2001 Spring Game Analysis
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com , 4/24/01

Click here for a game recap with stats

Every year, I like to complain about how useless it is to try to analyze a spring game. This year's game, however turned out to be different. Very different. There was plenty to look at and pick apart analytically.

I think the format had a lot to do with that. For one, the silly yellow jersey that Michael Vick wore last year that made it possible for a defender to "tackle" or "sack" him by merely touching him was gone. Grant Noel and Jason Davis were fair game for the defenses, and that made it more like a real game.

In addition, the game was played and called like a real game. Exceptions were the shortened clock (8:00 quarters) and the lack of kickoffs (after a score and to open each half, the ball was spotted on the offense's 35-yard line). There were no situational scrimmages, like what Virginia did in their spring "game" this year.

With five first-team defenders out of the game due to injury (Chad Beasley, Jake Houseright, Willie Pile, David Pugh, and Ben Taylor), you have a game that decreased the usual defensive advantage. The format and the missing defensive players led to the most competitive and interesting Spring Game in years.

There weren't any defensive question marks coming into this game, so I won't spend much time talking about the defense. Offensively, there were two big question marks: quarterback and offensive line. So let's start with them.

Quarterback

If you wanted to boil down everything that had been said, written, posted and rumored about quarterback candidates Grant Noel and Jason Davis this spring, it would boil down to this: Noel was the odds-on favorite to be the starter next fall, but no one from the coaches to his fellow players to the media has been raving about his ability; and Jason Davis does not have the confidence of his coaches nor his teammates, mainly because of poor performance in practices.

In short, it was clear heading into the Spring Game that Noel was the superior performer in practice (and had the advantage because of it), but that neither player was galvanizing the Hokie nation.

Against that backdrop, the two QB's took the field on Saturday, and to this observer's eyes, Davis outplayed Noel. Both QB's earned big, fat yawns from most people and quite a bit of criticism from others. A few worrywarts gnashed their teeth and wrung their hands and wailed about the future of Tech football. And incoming QB recruit Bryan Randall, who was in attendance, was said to have whiffed the smell of opportunity in the air. Namely, an opportunity for playing time next fall.

On the Monday following the game, Coach Beamer did nothing to dispel the notion that Randall and his fellow QB recruits, Will Hunt and Chris Clifton, will have a shot at the starting quarterback job next fall. Late Monday, Beamer gave the starting nod to Noel, but he added, "But that's not to say someone couldn't take the job over (this fall)." He also said, "We still want to take a good look at these freshmen."

So there you have it. Noel's the starter, for now.

Getting back on the subject of Saturday's game, I was more encouraged by Davis's performance than I was by Noel's. I got the impression that Davis played better in the game than he had in practice, but that for Noel, the opposite was true.

Noel was 13-32 (40%) for 114 yards, 1 TD, and 0 INT's. Davis was 8-17 (47%) for 117 yards, 0 TD's, and 2 INT's. Statistically, that's a draw. Davis had a higher percentage but threw two picks, both of which were both poor passes, not tips or great plays by the defenders. Noel had a poor passing percentage but didn't throw any interceptions and had a TD pass.

But the quality of the performances is not told by the statistics.

Both quarterbacks came under a lot of defensive pressure, but Noel was pressured more than Davis. Noel was sacked 6 times, Davis just 3. Given that Noel threw almost twice as many passes as Davis, those figures are comparable.

But Davis did a better job of avoiding the rush. Noel has a faster 40 time than Davis (4.69 for Noel versus 4.76 for Davis, according to BeamerBall.com), but Saturday, Davis had quicker feet, better vision, and better "escapability."

Davis showed a flair for throwing on the run, completing a number of passes after rolling out or being flushed out of the pocket. His passes on the run were accurate. His mechanics on the run were not solid (he needs to square up a little better before delivering the ball), and the passes that he threw on the run weren't always tight spirals, but overall, he did a good job when he scrambled.

Davis established this very early on when he rolled right and launched a pass down the right sideline that was caught for a 40-yard gain by Shawn Witten. Granted, the ball was underthrown and Witten made a great play to take it away from the defender, but nonetheless, Davis got it there.

