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Some Thoughts on Spring Games

What should we care about and what should we ignore.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Colorado State Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In the football-starved offseason, spring-ball is an oasis to fans, giving them just enough news to keep them satisfied between signing day and fall camp starting. The highpoint of this time is the team’s spring game. A few teams in the Mountain West Conference have already had their annual spring games and a few more are occurring this upcoming Saturday.

Spoiler alert: every team will win their spring game (or lose or tie I suppose). By this I mean, most players will look good, either the offense or defense or both will end the day as “a potential force to be reckoned with come fall” and every team will be feeling good as potential and hype reign supreme in the spring. This begs the question of what takeaways can actually be made coming out of spring games then? What matters and what should be tossed aside as things that won’t carry over come fall? The following is a compilation of some thoughts on the matter, but should not be taken as an exhaustive list.

Matters: Offensive cohesion, execution, and chemistry

Doesn’t Matter: What plays are run

Spring games are often times notorious for featuring a very vanilla offense. This is for a few reasons. For young players, this may be their first spring really learning the offense. For the team as a whole, they are running their core plays and schemes and need to ensure they can execute them. They may be an occasional trick play or odd formation, but that is usually to keep the fans entertained.

A fan should not leave saying “oh the offense is going to be so predictable this year”, and shouldn’t focus on the vanilla play-calling. Instead, focus on if players known where to go and what to do on each play, on smooth route running and read progression, is the QB in-sync with his receivers, and can the ball be moved when the defense more than likely knows what’s coming?

Matters: Which players play

Doesn’t Matter: Which players don’t play

Coaches are often extra-cautious with injured players. A strained muscle that may not even be mentioned during the season will likely result in a player sitting for a spring game. Often the goal is to get through the game without any serious injuries that could put a player in jeopardy for the actual season. Even healthy “star players” are often held out for the game or after a series or two rather than risk a potential injury.

Perhaps a better way to put it is: the coaches already know what some players can do, but want to focus more on what other players can do. A player is looking great in drills but how will he perform in more of a game-like environment? He dominants with the 2nd team but will he fare as well against first team competition? He can play in run situations but how about passing situations? Don’t be surprised if you see a heavy dose of newcomers or second-team guys getting lots of looks.

Matters: Situational execution

Doesn’t Matter: The score

Some programs run a traditional game with traditional scores (1st O and 2nd D vs 1st D and 2nd O or something). Some teams do offense vs defense with defensive scoring. Some programs just run situational scrimmages. Others don’t even do a scrimmage and rather have a regular practice open to the fans. Bottom line, it won’t be like watching a normal game, so the score shouldn’t really matter. Heck, Boise State (and maybe others) open every scrimmage every single year with the opening kick returned for a TD just to get the crowd pumped.

Rather than scoreboard watching, look at the little things. How does the offense fair in the red-zone, the two-minute drill, or 3rd and short/long? Can the defense hold up on the goal-line, can they stop the run, and what do their sub-packages look like? Will special teams be a positive or negative factor?

Matters: Position battles/depth charts

Doesn’t Matter: Snap counts/number of targets/stats

Similar to what was discussed earlier, these games are more about learning about unknowns than a victory lap for the known players. Yes, the returning QB may see a lot to time to work with new WRs, but your favorite player may not be the featured guy in the offense. Don’t be surprised in the leading rusher or receiver just gets a few targets or carries before making way for the young guys.

While targets may be useful (ex how often were the TEs thrown to or are they passing to RBs more?), keep in mind it may just be taking what the defense is giving them. What may end up being more important is which WR is looking the best (runner routes and getting open more than getting targeted) or which players are with the 1s or 2s. While tons can change on the depth chart between the end of spring and the first game, this depth chart is the best indicator, minus injuries, of what the coaches are thinking. Think of it this way: It’s better to be on the 1st team at the end of spring than the 3rd team, even if it doesn’t guarantee a starting spot come fall.

Matters: What the coaches say afterward

Doesn’t Matter: What the coaches say afterward

Ah, the art of interpreting press conference quotes. Is it coach-speak or genuine praise? Who really knows. Take everything with a grain of salt but look for little nuggets. Confused? You’re not alone.

Don’t read too much into the cliches: “There was a lot of good energy out there”... “Saw a lot of good things, but lots of room for improvement”... “We aren’t where we need to be yet”... and instead look out for “We are hoping that player ____ makes that jump next year”... “We need a guy to step up at ____ position”.... “It’s clicked for this player and the sky’s the limit now for them.”

At the end of the day, we won’t really know what a coach is thinking, but bottom line is some things mean more than others.

Other than that, enjoy the game and enjoy a small taste of football, the last one for quite a few months.

Your turn: What did we get right/wrong? Anything we forget to mention? What are you most looking forward to in your team’s spring game? Drop a comment below.