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Thoughts on the Spring Showcase

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Scott Satterfield gave fans their first view of his new regime and I have some thoughts.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a little late with this post but I took some time to get into some details of what I saw at Louisville Football’s Spring Showcase this week. I made it out to what was essentially a practice with a prolonged scrimmage afterwards and came away really happy with the new direction with the new staff. These coaches have said that they would make sure things were fun for the players and it’s been great to see that in action while also seeing them work hard in the weight room and in conditioning. I made a point a little while back that fun doesn’t mean easy. That seems to be true with everything I’ve heard and seen so far.

QUARTERBACK

The quarterback position is the obvious focal point for the vast majority of fans after UofL signal callers finished last year with more interceptions than touchdowns. The group as a whole left a lot to be desired in the scrimmage portion of the practice. Jawon Pass was the best of the group but even he was still his inconsistent self. I went into last night thinking that Pass would be the guy to beat out but it’s probably only due to the fact that no one else will take it from him.

Pass made a couple of very nice throws down the field including a spectacular ball to Tutu Atwell that he put in between two safeties and right over a linebacker. However, he also missed some throws very badly. The new staff won’t be able to make him into a top level quarterback in 15 practices but I had hoped we would stop seeing such wild differences in one play to the next.

Malik Cunningham and Evan Conley mostly played with the second group and Cunningham still looked like the guy that ran for more yardage last year than he threw for. He didn’t do a very good job of finding open guys and he seemed to tuck the ball and run very quickly. It was good to see him command the new option plays really well. I don’t see Scott Satterfield doing the whole “running QB package” thing but there are a good amount of plays that Malik would excel with in this offense.

For those of us that hoped to see Conley come in and take over the job in the spring, we get to keep dreaming. Conley looked very good for a guy that should be getting ready for prom and graduation but he also looked like a guy that should be getting ready for prom and graduation. One of his first throws in the scrimmage portion of practice was a pick to Chandler Jones where Jones didn’t have to move and the ball hit him directly in the chest. Conley did end up lowering his shoulder into Jones and forcing a fumble. I’d guess the coaches would rather that not happen.

The most fun play of the practice came from Conley when he hit Emonee Spence on a post route with a perfect throw. Half of the offense followed Spence into the tunnel to celebrate. It’s obvious that Conley has the tools to play at this level. The question will be how quickly he adjusts to the speed of the game.

RUNNING BACK

The safest spot on the offense is probably the running back spot. While the receivers are deep, the backs have better potential as a group. Hassan Hall looked like his normal self with good burst and speed but he still needs to work on his hips and footwork. Hall has a style of running that I call “boxy”. He’s kind of rigid when he runs and his hips aren’t very fluid. I don’t know how much that changes down the road but I hope that Norvall McKenzie can work on it with him.

Javian Hawkins got a lot of reps behind Hall and I’m really interested to see if he gets a shot at being the second back in the rotation. Hawkins didn’t play much last year but his smaller stature might help him in the new offense. App State didn’t recruit many big backs and the guys that saw the field for them were all in the 5-11/190 range. The zone blocking scheme asks backs to make one cut and burst through the gap in the line. Hawkins and the smaller types of backs that App State used seem to fit that best.

Colin Wilson was the one guy that I saw draw what passes for “ire” from this offensive staff. Wilson ran an outside zone play to the left and the line gave him a massive hole to run through. Only Wilson just kept stretching the play to the sideline and ended up just kinda running out of bounds. That elicited some animated arm points towards the endzone from Scott Satterfield and just about every other offensive coach. Wilson is the guy that I think has the most well rounded game out of this group but he has to be able to master this zone scheme.

I was most impressed by Dae Williams. He looks like he has worked on his body and he now looks like more of a tall back as opposed as a “big” back. He ran through tackles on a few runs and he honestly looked unfazed by guys trying to bring him down. I also liked the way he caught the football in drills. He looked much more natural than the other guys. This team has plenty of depth and I think the coaches will have a tough decision on who will be the main guy.

RECEIVERS

I think we all know what to expect from the top receivers on the team. Dez Fitzpatrick looked like the polished guy who can do a little bit of everything. Seth Dawkins is still way bigger than anyone covering him. The other 40 receivers on the roster sprinkled in some good plays.

A few things did stick out with how they use the slot position, though. The first play they ran early in the practice was a triple option play where Tuta Atwell went into “orbit” motion where he starts down the line and then rounds back behind the quarterback. The running back runs a dive and the quarterback can either give it or head outside with Atwell as the pitch man. I really think fans will enjoy how this offense mixes old school football with modern wrinkles.

