Saturday marked the first full scrimmage of the Kevin Sumlin era. The offensive units and defensive units battled to a draw in my opinion. The offense had its moments scoring on 11 of the day's 19 possessions, including six touchdowns. The highlight of the early portion of the scrimmage was the 2nd and 28 long pass from Jameill Showers to Nate Askew on a long pass over the top down the sideline for 50 yards that led to the game's first TD. It was a perfect strike, and it was all in the air…no YAC. Showers earlier connected with Askew again on a similar 25 yard pass on the first series. Johnny Manziel completed a 25-yard jump ball TD to LaKendrick Williams in his fifth series while Matt Joeckel threw a nice post route to Mike Evans who outran Deshazor Everett the final 40 yards for a 60-yard TD pass.
But the defense had plenty of answers as well. It started with Toney Hurd's pick six breaking on a route in the slot by Johnny Manziel for the easy 15-20 yard return. In the red zone, Manziel was trying to hit Nate Askew on a 15 yard fade route. Howard Matthews was playing him in man coverage and had perfect inside position and intercepted it in the end zone to stymie a red zone opportunity. The third INT was a gift as Showers hit Michael Lamothe in the hands, the ball popped up and Clay Honeycutt (possibly Swope?) made the defensive grab. The front seven also consistently put pressure on the opposing quarterback getting several sacks despite the quick tempo offense. There were very few runs (by design) and no explosive plays….a lot of 3-7 yard runs.
Again, I wouldn't say that either unit dominated or won the scrimmage over the other unit. Both units had some shining moments, and some sloppy mistakes as well.
One area that was crisp was the special teams. Taylor Bertolet clearly showed he is the starter with an early 49-yard field goal that had enough juice to be good from 60 yards with the wind at his back. He was perfect on the day and looked very strong. Serres made his kicks but his leg is clearly weaker than Bertolet's. I also thought Drew Kaser had the best day over Ryan Epperson. Even on his misses, Kaser's leg is strong enough to get 35-40 yards on his kicks and they have good hang time. Then he catches a couple and drives it 55-60 yards. Epperson simply doesn't have the leg strength to land those 60-yard boomers in the air like Kaser. Those young guys have to show it with the lights n in front of 80,000, but for now the young guns are shining.
I'll analyze each position:
I thought Showers came out looking crisp and in control of the offense. He looked the most comfortable with the quick tempo offense. The other three QB's looked like they were still thinking about what they were doing and looking a bit mechanical. A lot has been made of Showers' arm strength, and it really is an advantage for him over the others. He can make throws downfield that others can't. On the over the top 50 yarder, no other QB on the roster can make that play consistently. His downfield balls don't float and gets to its destination much quicker where he can take advantage of separation and missed defensive assignments down the field. Showers was consistent for the most part with his misses coming on drops or safe overthrows on deeper balls.
When Manziel has time in the pocket and the primary receivers in the slot are open, he's very efficient and he can make the throw quickly and in tempo. It's when he's pressured and trying to hit the intermediate route is where he has limitations. He had Evans wide open toward the sideline about 25 yards downfield, but he didn't have much zip on the ball and safety Devonta Burns had time to close and break-up what appeared to be a big gainer. Also, the defensive backs are reading Manziel somehow, because the corners were breaking on his throws quickly and getting some pass break-ups on shorter routes. Something is tipping them off. But after struggling the first four series and giving up that pick six in series four, he came back and had his best series in his fifth rep scoring on a 90-yard drive. He did it with a quick out to Williams, a nice post throw again to Williams, a 10 yarder to Mike Evans, and then the 30 yarder to Williams, although it was a jump ball. You have to like his ability to overcome his struggles mentally. The other issue that must be noted is the referees had a very quick whistle on sacks. That really took away his strength to extend plays and using his feet to make big plays.
Still, based on today's scrimmage, Showers had the better day and convincingly won the first of three spring battles in this competition.
I also thought Matt Joeckel struggled with the tempo of the offense. It's an offense that demands the QB move and think quickly, and at 6-foot-5 he seems to struggle with the quick, short throws. He actually had some success on a few downfield throws hitting Evans perfectly on a 20-yard intermediate post route that he took the remaining 40 yards for a 60-yard TD score. He had a couple of 10-yard passes when he had time, but he had troubles with the pass rush getting whistled down several times before he could get the ball off. Again, the refs were blowing the plays dead quickly so he may have made something happen in a live game. Overall, I didn't get the feeling that Joeckel was comfortable with the tempo, but this was the first scrimmage and there are two more to settle in and perform. Matt Davis saw one brief series. He showed off his arm strength with an impressive deep ball although he overthrew his target by a couple of yards. Otherwise, there's nothing to take away from his brief performance.
