Huskies Spread It Around Offensively As Young Players Put Promise On Full Display
April 22, 2017
Heading into Friday night's spring game at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field, there were expectations that several young players would emerge under the lights offensively. From the very first practice of 2016, it was clear that members of that '16 recruiting class would be making waves sooner, rather than later. Despite some seeing time with the first-team offense throughout the season a year ago in practice, none made an appearance come game-day and all four were redshirted. For running backs Ja'Kevious Vickers and Nate Hopkins, as well as wide receivers Keyion Dixon and Quayvon Skanes, Friday night was a chance for them to showcase their talents. The result?
Vickers led the way with 6 YPC (yards-per carry) for players who saw more than three touches, finishing with 9 carries for a game-high 54 yards. Hopkins, who rushed for 50 yards, hit paydirt for three scores. Dixon looked electric in the passing game, leading the second-team offense with 5 catches for 94 yards. Skanes played for both offenses and accumulated a team high 7 catches and gained 75 yards. He also led the first-team offense with 5 grabs. Emerging night's for all four, but head coach Randy Edsall stopped short of praising the young players.
"The ones who stick out are always the ones who have the ball in their hands," he said following the game. "It's one of those things, I don't want to give them too much sugar because you start doing that, they're going to get fat."
All jokes aside, however, throughout March and April both Edsall and new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee made reference at their initial surprise at the speed and depth at those skill positions, notably wide receiver. The mantra of the spring quickly turned into spreading the ball around and that's exactly what was on full display Friday night. The first-team offense saw nine guys record a reception, while the second-team saw ten players make a grab. There were screens, things over the middle, as well as pushing the pace down the field throughout the night.
"If we can have all those guys be a factor in what we're doing, it puts more pressure on the defense," Edsall said. "Noel [Thomas Jr.] was great with all his catches, but I think offensively it helps when you have more guys that can do things, rather than just one because opposing defenses can do things to take that one guy away. I've pretty much talked about it all spring, I thought that might be one of the deeper positions that we have on our team. A couple of those young guys came on towards the end of spring, they aren't where they need to be yet, but they are getting there, they're working at it. I've been pleased with that group throughout the spring."
Edsall referenced junior wide receiver Hergy Mayala for the work he's done to improve not just his game, but to become the example and leader of the receiving corp.
"If all of those guys can emulate the work ethic and commitment to get better that Hergy [Mayala] has, then we'll be really good," he said. "I just happen to sit in my office, have a great view into the Shenkman facility and I just see a guy out there doing things; catching balls out of the tennis ball machine, balls out of the jugs machine. He works really hard in practice, does the things in the weight-room, you put on the film and he's finishing plays, running to the whistle and isn't afraid to block you. He doesn't talk for the most part, at least around us, but he just goes out and works. I've been around quite a few guys like that, but he's one of those guys that gets it and has it."
Tempo was the biggest change on Friday night. Lashlee brought the fast-pace, attention-grabbing style of play with him from Auburn and any questions on if there would be limitations in what the Huskies run have been answered. Yes, there were mistakes, including the dropped QB-RB exchange from Brandon Bisack to Nate Hopkins on a quick handoff that netted a touchdown for the Huskies defense by another redshirt freshman, CB Tahj Herring-Wilson, but other than that, it was a really clean game offensively. Surprisingly, there were no pre-snap penalties, with given the pace of the offense and moving pieces, is promising.
"We're better in practice fifteen than we were in practice one with it," Edsall said on the speed in which the offense moves. "That's one of those things where the guys need to be in shape. I thought they adjusted to it pretty good. When you look tonight, we didn't have a false start offensively or an offsides defensively and we've had some of those [throughout the spring], so that was an improvement. I thought we were a little more consistent tonight all the way through offensively. We hit a little bit of a lull there in the second quarter, the defense did some really good things, but they adjusted pretty well. There were things we would probably do defensively to help us, but we weren't going to do that because we weren't game-planning or doing some of those things. Offensively we saw something you really don't see too much, both sides adjusted to the tempo and now they understand the kind of shape that they need to be in, in order to play the style that we are going to play."
Quarterbacks Bryant Shirreffs, who saw the majority of time with the first-team offense and Brandon Bisack, played efficient football. Shirreffs in total was impressive. The pocket presence, which has been a challenge over the past two seasons was there. He finished 19-33 for 310 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. His biggest play was the 80-yard TD strike that hit junior WR Hergy Mayala in stride.
"I saw some good things and some things I didn't like," Edsall said of their play. "There was inconsistency out there again, we need to be more consistent and make sure we are doing the things we are being coached to do and just go out and execute. If you just execute and do your job, good things will happen. You don't need to be Superman or anything like that, you just need to do your job and do the things within that particular play. If you just do them in rhythm and fast enough, then we can be efficient offensively."
Bisack was a productive 19-29 for 222 yards and a touchdown.
"I thought he did a good job of managing the team offensively when he was out there," Edsall said of Bisack. "The one thing he's done well is he's been able to manage it, keep his poise and really just control the unit that he's been in there with."
Big plays were prominent throughout. In addition to Mayala's 80-yard score, there were at least six 'chunk' plays through the air. It got started with WR Aaron McLean's 36-yard catch on the opening drive and didn't stop. Dixon (34), WR Bryan Coney (25), Skanes (31) and junior WR Tyraiq Beals, who will also be a major factor in 2017, showcased his versatility on a 53-yard catch-and-run for a score up the left sideline from Bisack on the opening drive of the third quarter. Beals also opened the scoring in the first half with a 6-yard TD reception, as the first-team offense scored on the first drive of the game.
"The one thing is we executed some of the plays on offense tonight for big plays that we weren't making in some of the scrimmages," Edsall said. "We have an offense that is going to have the ability to make big plays and when you have the ability, you have to make sure you take advantage of them."
All involved should walk away from last night confident in the direction of the offense, the potential productivity and the skill level of the players throughout the unit.
"It was a good night," Edsall summarized. "It was a good night for our guys to experience something different this spring. We've practiced in the great elements of the Shenkman Training Center all spring and then to have to come out here tonight and adjust to the weather, the dampness and the wetness out there, I thought they handled it really well. Pleased with the effort this evening and of course there are things we did well and things we need to work on, but the thing that I like is the fact that from where we started with the first practice to the end of this practice, we got better, we improved. They are now on their own this summer before coming back July 27th. If we can continue to move forward and not have to go back and go over things then we are going to be headed in the right direction."
After finishing dead-last offensively in the FBS in 2016, what was on display Friday night indicates the Huskies offense is headed in the right direction, indeed.
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