We got out first taste of college football on television this past weekend and if you're like the junkies here at In The Bleachers then you were frustrated when the Alabama-Florida softball game ran long but you didn't mind watching the spring game while some NCAA tournament or something took place. Yes, that's right, I watched an LSU practice game instead of the Elite 8 action between Butler and Kansas State. I'm not ashamed of it, one is football and the other is not.
There was plenty to see during the LSU session and from the comments and one of my favorite LSU blogs, And the Valley Shook folks were tuned into the action and there was plenty of reaction from the Bayou Bengal faithful. In the days following the Times-Picayune over at NOLA.com Jim Kleinpeter offers some solid assessment of the defense while Billy Gomilla at And The Valley Shook drops some knowledge on his observations as well. Gomilla puts it pretty bluntly during his rehashing of the quarterbacks' performances:
In 2003, Matt Mauck threw FIVE interceptions. DO NOT PUT TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON THE SPRING FOOTBALL GAME.
He's right and wrong. If you're expecting to see a crisp game and try to assume that this performance will be indicative of what you're going to get during the regular season in six months you're putting too much emphasis on the spring game. Similar to our combine commentary from a month ago the spring game is an affair that must be viewed within its context. To state that it "doesn't matter" or is "just another practice" is to gloss over the importance while trying to take this as the literal equivalent to a game scenario is overemphasizing the event.
There are certain things that you're looking for during the combine and if one watches the game with an eye for this you can not only enjoy the spring game but gather the information that helps one truly assess where their team stands.
Read more for what factors to watch for in the spring game.
First and foremost out of every position you want to see effort. That means 11 hats to the football on defense, offensive linemen running to block downfield and the receiving core selling out on blocks or decoy routes. Effort is the first thing coaches evaluate when they watch a tape, they're checking for how many defenders are in the frame when the ball is tackled or for how the O-Line gets after the second level defenders.
Most importantly effort means playing fast. Flying to the football and avoiding the dreaded "paralysis by analysis." Check for effort on every play when you're checking out your squads spring game.
On defense the story is simple, aside from effort look for "missed assignments" and technique work. These aren't easy for the untrained eye to diagnose but the easiest way to tell an MA is when the coach is yelling at a kid, pointing wildly or the players are staring at each other dumbfoundedly. This is usually a clear indicator that someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That could mean that the wrong safety dropped into flat coverage, a linebacker who was supposed to cover a running back bailed to the flat or a defensive lineman didn't keep contain.
Missed assignments are the Achilles of good defense and they lead to explosion plays; the touchdowns or 20 yard plus big hitters that energize crowds and make offenses confident. In the spring, after 14 practices of installing and running the defense you can expect to see missed assignments from the young guys who are still working to understand the concepts. When you've got players changing positions expect mistakes as well but as we previously stated effort is still the key to a mistake being a mental error and a flaw.
Technique will be a lot harder to look for unless you know what it is you need to be watching. Examples of bad technique that will get you blasted in film sessions include false steps, not getting your head across, bad angles, failing to hammer or splatter and poor tackling.
False steps are when a player, normally a linebacker or defensive back shuffles their feet or steps in the same spot; essentially when the ball is snapped a player wastes movement without gaining ground towards the ball or depth towards their coverage zone. Linebackers get caught up in the wash by taking false steps and defensive backs get their cushion gobbled up by wasting time not back pedaling.
Both getting your head across and poor tackling are signs of poor technique that both fans and coaches will obsess over. There's no "good missed tackle" but some are worse than others. When a player fails to get his head across a tacklers chest it leads to arm tackling and that's a bad habit that will turn a four yard gain into a 40 yard scamper.
Hammer vs Splatter refers to attacking the outside shoulder and keeping contain OR attacking the inside shoulder and forcing the play to bounce outside. Every player has a technique that they need to use and if you're a hammer responsibility and you spill the football you're not doing your job the right way.
Concerning angles, its pretty simple. If you see this your defense needs to work on pursuit angles.