The receiver who had the best showing in my opinion was Justin Marshall. He’s among the many players that rarely saw the field under the old regime but he looked really good as an outside receiver in the new offense. Marshall is a very big receiver but most of his catches came on slant routes and other short routes. He was able to get separation and made a few catches away from his body with his hands. I’d expect him to be a guy the rely on in the rotation.

The tight ends made a lot of catches in the scrimmage. Marshon Ford actually took the first reps instead of Jordan Davis. Ford is a walk on from Ballard and it seemed like he was a step ahead of the other guys outside of Davis. I’d expect the staff to continue to look for grad transfer options to add depth or potentially bolster the position as a starter. The offense didn’t throw to the tight end very much at App State but they are vital to the blocking scheme.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The offensive line only had about 11 guys at practice but it’s almost impossible to learn anything about the offensive in scrimmages anyway. Even though I couldn’t learn much about what the line will look like in the fall, I did get to see Dwayne Ledford coach up his unit.

The most interesting thing to me during the drills the line ran was that they do everything at least in tandems. If they’re practicing reach blocks, they do it in twos. If they’re hitting the blocking sled they go two at a time. Even the one-on-one blocking segments had the entire line firing off the ball in unison. Really.

In the third picture in this tweet you can see Ledford watching Mekhi Becton closely. In the background you can see the other four linemen. They weren’t blocking anyone. They just fired out of their stance and took two steps. As Ledford went through each player the other linemen continued to do the same. Adonis Boone and Caleb Chandler got in their stance even when they weren’t in the drill and participated anyway. It was like watching a batter in the on deck circle timing pitches.

I loved seeing all of this because the new scheme absolutely requires the entire line to move as one unit and the entire group did an outstanding job of translating the things they did in drills to the scrimmage segments. With Cole Bentley missing practice and T.J. McCoy a few months out from joining it was a pretty skeleton crew but you wouldn’t know by how they played. There were no bad snaps or guys blocking the wrong way. The line played pretty well for a group with a handful of walk-ons playing. Sometimes it’s good to remind myself that this team went 2-10 and that it’s completely OK to be happy to see minor improvements.

DEFENSIVE LINE

I’ll admit that my view made it hard for me to catch the defensive drills but they dominated the scrimmage segments early in the practice. G.G. Robinson was the first guy up at the nose tackle spot with Amonte Caban and Tabarius Peterson flanking him at the ends. Robinson made a couple plays that I really liked. He got off the ball quickly and forced the line to account for him beating the first block. That’s the type of thing they want out of the down linemen. It’s all about disruption.

There wasn’t much else to learn from the line but Jared Goldwire rotated with Robinson at the nose. Mike Boykin left the field early after supposedly getting injured. Robert Hicks looked pretty comfortable after moving to defensive end and I’m really interested to see how he does as a pass rusher. There weren’t many other scholarship players that rotated in but it was good to see Caleb Tillman running with the second group. He might be a guy that gets more of a chance because of the scheme change.

LINEBACKERS

The group that led the dominance for the defense early on was the linebackers. The first group played very well and made a bunch of plays. Dorian Etheridge and C.J. Avery were the guys in the middle and they both made multiple plays at the line of scrimmage. They also both were right where the needed to be when the quarterbacks checked down to running backs. Avery is the first guy I’ve referenced each time anyone has asked me which guys could stand out in the new scheme and he showed why with a pick six about halfway through the practice. It was also great to see the whole defense run down to the endzone to celebrate. A few coaches led the way.

Rodjay Burns looked very comfortable at linebacker. He ran with the first group and we got to see how that spot also doubles as a nickel in certain situations. When the offense lined up with three receivers to one side, Burns went heads up with the inside guy. I’d imagine Bryan Brown would be happy to run man coverage in that situation with Burns and Russ Yeast on the two slot guys.

Another player that answered some questions for me was Yasir Abdullah. He’s playing the boundary outside linebacker spot and ended up playing right down on the line next to the defensive end at times. He held his own for the most part when he had to take on a blocker and shed a couple of blocks to make the tackle. He was also able to use his speed to get around the edge and get to the running back behind the line. I really think that he could have a breakout year.

Malik Staples has moved back to defense this year and he and P.J. Blue manned the outside linebacker spots. I expected them to be flipped with Staples on the boundary side and Blue backing up Burns because of his experience at safety. But, they both looked solid at the spots they played at. Staples made some athletic plays in space which was a pleasant surprise. He and Quen Head both did some things that I didn’t expect. They could both provide solid depth.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

There are some changes in the secondary and the very early returns look to be solid. Russ Yeast has moved to safety and I’ve been told that he has already entrenched himself as the starter there. He ran with the first group in practice and finished the night with an interception and a couple of big hits. Yeast is one of the few players whose discomfort you could visibly see last year. I didn’t see that at safety in the practice even though I completely expected to with the position change. He appeared to be thinking less and reacting more.