There were few opportunities for explosive plays by the running backs. I thought Will Randolph looked pretty good in the few carries he got. Ironically, he had a very nice 10-yard run that ended in the knee injury. Ben Malena generated some tough yards between the tackles as usual. Brandon Williams had several nice runs and was close to breaking a couple of explosive runs. He is a big play waiting to happen. The running backs caught a lot of screens but none went for more than 10-12 yards. The defense had that play covered most of the day.
Overall, I thought the receivers had a solid day. There weren't many drops and they made the plays in front of them. Kenric McNeal, Malcolme Kennedy, and LaKendrick Williams were productive in the slot on short routes, and Kennedy burned a DB coming up too aggressively and Showers hit him in stride on a post for a 35-40 yard TD. I also liked what I saw from the big outside guys Mike Evans and Nate Askew. Aside from the big plays we've talked about, Askew made some shorter catches and he was the go-to guy in the red zone. He's just now learning to use his large frame and his strength to separate from the DB in the end zone, but he still needs to learn to finish it and make the catch with the DB all over him. He just needs to finish. Evans had some nice posts routes and a few slants. I'm really starting to like him if he can polish some things and continue to improve. Most impressive with Evans was his YAC on the 60-yard TD. Deshazor Everett was only a step behind him when he made the catch on the run and Everett could catch him from behind as Evans sprinted 40 yards to the end zone. I didn't know Evans had that kind of speed. Losing weight has been the key for his resurgence this spring. He still has work to do, but there's definitely potential there.
For this offense to work, there does need to be a few explosive plays out of these short routes and that didn't happen today. Sumlin has commented about needing more playmakers in the receiver corps. Ryan Swope could be that playmaker. Thomas Johnson has a chance to be that playmaker. McNeal, Kennedy and those guys could develop into more dynamic playmakers as they get more comfortable with the system. There's plenty of potential here.
I'll be honest. I was a little disappointed in the offensive line play. The QB's were under constant pressure. Specifically, the protection quickly broke down on some of the linebacker blitzes. Donnie Baggs, Sean Porter, and a few of the defensive ends were in the backfield several times and registered at least 5-6 sacks (granted, the quick whistle helped) . Most of the issues were on the edge.
Kirby Ennis made some stops near the line of scrimmage and Ivan Robinson had the only sack from an interior DL. Otherwise, I thought it was quiet day for the defensive front. The defensive ends put some pressure on the QB, but for the most part the focus on the short passing game meant the DL's were not making headlines in the scrimmage.
I thought the linebackers played a good game. They were very effective in pressuring the QB, forcing some ill-timed throws and getting some sacks. Donnie Baggs was impressive and he will push for plenty of playing time and possibly a starting spot. Sean Porter is still at his best rushing off the edge on blitzes. In fact, between Baggs and Porter, the defense brought linebackers off the edge more than I thought they would. Charlie Thomas made some nice plays when he came into the game in nickel packages. The walk-on Bass was playing second team middle linebacker along with Baggs and Thomas.
One thing is clear. These defensive backs are aggressive. Deshazor Everett seemed to be involved in every play with the first team whether it's a pass break-up giving up a long TD pass. On the first series, Everett had been undressing Mike Evans on some short routes. Then, he again jumped a cut by Evans and the lanky receiver ran right past him so Everett had to grab him in desperation and was flagged for 15 yards. It was a good decision because he prevented an easy 60 yard TD when Evans blew right past him. Everett was also burned by Evans on that 55-yard catch and run for score thrown by Joeckel. But he also blanketed his man for most of the scrimmage. I think Floyd Raven has the potential to be special. Tremaine Jacobs has pretty good coverage skills, but he was pushed around all day in the red zone by Askew. He needs to get more physical…like the first teamers. Desmond Gardiner has a new lease on life with the new staff and he's a solid back-up. And then there was Toney Hurd's break on the ball and perfect pick six against Manziel.
At safety, Howard Matthews and Johntel Franklin started with the first unit. Steven Terrell must have been nursing an injury as I didn't see him. Matthews had a great play in the red zone when he played man coverage on Askew on the fade route in the end zone. He established inside position, pushed him outside and turned around just in time to snag the interception. Matthews was active in the middle as well and he looks like he has adequate closing speed after dropping some pounds in the offseason. Coach Yates must develop some depth here.
Hop's 4/14 Scrimmage Analysis
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