One interesting contrast was watching Davis athletically snare a high shotgun snap, while Noel failed to catch one poor shotgun snap that went right by his ear. The ball rolled down to the goal line, and from there, defensive end Jim Davis knocked Noel away from the ball and recovered it for a touchdown.

In other words, Davis improvised some plays, while Noel, on the other hand, did not. This is one disturbing thing about Noel's performance. For the most part, he didn't "make plays." He didn't turn negatives into positives, and in today's world of attack defenses and heavy blitzes, that is a necessary tool for your quarterback to have in his tool box.

Even more disturbing are the plays that Noel missed that were available to him. Early in the game, fullback Marvin Urquhart broke wide open down the middle of the field (I hope you saw that, because Marvin Urquhart running alone down the middle of the field is not going to be a common sight). Noel set up in the pocket, delivered the pass ... and just flat missed him. He left it short, forcing the not-so-nimble Urquhart to try to reverse his momentum and catch a low ball thrown behind him. Urquhart was not able to do it, and a prime opportunity for a touchdown pass had slipped by Grant Noel.

There were other times when the heavily-pressured Noel had time to set up in the pocket and get a good look at his receivers, and he did not deliver the ball properly or on time. Redshirt freshman wideout Richard Johnson saved Noel's bacon a few times by snaring poorly thrown balls, including at least one one-handed catch. On Noel's only touchdown, Emmett Johnson had to slow up to catch the ball, taking it away from the defender, who was right there.

There were a few times where Noel showed good pocket presence and avoided the rush, but he was rarely able to turn the opportunity into a completed pass. Overall, an underwhelming performance, and as one regular practice observer told me, "That's the worst he has played all spring." Bad timing.

To his credit, Noel acted like a leader and acted like the starter. He took some hits, played it tough, stayed in the game, and didn't turn the ball over. He did get lucky when his goal-line fumble was called an incomplete pass, but he didn't throw any interceptions, despite the heavy pressure, and he didn't fumble any snaps like Davis.

Davis threw two bad interceptions. The first one, thrown on a third and 21 from the White 31 yard line, was a pass down the middle that was picked off by walk-on Brandon Manning. Davis was quarterbacking the Maroon squad, which means that he turned the ball over deep in the opposition's territory, on a pass that looked as if it was intended for Manning.

On his other interception, he rolled left and threw it into traffic, where it was picked off by redshirt freshman Mike Daniels, who was covering Keith Willis along the sideline.

Both interceptions were poor reads and poor decisions by Davis, so that is one area in which Noel outperformed Davis.

After the game, I searched the newspapers and BeamerBall.com for a statement from Coach Beamer about how players play "when the lights come on." It's one of his favorite sayings, and it appeared that the lights had not been good for Noel, but they had been good for Davis.

Sure enough, in comments made on BeamerBall.com, Beamer said, "I thought Jason Davis looked better in the game conditions than he has in some practices. Some guys are like that. When the lights are on and itís game time, some guys step it up. I think I saw a little of that in Jason."

But apparently, one 32-minute Spring Game in which Davis showed some promise did not do anything to reverse the opinion that Beamer and his staff have formed in countless hours of practice. After a staff meeting on Monday, Beamer announced that Grant Noel is #1, Jason Davis is #2, and the three freshmen are all getting a good hard look when they arrive.

The Offensive Line

In my last preview article before the Spring Game, which centered on the offensive line, I wrote, "Defense always dominates offense during spring practice and the Spring Game, and it could get pretty ugly on Saturday ... The Tech offensive line will be facing one of the top defensive lines in the country during the Spring Game, and the results will be predictable and low-scoring."

It didn't turn out that way. Number one, as some posters accurately pointed out, the absence of David Pugh and Chad Beasley meant that the offensive line was not facing one of the best DL's in the country, just a very good one.

The White team, quarterbacked by Noel, featured the #1 center (Steve DeMasi), #1 guards (Jake Grove and Anthony Nelson -- Nelson is first on the depth chart because Luke Owens was out with injury), and the #2 tackles (Tim Selmon and Jon Dunn).

