College football spring practice can be tough to evaluate.
In my opinion, it’s over hyped. Teams don’t go to bowl games in the spring. They try to install concepts on both sides of the ball, get players acclimated into football shape all while trying to avoid the injury bug.
This spring’s practice sessions at NMSU was noteworthy for a few reasons:
• The team had a brand new offensive coaching staff in place, with Mike Dunbar taking over as coordinator, R. Todd Littlejohn moving over to coach the wide receivers, Keith Murphy shifting over to tight ends and Shaun Johnson taking over at running backs.
Will the offense be better in 2010 as opposed to 2009, where it was one of the nation’s worst in many major statistical categories? Right now, it’s impossible to tell. The real proof will come on Sept. 11, when the team opens the season against San Diego State, and moving forward throughout the course of the year.
The spring session simply gave the staff a chance to lay the ground work and give it an idea on its personnel before August training camp hits.
Still, there was some noteworthy observations made during April.
At quarterback, Jeff Fleming looked better this spring and junior college transfer Matt Christian had a strong performance in the team’s Crimson and White game last Saturday. While Fleming threw the ball more aggressively downfield, Christian showed a strong arm and a quick release. The quarterbacks also developed a chemistry with some of their receivers - Marcus Allen got better as spring practices unfolded and Kyle Nelson looked like a solid target at tight end.
The offense needs to throw more 15-to-20 yard pass patterns into the mix this season. Last year, it just didn’t happen. The team completed just four passes of 20 yards or more in 2009, with the long going to Allen for 34 yards, followed by a 30-yard grab from Todd Lee. An offense needs to be able to stretch the field some and, last year, it didn’t happen. Was it scheme, personnel or both? That question is tough to answer at the moment, but this spring the team seemed more willing to let the quarterbacks drop back and chuck it, and the QBs looked adequate doing so. It needs to carry over into the season, but it was encouraging to see this past month.
Wide receiver is another position that needs to improve in tandem with the quarterbacks. Again, Allen looked better as the spring went on. Last Saturday he flashed his ability, making three impressive plays — a short catch which he turned into a big gain, a tough grab along the sideline where he got his feet inbounds before being pushed to the ground and a juggling touchdown reception that saw him tumble into the endzone. Allen has certifiable talent, it was just underutilized in last year’s offense. NMSU needs a bona fide No. 1, and he could take over that title with a good senior year.
Two weeks ago, it was Nelson who stood out during the team’s scrimmage, catching a number of balls, two going for touchdowns. Last year, Nelson was good in the spring too and vanished during the season, as he struggled catching the football. As Dunbar said following last Saturday’s practice, a reliable tight end can change the dynamics of a passing attack and develop the confidence of a quarterback, opening up the middle of the field and supplying a weapon inside the 10-yard line.
While suffering a hamstring injury during spring practices, last year’s leading receiver Todd Lee will be back in the fall. Fellow wide receiver Darrius Preston has flashed talent, while the team will also bring in junior college transfer Taveon Burke for fall ball, and possibly another player as well. Similar to the quarterbacks, for the wide receivers, looking good in the spring is one thing. Carrying it over into the season is a whole other challenge.
• On defense, the Aggies have to replace three starting linebackers from last year in Ross Conner, Jason Scott and Jamar Cotton. The team’s primary backup, Sam King, also left during the offseason.
The 2009 linebacking corps wasn’t flashy, but they were respectable and brought a veteran’s touch to the defense. Scott and Conner both made over 100 tackles while playing, what seemed like, every down.
This offseason the team brought in junior college transfer Frank Padilla, with the idea that he would take over in the middle. Things have changed since, however, with Padilla now penciled in as the starting strongside linebacker, Boyblue Aoelua - a special teams player last year - at middle linebacker and B.J. Adolpho, a redshirt sophomore, along the weakside.
This spring showed a few things from a physical standpoint: Padilla has the size - 6-foot-2, 248 pounds - and toughness to compete in the WAC and Adolpho looks like a fearless player who’s going to hit. Both players were flying around during spring practices and made some big plays last Saturday during the scrimmage.
The middle linebacker position carries the most responsibility on the Aggie defense - asked to call the plays, adjust the alignment up front and know the ins and outs of the opposing offense. The staff said they were impressed with Aoelua’s development this spring. He’ll need to continue that into the fall and sustain it during the rugged regular season of Division-I football.
• The Aggie first stringers will need to stay healthy in 2010.
Sure, you can say that about any program in the country, but it’s paramount at NMSU, where depth is often an issue.
We’ll start on offense, where the line will need to stay intact. Tackle Dwayne Barton, center Mike Grady and guard Sioeli Fakalata started all of 2009 and held their own - they’re proven Division I football players. Once he arrives for fall camp, junior college recruit Aundre McGaskey will need to step in and produce at tackle. The belief is that he will.
Outside of that, there are unproven commodities along this unit. Backup center Dejuan Yates is making the transition from the offensive side of the ball and Jake Swenson and Ruben Escarsega both redshirted last year. Dylan Lusk might make an impact, but he’ll be a true freshman in 2010.
The running back position will also need another full season from its first stringer, Seth Smith, along with his backups, Kenny Turner and Robert Clay. This group looked to be one of the deepest on the team, but greyshirt freshman Marquese Dunn departed the program recently for personal reasons back home in Pfugerville, Texas. There’s still numbers here, but Smith played hurt for a good portion of last season with a separated right shoulder, and banged up his left one during spring drills. He’s tough and runs hard - which can be a blessing and a curse. If healthy, the Aggies have a 1,000-yard rusher in their stable, with some talented reserves in waiting.
Defensive ends Donte Savage and Pierre Fils had solid seasons in 2009, combining for 13 sacks and over 100 tackles. Both played seemingly every down and are undersized - Savage at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Fils at 6-foot-3, 234. Kawika Shook, who was a solid swingman on the line last year, will be their primary backup. But, injuries to either Savage or Fils will take away an impact player on the NMSU defense and thin out the line.
Safety is also a question mark as spring wraps up. Alphonso Powell was a starter throughout last season, making 72 tackles, while recording a sack, an interception and breaking up seven balls. He’ll be asked to do it again in his senior year.
Starting next to him this spring was Ben Bradley, a junior who seldom saw the field his first two years with the program. He took the place of Stephon Hatchett, a junior who made over 100 tackles last year, but is currently trying to straighten things out in the classroom. There’s no guarantee he’ll be ready to go in 2010.
Recruit Shamar Gaines, who was expected to get time this season, won’t be coming to NMSU this fall after all, troubled by academics and off-field issues.
Walker said last week that the Aggies could be in the market for a safety this summer. Either way, the current players on the roster need to stay healthy and be productive.