR D.K. Metcalf, a 76-yard catch-and-run from Patterson to WR A.J. Brown, and a 75-yard TD toss from backup QB Jordan Ta'amu to WR Slot Receiver Van Jefferson - and capped their scoring off with a Gary Wunderlich field goal from 30 yards out and a short Ta'Amu TD run.
On the other hand, the defense made plays as well, including 6 QB sacks, 4 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three batted down passes.
"There was a lot of give-and-take today," said Coach Hugh Freeze. "I wasn’t pleased with the explosive plays the defense gave up, but I was pleased with the offense's ability to make big plays. We also ran the ball fairly effectively most of the day while mixing in a lot of players. That's just the way spring games go — if you’re happy with one side of the ball, you aren't happy with the other, but overall I thought from day one until the end of today's scrimmage the team got better.
"We have work to do, we’re not a finished product, but we’re improving and that's what spring’s all about."
Notes and Observations
* The Rebel QBs threw for over 500 yards — 341 by Patterson and 188 by Ta'amu — while completing a combined 47 of 41 attempts (21-30 for Shea, 6-11 for Jordan). Jefferson had 6 catches for 126 yards and a score, Brown had 5 snags for 133 yards and a score, D.K. Metcalf had 4 receptions for 98 yards and a TD and Markell Pack was 3 for 80. For now, and most likely throughout the season, the passing game will be the strength of the offense, but the Rebs did rush for 170 yards on 48 attempts with D.K. Buford racking up 53 yards and Eugene Brazley 44. (Jordan Wilkins was used sparingly.)
* Jaylon Jones led the way in tackles with 5.5 while Armani Linton had 5, Tayler Polk registered 4.5, A.J. Moore rung up 4, and Benito Jones, Zedrick Woods and Garrald McDowell had 3.5 each. DE Qaadir Sheppard had two QB sacks while Josiah Coatney, McDowell, Detric Bing-Dukes and Breon Dixon had one sack each. Jaylen Jones also forced a fumble by Metcalf after a 50-yard catch-and-run that C.J. Hampton recovered. CB Myles Hartsfield, who injured an ankle earlier this week, tried to go but did not play but one quarter.
* DE Markel Winters, CB Kendarius Webster, DT Austrian Robinson, WR DaMarkus Lodge, CB Jalen Julius, TE Ty Quick, TE Jordan Mathis, TB Eric Swinney, OL Sam Johnson, WR Jared Farlow and CB Montrell Custis did not participate due to injury.
* There were no depth chart changes in the game, but Qaadir Sheppard did play more with the number one defense, splitting time with Victor Evans, who also played some rush end behind Marquis Haynes, the Chucky Mullins Award winner.
*On the OL, for now, there appears to be a three-man OT rotation of Greg Little, Rod Taylor and Alex Givens and a three-man OG rotation of Jordan Sims, Javon Patterson and Daronte Bouldin.
* DT Breeland Speaks ended spring training with another good day in limited action, getting a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and batting down a pass. His motor from 2015 has returned. He had an excellent spring, as we have documented here several times.
* It appears as if WR Tre' Nixon, as expected, is going to be the punt returner in 2017 and he will be backed up by Brown and Jefferson, in that order for now. (No kickoffs were worked in the Grove Bowl.)
* There has been some concern about having enough bodies on the inside of the defensive line, but Coatney, Ross Donnelly and McDowell have impressed Coach Freddie Roach enough to have gained his trust somewhat. While this is no guarantee of PT next season, all three worked some with the first defense in the Grove Bowl, as did Benito Jones and Speaks.
* Behind Haynes, Sheppard and Evans, who might be the fourth defensive end? Right now, it looks like it may be Charles Wiley. Shawn Curtis and Winters were both hurt most of spring, so it is hard to gauge, and Ryder Anderson, who came on strong at the end of spring, is a likely redshirt candidate while he grows more and gets stronger.
* The area of concern on defense? Depth at linebacker and overall safety play. SS Zedrick Woods has had a good spring, but no other safety has jumped off the page. Is is C.J. Hampton? C.J. Moore? Deontay Anderson? Or will the coaches be forced to move Hartsfield back inside? August will tell the tale.
* The run game did not set the woods on fire in the Grove Bowl, but it was effective and good enough that the defense had to respect it. Also, as OC Phil Longo said, "we didn’t show our whole run game package. We have more in the fall, things I believe will make us better in that area."
* One thing was apparent in the Grove Bowl — a defender cannot arm tackle Metcalf or Brown. They are just too big and strong and they both have excellent balance when hit.
* With the way Ta'amu played in the Grove Bowl and most of spring (he had a week where he didn't perform well, said Longo), it is obvious the coaches' comfort with him will allow Jason Pellerin to stay slot/TE. Pellerin is another defensive backs cannot arm tackle. Speaking of Ta'amu, he went live the second half and showed he not only can run the ball effectively, he throws a really nice deep ball, connecting on two during the game.
* The number one offensive line only gave up one of the six QB sacks, so don't be alarmed from an OL standpoint about the sack total by the defense.
* RB Eugene Brazley may be the back who benefits the most from the wider line splits as it gives him a chance to run to space with his quickness and speed. That was apparent in the Grove Bowl where a couple of times he was sprung due to wider running lanes and his ability to hit the hole quickly.
* Redshirt freshman TE Gabe Angel seems to be caching the eye of TE Coach Maurice Harris in the passing game more and more. He was not being used much in early spring practices, but was frequently with the number one offense of late. He has soft hands and runs precise routes.
* Remember: what you saw today in the Grove Bowl was a fraction of what you will see in the fall — on both sides of the ball.