CEFCU Stadium hasn’t seen any distinguishable football crowd since November 2019.
On this clear 84° Saturday afternoon before Mother’s Day, there were a few hundred fans in small groups spaced around the west side of the stadium (along with this writer sitting in an empty press box with the venerable Spartan SID Lawrence Fan).
The atmosphere was surprisingly like a relaxing, lazy summer day with what must have been a Spotify mix set to chill music all Saturday afternoon.
Before the 7-on-7’s and 11-on-11’s, it looked equally relaxed for the players and coaches, all the while business-as-usual.
Friendly QB skills competitions were equally entertaining.
The brief QB contest saw ultra-veteran Nick Starkel heave a distance throw of 74-yards and also showed off his accuracy hitting a small rectangular netted cage from 40-yards out; getting one in the net and one bouncing off the cage.
What was significantly different in this spring game was the unveiling of the Mountain West Championship trophy and THE rings.
Starkel also naturally set the tone for the 7v7 continuing to show effortless power and accuracy along with the expected maestro swagger and confidence.
OC and QB coach Kevin McGiven put Starkel through his paces with an entire spectrum of throws to all position types. All looked good there.
Starkel’s only deterrents were the colorful water noodles being waved 20 feet in the air by the defensive linemen. It all matched the vibrant blond hair Starkel was sporting.
Three red zone-range TD throws (one dropped would have made four) would be it for Starkel, as he was given the rest of the day off.
Through the increased intensity of the 11-on-11’s, QB’s Nick Nash, Natano Woods and Matt Der Torossian saw various defensive fronts and schemes.
A strong, active defense notched two interceptions; a diving interception off a tipped pass to the flat and a pick by cornerback Charlie Bostic off a 60-yard bomb thrown by Woods.
The secondary overall anticipated well and still looked like the physical 2020 secondary that more than held its own - even as they lose safety Tre Webb, who chose to enter the transfer portal.
The defense also garnered three sacks; one bringing down 6’6” 250 lb. freshman QB Woods in the end zone.
Woods saw a lot of time behind dual-threat QB Nash and the potential is clearly there for Woods. The hope would be he continues to develop under not only McGiven, but Starkel as well.
Nash had a notable mechanical change with a quicker, efficient release. The 6’1” junior also looks to have a more relaxed playing demeanor reminiscent of Starkel.
Nash’s signature style play came off a low snap recovery, scramble to the right and a 38-yard side-armed TD pass to freshman receiver Terance Loville.
Between the two, they accounted for about 40% of the offensive output in the Spartan’s MWC championship run.
On this spring day, receivers saw a heavy dose of very familiar formations and throws where Bailey and Walker made their name.
6’4” sophomore Malikhi Miller and 6’4” senior Steven Houston were heavily targeted and showed well. 6’3” sophomore Donald McKinney and 6’4” QB-turned-receiver Chance La Chapelle also say something about bigger receivers changing the makeup of a McGiven-led offense, but it will be a continuing question mark if they can replace past production.
Intensity capping it off to the very end
With a few players sitting out, either for the sake of playing it safe or load management, there was a lot more that could have been seen – for example, All-American DE Cade Hall and TE Derrick Deese Jr.
In all, the Spartans showed enough without showing a lot to say they’ll definitely be contending again in 2021. The maturity and confidence intangibles are clearly there, along with the intensity of a champion that really sees no hint of complacency.
Just as the way the Spartans learned to finish games and “play all four quarters” in a remarkable 2020 season, the very end after the scrimmage itself was extremely intense – a face-off water balloon fight to cap off the festivities.