Spring football observations

Holy crap, that was a lot of offense!

Good morning! Thanks for joining us today with the newsletter. Originally, Craig and I had planned to record a show last week to talk about the Crimson and Gray Game and the ongoing state of the men’s basketball roster, but things didn’t work out.

Since I’m sitting with a bunch of observations about the spring game sitting in my iPhone Notes, I figured I could bang out a newsletter for y’all. Even though it’s been a week and a half, there ain’t much else going on — unless you want to talk about DJ Rodman entering the portal? No? Me either!

I also figure you might have some of your own observations. If you’d like to cut straight to those, here’s the button where you can do that!

Additionally, just a periodic reminder that commenting and tracking any other Substack publications you follow is easiest in the app — I use it pretty religiously at this point because there’s a heck of a lot of great content at Substack right now. I also have started dabbling in Notes — a Twitter-like feature:

If you listened to our last show, we told you straight up that we don’t pay much attention to the day-to-day machinations of spring football practices, but that we do enjoy attending and watching the Crimson and Gray Game. And, as we also told you, neither one of us was able to attend the game this year.

But I did sit down in my living room to view it from afar. And as far as spring games go, it was actually a pretty worthwhile and entertaining thing to spend a couple of hours doing!

Spring games typically are a bit sluggish and disjointed offensively, but this year’s edition featured a plethora of points (56 between the two squads) and piles of yards (897). I don’t have the will or desire to go back and look up stats from previous years, but I can’t ever remember this kind of offensive explosion in a spring game. When you put that in the context of the Cougs being under their third offensive coordinator in three years (or fourth in the three years, if you want to count the Nick Rolovich/Brian Smith mess as two), Saturday’s performance ranges from highly interesting to damn impressive, depending on how much weight you want to put on an intrasquad scrimmage.

If you didn’t get a chance to watch the game, you can catch up yourself — and, unlike watching it live, you can do it in about 45 minutes thanks to the indispensable Matthew Loves Ball:

Ready? Here we go!

Before I started watching, I thought a bit about what I hoped to see. Virtually all of my questions centered on the offense. Much of that is simply that it’s easier for the layperson to analyze offense and, frankly, scoring points is more interesting than preventing them. But I also have a belief that the defense is probably always going to be somewhere between “fine” and “very good” under Jake Dickert’s direction.

The offense, of course, couldn’t even get to “fine” last season, culminating in the bowl game with one of the more putrid performances you’ll ever see. So, I wondered:

  • Would the new offense under Ben Arbuckle look familiar?

  • Has Ward made strides in consistency?

  • Would the new receivers represent adequate replacements?

With the offensive 1s (Crimson) playing the defensive 1s (Gray)1, the answers are yes, yes, and yes. And while I don’t typically place a huge amount of weight in a spring game, it’s hard not to be super encouraged by what we saw in the game.

I admit to not having done too deep of a dive into Arbuckle up until this point, but I assumed he had Air Raid ties and that he would utilize tight ends, given what Jake Dickert has always stated publicly that he wanted out of his offenses. What we watched offered confirmation on both counts: Conceptually, the passing game looked very Air Raid-y, and while I didn’t track the snap counts for personnel, sets that featured one or two tights ends seemed as frequent as the standard four-wide sets of the Air Raid.

The quick hitters and use of the horizontal game were easily recognizable, as were a few Air Raid staples.2 This big gainer by DT Sheffield (more on him in a minute) looks an awful lot like the Y Cross with which River Cracraft used to torture defenses (this video starts at the play):

And this TD by Sheffield looks like a variation on “6” (aka “Four Verts”):

Cam Ward — in his second year as the trigger man in Pullman — looked vastly improved from the guy who was so erratic while running for his life last season. He looked composed as he spent most of his time in the pocket, firing darts all over the field to compile an eye-popping stat line in just one half of play: 12-of-16, 259 yards, 16.2 yards per attempt. That is insane.

Now, I don’t know if Ward was artificially set up for success with vanilla coverages and limited pass rush schemes3, but even if he was, watching him hit throw after throw after throw after throw — just a few months after watching him miss a lot of throws that a QB of his reputation ought to be able to make — was pretty damn impressive. You can't fake your way to 16.2 YPA.