Khane Pass was at the other safety spot and I didn’t see TreSean Smith on the field or the sideline. I personally think that Smith will be the guy there once the season starts. Trenell Troutman was a guy that stood out with the second team. He was the player that was beat in coverage on Conley’s throw that I mentioned earlier but he showed the best tackling ability out of the defensive backs. He stuck his nose in the mix against running backs and tight ends. I think his aggression will help him see the field this year.

P.J. Mbanasor appeared to be gimpy and didn’t play in the scrimmage portions but Anthony Johnson made it very obvious that he will be the top corner on this team. He didn’t seem to have the swagger or whatever that Charles Gaines and Jaire Alexander had but he pretty much shut down his side of the field. There is no one on this team that fits the new scheme as well as him and we got to see why.

I was surprised to see Marlon Character as the first team corner opposite Johnson but the way that Chandler Jones played with the second group ended up getting him out there with the first team later in the practice. Jones showed why he was an UA All-American with an interception and a couple of plays where his tight coverage made it impossible for the receiver to make a play. I think that Mbanasor and Cornelius Sturghill might have the edge with their experience but Brown at least has four guys he should feel good about.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The specialists did their normal thing of kind of walking around a lot until they got called in to kick. I will say that I was caught off guard by how many guys they have in the group. 11 guys were working with the field goal group between the kickers, holders, and snappers. With the roster makeup being what it is, I’d be interested to know how normal or abnormal it is to have four scholarships tied up in special teams guys. It’s not that those guys haven’t earned it. It’s more about whether or not you could find comparable results from guys that aren’t on scholarship and maybe use those spots for a tight end or quarterback.

Rodjay Burns was the first guy back to catch punts with Tutu Atwell second up. Dez Fitzpartick, Seth Dawkins, and Keion Wakefield also went back to catch punts during drills. One thing that they did that I don’t think I’ve seen before was practice releases with the outside gunners. This included guy working on “twists” where two players line up on the same side of the punt formation and they cross each other to try to pick off one of the blockers. It was one of those detail things that stood out to me.

RANDOM MUSINGS

  • The talk about things being more fun under the new regime was not hyperbole. Guys celebrated big plays as entire units and that included coaches and other assistants.
  • There were a lot of players that I didn’t see on the field. That list includes Cole Bentley (injured), Ronald Rudd, Corey Reed, Marcus Riley, Boosie Whitlow, Gary McRae (dressed but didn’t participate in scrimmage), Nick Okeke, Jarrett Jackson, Derek Dorsey, Thurman Geathers, Malik Clark, TreSean Smith, and Cornelius Sturghill. I’m not really sure why so many guys were out but that’s a high number. It’s possible that they normally practice earlier in the day and guys have class at that time. I could’ve also just missed a bunch of people.
  • I said this on Ramsey & Rutherford Friday but I don’t see Scott Satterfield changing things up and having a spring game in the future. I think he has a strict plan of how he likes to do things that truly impact his team and I don’t see him straying from those types of things. However, I could see him repeating this showcase going forward but moving his final practice to Saturday.
  • The usher that told me that I couldn’t be in the “box seats” (there were no actual seats) and made me move was not nearly as nice as the usher that told me that the heaters were on in a different set of boxes after I stood in the cold for two hours. Better late than never.
  • The energy that this coaching staff brings hasn’t been at this level since Charlie Strong’s staff was around. There are plenty of different ways to coach a team but you need at least a few guys on the staff that can get the players excited. UofL has that now with Brown, Cort Dennison, and Shadon Brown. And, even though the energy is more subdued on the offensive side, you could easily see the positive reactions from those coaches when their guys made plays.
  • Conley obviously got out there a lot but Zach Williamson and Aidan Robbins both got out there. I didn’t see Robbins in any of the scrimmage sessions but he looked good in drills. I will go on the record in saying that I never saw it with Robbins as a running back recruit. I liked him as a linebacker but he seemed rigid and slow as a back. He looked good the other night and showed some agile feet and hips in drills. Williamson was at right tackle with the second group and he looks the part. Question will be if he can play the part if needed.
  • I’ll end by saying that this team needs help at quarterback and they need that player to get here when the summer starts. I know that Satterfield said that they would look at grad transfers or JUCO guys at QB but they’ve struck out so far. There will be more options after spring practice ends for other schools but the list is getting shorter each day and the talent level is probably not going to be what it was after the fall semester. Here’s hoping that this staff has a plan and I’m worrying over nothing.