A few weeks ago, I offered some thoughts on the six positions I thought would be worth keeping a close eye on during spring ball. Well, those practices have now come and gone, and before fall camp, there is little more to do than to overanalyze everything we saw.
This is me. Doing exactly that.
We expected that the running game would be bad, since offseason injuries knocked out the two guys who would take most of the carries.
We just didn't expect that it would be this bad, where running between the tackles was pretty much nonexistent, and runs on the edge only slightly better.
Some of this unit's struggles can be traced back to a struggling offensive line, of course. The Bears have had some injury problems up front and that group is still clearly a work in progress, between the changing parts and the new offense. Still, even in recognizing that, it would be a serious shocker if any of these backs got playing time come fall.
Darren Ervin was named the lead guy about two weeks in, only to - surprise! - suffer an injury and miss the rest of spring. He wasn't exactly impressive, either, rushing for 30 yards on 10 carries in his only scrimmage.
Jeffrey Coprich has had his moments, to be sure - the redshirt freshman has been the only back to break the occasional long run this spring, and it would be fair to call him the best performing one in the bunch. Then you look at his numbers across three scrimmages, and they are frighteningly average at best, and downright mediocre at worst: 112 yards on 28 carries carries (4.0YPC). On Saturday, he had a horrendous time, turning the ball over on a fumble and having several runs that went for big losses. On top of all that, it looks - at least to me - that Coprich doesn't quite have the speed to reach the corner on outside zone read plays, although he catches passes better than either Ervin or Jonah Hodges.
The most intriguing guy to show up among the backs never even made it through spring - Joel Willis broke his foot in the second week, which is immensely unfortunate. In the few carries he received, he was clearly faster and more explosive than any of his fellow backs, but the coaches were only able to have him in the backfield for one practice before his injury. Perhaps they will be looking at him as a "space" player come fall - Willis looks versatile enough to be deployed both in the slot and out of the backfield.
Outside of Lucas Gingold seeing work in the Diamond/Bone/Grizzly/[Insert Name Here] formation and in short yardage situations, it doesn't seem like anyone this spring will be overtaking Daniel Lasco or Brendan Bigelow. [Lasco, it should be noted, appeared more fluid and dynamic than anyone listed above, just in the few drills he was able to participate in.]
In fact, the play has been so lackluster at tailback that it is not unreasonable to expect that Khalfani Muhammad could be our third string running back by fall's end.
Loaded. Seriously, seriously loaded.
Yes, the Bears ended the Spring Game with only three healthy linebackers, but they will all be back soon, and there is more than enough talent here.
Starters Nick Forbes and Jalen Jefferson have played well in the open practices, with the latter showing significantly improved skills as a blitzer. Nothing to worry about from those two - or from Khairi Fortt, who locked up the Will slot early on. The Penn State transfer has been less flashy than his running mates, but has left little to be desired with otherwise steady play.
The most impressive guy in this unit, though, may not even see the field that much in the fall - Michael Barton has been athletic, ball-seeking, run-stuffing missile of a player all spring, but is currently stuck behind Jefferson on the depth chart. Beyond the De La Salle product, Nathan Broussard and Hardy Nickerson have both stepped up this spring. Broussard filled in capably both at middle and outside linebacker as needed, and looks to be much improved from last season, where he couldn't hold the edge too effectively and looked outmatched by opposing blockers.
That gives the Bears a solid two deep worth of guys here, and if David Wilkerson and Jason Gibson ever get healthy - Wilkerson was on and off throughout spring with various ailments - then we're looking at potentially eight that could be rotated. Barton and Nickerson's development is particularly encouraging, because it ensures that the position will be in good hands in future seasons - and things figure to get even more interesting once Johnny Ragin, Chad Whitener and Edward Tandy arrive on campus.
With only one returning starter here in Jordan Rigsbee, it figured to be a rough spring for the line - and it was. Beyond the shuffling of players and injuries, the unit has been inconsistent in opening holes for the running backs, and couldn't hold a clean pocket for much of the Spring Game, either. [The otherwise very good mobility displayed by Klindergoff helped a bunch, though. Kline is the best at throwing on the move, but Hinder is obviously the best runner overall.]
Matt Cochran took over the starting center position about a week into practice, due in part - not entirely, but in part - to the fact that Mark Brazinski still cannot snap a ball properly. What this means is that we cannot afford an injury to Cochran of any kind, because there is very little hope of the Bear Raid succeeding if Brazinski plays.
At all. Yes, it's that bad.
Beyond that, Cochran looks to me - a relative novice to all the intricacies of line play - like he's doing a fine job. In the pass rushing drills I've watched, it's usually Jordan Rigsbee and the other linemen who are struggling to win their one on one matchups. Not him. Cochran also appears to be handling the snap count well, too, as he's drawn more than a handful of offsides penalties on defenders.
As expected, Freddie Tagaloa slid into left tackle spot and has held up just fine - the gigantic sophomore has actually drawn praise from Sonny Dykes as one of the most impressive guys in spring. In the early half of practices, Tagaloa had immense trouble handling Kyle Kragen's bullrush and low-to-the-ground style of play, but he has not been heard from too much since then, which fans ought to take as a good development.
Things figure to get a little better once Chris Adcock returns, and of course, with another few months to gel together as a cohesive unit, get reps, and all that jazz. Bill Tyndall should also be back by fall camp - he suffered a broken ankle during one of the scrimmages. Even so, it's hard to envision this group being any more than average in 2013...although average would be a huge step up from 2012's horrendous sieve.
Before the second part runs Thursday, this is your chance to share some of your thoughts. What did you see out of the linebackers and offensive line? Do you anticipate improvement in these areas? Anyone you're hoping to see step up in fall?