On the offensive side of the ball there are a few more intricacies to highlight and we'll run through these specifics by position. First the linemen who are the biggest mystery to the bulk of folks watching the spring game. Here we're looking for technique and comprehension of schemes. Here we're looking for fluidity, hip flexion, explosion off the ball, good punch and solid footwork. The players, especially young linemen, might not have the strength or savvy necessary to stop older players but you do want to see them working to do things the right way.
Schematically we're looking for hats on hats. The five offensive linemen working as one to stop the pass rush and protect the quarterback. Do not let sacks given up be the determining factor of your lines success in the spring game. Rather look at the type of sacks that they're giving up and what sort of holes they're creating in the run game. If you see sacks where the DL or LBs are running through untouched then you've got some serious schematic misunderstandings. Plays where two linemen are blocking a three technique but the DE goes untouched for example are missed assignments. Plays where a lineman gets bullrushed, swam over or ripped through to the quarterback are ability issues.
Take from those what you will but a technique issue such as being susceptible to the swim or bullrush is something a coach can work to correct through teaching while missed assignments are red flags as to a players lack of preparation.
Out on the edge wide receivers are, without a doubt, the most easily assessed and diagnosed position in the spring football season. They've got three jobs and each can be examined on every play; block on run plays, run a hard, correct route and catch the football. On running plays check and see if the receiver is just "running off" the defenders instead of engaging them. Its generally hot, he knows he's not getting the ball and there's nothing on the line so a lot of wideouts choose to take these plays off.
On running the right route there are two facets, one is the vigor with which they approach the route and the second is the correctness of the route in the passing scheme with relation to distance and defensive look both pre and post-snap. Miscommunication between quarterback and wide receivers lead to interceptions so they need to have a natural feel and rapport.
At the running back positin we're looking for a burst through the hole, ball security and pass protection. Running back doesn't hit on many big runs? No worries guy because he's been playing against this defense, running the same plays for 14 practices. Pay more attention to whether he's hesitant in the hole or if he bangs up in there with a purpose. A five yard gain where he bursts through the hole shows me he knows where to run, wants to get their in a hurry and will be tough to arm tackle.
Regarding ball security this is a must. A running back is worthless if he's putting the ball on the carpet and the spring game can be a telltale sign to issues that could cost your team games. Everyone has their own little tips for ball security, after growing up with the "switch the ball to your sideline hand" and "tuck at the point" methodology I've made the full switch to the Tiki Barber styled ball carrying. It works folks.
Tucking it high and tight against the chest.
Pass protection for running backs is hit or miss in spring contests. Some teams allow the defense to blitz, others do not so what you'll get are limited shots to see the backs go into max protection mode. So with teams blitzing little if any at all and quarterbacks off limits if your running back cannot stop someone from "sacking" an "untouchable" quarterback he is not going to be too reliable when the bullets are live.
Here's the big one. The quarterback position. Folks agonize over their quarterback's performance in the spring game. The folks this past weekend saw Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson look as bad as they've looked in their careers and the whole time wondered "is our defense that good" or is he just really back to full blown sucking. Its neither, depending on the pieces you're adding to the offense, the experience of your defense and the amount of time your defense has spent practicing against the offenses sets the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
When new quarterbacks are working with new receivers they're bound to under or overestimate speed which leads to over and underthrowing passes. While I'm not prepared to crown Jefferson or Lee the next great SEC quarterback I think both showed flashes of being capable of leading the Bayou Bengals.
The most important thing to look for when evaluating your teams quarterback in the spring is his command of the offense. How often does he look to his coaches for the answers, do they get delay of games thrown against them and is he making the proper reads when going through his progression. Confusion is easy to spot as the delay of games pile up and the quarterback relies on the coach to repeat the play. Checking out his progression is more about making good decisions based upon his understanding of the scheme. Throwing into double coverage, spring or fall, is never acceptable and tossing the ball directly to defenders is a fun way to get set down early.
There's plenty to take away from the spring game, the only problem is none of it is the world beating "we have the #1 (defense, offense, quarterback, running back etc) from what I saw" ideals that a lot of folks try to leave the stadium with. It also isn't the "we're going to suck this year" whinefest that sends grown men into psychobilly freakout mode.
View this event similar to the combine, check out technique, look for effort and finishing the drill and enjoy the fact that we get a little dose of college football during these God-awful spring months leading up to the season.