There is progress yet to be made and questions still to be answered. But for spring practice, it was good enough, particularly for a team that finished 5-6 and changed out its defensive coordinator.
“You’ve got a good nucleus back,” Johnson said. “I mean, we’ve got nine starters coming back on offense. Defensively, if we can create some negative plays and get some sacks, get off the field, who knows?”
Here are five observations from the scrimmage:
1. Clinton Lynch looks like his old self
Senior A-back Clinton Lynch needed only four touches to show that he looks all the way back from a hamstring injury that slowed him in his disappointing junior season. On runs to the perimeter, Lynch showed the burst and swiftness to get to the corner, helping him pick up 28 yards on three carries. Lynch also scored on a 33-yard pass from quarterback Lucas Johnson, a pinpoint strike after he had gotten behind the defense.
Lynch failed to reach the end zone as a junior after scoring 16 touchdowns as a freshman and sophomore. So, even if it was a glorified scrimmage, it still meant something to Lynch to score.
“It’s been too long since I’ve been in the end zone,” he said.
As a freshman and sophomore, Lynch averaged 4.5 touches (carries and receptions) per game and 14.6 yards per touch. Last season, after missing the spring with knee surgery and then suffering a hamstring injury in the preseason, Lynch averaged 3.1 touches and 8.1 yards per touch.
“Clinton’s back healthy again,” Johnson said. “That’s good to see him make some plays. It’s good to see him back out there doing some things.”
About the only thing Lynch messed up Friday was after his score. He and his teammates had planned a duck-duck-goose game in the end zone – in the style of the NFL’s choreographed touchdown celebrations – with Lynch in the role of ducker, but Lynch sat down in the circle by accident.
“I didn’t get the memo,” he said.
2. Many players out
The absences were many and significant Friday. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall did not play after showing up to the training room Friday morning with strep throat. Center Kenny Cooper suffered a lower-leg injury in last Saturday’s scrimmage that required surgery. Guard Parker Braun and offensive tackles Andrew Marshall and Jake Stickler also were out, Marshall for the entirety of the spring. Wide receiver Jalen Camp left the scrimmage with what Johnson thought was a knee sprain, but he did not believe it to be serious.
Defensive end Desmond Branch missed the scrimmage to attend his brother’s wedding in New Mexico. Likely starting safeties A.J. Gray and Jalen Johnson were out all of the spring with injuries. Linebacker David Curry had been playing well in the spring before an injury took him out.
Of the injuries, Johnson said that Cooper’s was the only one he would term serious. Johnson said the prognosis is a three-month recovery, which would put him on track to return by the start of the preseason.
“If it’s three months, he’ll get back,” Johnson said. “If not, he won’t.”
Cooper is an important part of the offense, having started all 11 games last season as a sophomore and played at a high level last season. Further, the depth picture behind him is murky. Andrew Marshall is the likely backup, but he missed all of last season (and this spring) recovering from two leg injuries. The starting center for the first-string offense Friday was Jahaziel Lee, an offensive tackle who took his first snaps in Monday’s practice.
3. Getting their kicks
The struggles faced by both offenses – or the success of both defenses – meant a lot of work for punter Pressley Harvin, who earned freshman All-America status last season. Harvin punted 12 times (he punted for both teams) and averaged 42.3 yards per kick, though it should be noted he was not facing a live rush.
Regardless, Harvin struck the ball consistently, sending high, booming shots. His 11th punt of the night had a hang time of 4.6 seconds, an excellent time.
Kicker Brenton King did the placekicking for both teams and was 5-for-5 on extra-point tries. He also made a 40-yarder (out of the snap of Jerrod Abee and hold of quarterback Lucas Johnson) with plenty of room to spare. King, who replaced Shawn Davis last season after Davis’ ACL tear, was 5-for-6 last season, with four of the five makes coming from 31 yards and inside. His long was 42 yards.
“Brenton had a good scrimmage,” Johnson said. “It was good for his confidence.”
Brad Stewart, Jordan Ponchez-Mason and Qua Searcy were among those fielding punts. Searcy did not field one punt cleanly.
There were no kickoffs in the scrimmage.
4. Good finish for Lucas Johnson
A frustrating spring for quarterback Lucas Johnson ended in a fairly satisfying manner. Johnson, competing with Tobias Oliver to be the No. 2 quarterback behind Marshall, ended up piloting the No. 1 offense Friday night when Marshall was unable to play.
After a slow start, Johnson drove the Blue-team offense on touchdown drives of 70, 74 and 55 yards, along with a field-goal drive of 54 yards.
“I thought Lucas threw the ball pretty good,” Paul Johnson said.
Perhaps juiced on adrenaline and also affected by hitting his hand on a White-team defender after releasing a throw early on in the game, Johnson’s completion numbers weren’t great. He was 5-for-17 with one touchdown and one interception. But he had completions of 53, 33 and 35 yards and finished with 143 yards, showing the sort of downfield accuracy that this offense prizes.
“It felt good,” Johnson said. “This spring was really frustrating, not being able to get out there and get the reps that I needed, but thankfully, the hamstring felt good (Friday). It was cool to run with the (first string).”
Johnson also ran the ball in from 12 yards out for a touchdown for the Blue team’s first score, at the 13:19 mark of the second quarter. He set up that play by picking up a 3rd-and-7 with a 14-yard scramble on the previous play.
His throw of the night might have been in the late in the first half on a 3rd-and-10 from the White-team 33-yard line. Johnson dropped back and, after checking off his first read, saw A-back Clinton Lynch behind safety Avery Showell in the end zone. Johnson found Lynch, putting just enough air under the ball so that it barely cleared Showell’s leap.
Johnson, a sophomore, suffered a hamstring injury in the first week of practice, missed the second week and then was limited in the third week, not permitted to run full speed. Friday was the first time he had run full speed since the first week of practice.
5. Defense causes problems
The box score of a spring game is perhaps not the best place to go hunting for truth. That being said, linebacker Brant Mitchell finished the game with five tackles for loss, contributing to eight total for the Blue-team (first-string) defense. He had 1.5 tackles for loss in the 2017 season.
“We blitzed like crazy (Friday),” Mitchell said with a smile. “We had (cornerbacks coach Joe Speed) on the calls, so, yeah, he sent the linebackers a lot, and we were doing a lot of slanting up front, so I think that helped us to get some negative yardage plays.”
The hire of defensive coordinator Nate Woody from Appalachian State brought the hope of a defense that would create more negative plays than the one led by former defensive coordinator Ted Roof. Friday, it looked the part.
Time for grains of salt: The first-string defense had nine tackles for loss in last year’s spring game and went on to record 4.3 per game last season, lowest in the ACC. Also, the first-string offensive line was absent its two best players and was using a center (Jahaziel Lee) who had never played the position before this week.
Still, White-team defenders were in the backfield consistently. Players such as nose tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson, defensive end Tyler Merriweather, linebacker Victor Alexander and Mitchell were slipping blocks and blowing up plays. The same went for the Blue team, with early-enrollee linebacker Quez Jackson and sophomore linebacker Jaquan Henderson coming free on blitzes.
“That’s what we’re looking for, is some negative plays,” Paul Johnson said. “They popped the linebackers a lot.”