You also need some talent at receiver to do that, and the guys brought in to replace all the departures certainly look talented.

Sheffield, of course, is the one who popped off the screen, doing his best vintage Renard Bell impersonation4: three catches for 121 yards on just four targets with 71 yards after the catch. Opponents this fall will immediately be on high alert for the Northwest Mississippi CC transfer after that one.

The other transfers looked pretty good, too! Josh Kelly (from Fresno State) and Kyle Williams (from UNLV) worked with the 1s and combined for five catches and 101 yards. I saw nothing there that led me to think that these guys won’t be able to hang in the Pac-12 this fall.

I think what I love most about that is that we’re not going to be relying on young, inexperienced guys to carry the load: Tsion Nunnally (redshirt sophomore), Leyton Smithson (sophomore) and Carlos Hernandez (freshman) all ran with the 2s. Nunnally looked quite good (four catches, 84 yards) and Hernandez appears to have a ton of potential (four catches, 70 yards, TD). Smithson, meanwhile, didn’t have a big game (catching the ball, at least — more on that in a moment), but we already know what he can do after watching him play as a true freshman, and he actually had one play where he had beaten the DB over the top but backup QB John Mateer underthrew him and the pass was broken up.

I came away feeling confident that the depth at receiver is actually pretty good, and it seems clear that the squad will be able to rotate pretty heavily and survive the inevitable injuries.

I’m not willing to go all-in and declare that this is ready to be a record-setting offense that will light the Pac-12 on fire, but I will be absolutely blown away if that side of the ball isn’t vastly improved this fall. I think that’s about all you can ask for at this point.

Other observations!

I ALSO WAS ENCOURAGED BY THE OFFENSIVE LINE. We’ve seen years where the defense racks up “sacks,” largely because they only have to create a marginal advantage to get a hand on the QB and end a play, but none of the QBs appeared to be under undue duress in this one. In the eternal spring game fan struggle of WHAT DOES IT MEAAAAAAN, it could signal that the pass rush is in trouble, but like the rest of the defense, I think the pass rush will be serviceable just based on last season and the guys who are returning.

Juco transfer Esa Pole ran with the 1s at left tackle and looked pretty good, including a real nice pull and seal on Jaylen Jenkins’ first TD. One guy who caught my attention with the 2s was Jonny Lester, a redshirt freshman from Spokane who walked on a year ago out of Northwest Christian School. He got out on a screen and had a great block on Nunnally’s big gainer, then the team ran right behind him twice on the ensuing plays inside the 5 — with the second one ending up in the end zone.

JENKINS IS STILL FAST. No surprise there! But fun to watch. Nakia Watson played well while playing sparingly — again, no surprise there, as that’s a guy we don’t need picking up a fluky long-term injury. Djouvensky Schlenbaker slotted in at RB3, and he looked pretty good! He ran decisively and confidently — as a man of his size should — and even hauled in a long pass from Smithson (his high school teammate) on a trick play. If the team picked up a couple of injuries here, things would get dicey quickly, but I like the top three.

Here’s that catch by Schlenbaker:

MATEER HAS SOME WORK TO DO. He wasn’t bad; he just missed more throws than I’d like — 16-of-27 for 236 and a TD is fine. But there were some throws just a little off target, and a pair of underthrown deep balls that neutered potential big plays. Perhaps the wind was blowing and the throws got caught up? Anyway, he looked like the backup QB, and that’s good enough for now. (It’s also worth noting that the nature of the scrimmage removes one of his best weapons — his legs — from the equation.)

Emmett Brown, ostensibly QB3, looked really, really good relative to what I expected. His release was compact and quick, and the accuracy was excellent while showing some zip on his throws — 11-of-14 for 165 yards is really damn good, especially when the units that far down the depth chart are a mish-mash of dudes who usually aren’t playing together.

PUTTING IT ON FILM? The offenses ran hurry-up fourth down plays on multiple occasions, and it resulted in conversions a couple of times. Is this something they’re planning on doing regularly, or is it just something they want defensive coordinators to have to spend time preparing for? The Cougs also ran a pair of trick plays with WRs who were QBs in high school throwing the ball, including the one above. Same questions apply (useful or just film?), although it’s worth noting that having a WR throw the ball can be awfully effective even when the other team knows you might do it.

That’s it from me. What about you?

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