The Maroon team, quarterbacked by Davis, had the #2 center (Robert Ramsey), the #2 guards (Jacob Gibson and Charles Hattan), and the #1 tackles (Anthony Davis and Matt Wincek).

So Noel's team was strong up the middle on the OL, and Davis's team was designed to be strong at the tackles.

The Maroon team had much more success running the ball (31 carries, 177 yards) than the White team (20 carries for -2 yards). Part of this may be because the Maroon team had the only true tailback on the field, Keith Burnell. Lee Suggs put in just spot duty (2 carries) for the White, so the White was hampered by not having a true tailback on the field for most of the game.

Therefore, the White passed a lot (32 passing attempts to 20 rushing attempts, 6 of which were sacks), and the Maroon ran a lot (31 rushing attempts to 18 passing attempts).

To boil it down, the White had little success run-blocking or pass-blocking, but the Maroon did pretty well in both. The Maroon did particularly well run-blocking, as evidenced by Burnell's 15 carries for 182 yards, but it must be pointed out that Burnell's long TD runs of 37 and 57 yards can partly be attributed to poor attack angles taken by defensive backs and linebackers who were coming up to provide run support.

On Burnell's 37 yarder, he started off-tackle and bounced to the outside, and no one was there to meet him. On his 57-yarder, he ran through a hole off-tackle, slid outside, and was gone.

The Maroon's blocking performance is surprising to me, because the second-teamers they fielded at guard and center did well against defensive tackles Kevin Lewis and Channing Reed, who were named co-Most Improved on defense. Did they dominate Lews and Reed? Of course not. But they had their moments, and that's more than I gave them credit for in my OL preview.

If you weren't there and didn't get to see redshirt freshman Jon Dunn in person, then you missed out. He is a very large human being (6-7, 320) and on one play that I watched, he actually made defensive end Jim Davis (6-4, 251) look small. On that play, Grant Noel lined up in the shotgun, and Dunn had the responsibility of blocking Davis. The ball was snapped, Davis lunged forward into Dunn, made contact, put a move on him to the right ... and was met by Dunn, who didn't have to move very much to stay in front of Davis. Dunn neutralized him on that play, though Davis would later get credit on another play for a 2-yard sack.

The Tech coaches have said that this is a very good group of offensive linemen, they're just lacking experience. I tend to agree. They'll be very good in time.

Punters

This game will be remembered not just for the Noel/Davis comparisons and critiques, but as the day punter Vinnie Burns made his mark and introduced himself to Tech football fans.

After "windmilling" (Beamer's word) his first punt for 33 yards, Burns nailed his second punt. With the line of scrimmage on his own 48-yard line, Burns kicked a beautiful spiral that sailed over the punt returner's head and landed at least 8 yards deep in the end zone. Burns was credited for a 52-yarder on the play, but it really traveled about 60 yards from the line of scrimmage, and overall it sailed 75 yards or more in the air.

Burns received the loudest ovation of the day as he trotted to the sidelines, and each time he came out after that, the crowd buzzed with anticipation. Hokie fans are used to cheering raucously for their punt-block and kick-block teams, but you may see something this fall that you haven't seen in a while: Tech fans cheering for a punter before he kicks.

Burns crushed a couple more after that, hitting 59- and 53-yard spirals, before finishing up with a 34-yard shank. Former starting punter Robert Peaslee had a 51-yarder of his own, but his 37-yard average on the day (4 punts for 148 yards, which included a 22-yard shank) wasn't close to Burns's 46.2 yard average, either statistically or in the wow-factor.

Beamer named Burns the starting punter after Monday's meetings. Vinnie still has some things to work on, namely consistency and speed. His release looked a little leisurely at times, and it will present an inviting target to punt-block teams if it stays that way. But he owns the starting job now, and among the 18,000-20,000 fans that were at the game, he has already started his own cult.

Miscellaneous Notes

Best Hit: take your pick of Terrell Parham's slam-job on Billy Hardee or Eric Green's hammering of Lee Suggs.

Parham caught Hardee unaware on a reverse and drove him into the turf, causing Hardee to spend a few moments on the field before being helped up.

Later, Green popped Suggs on a short reception. Grant Noel avoided the rush and pitched the ball to Suggs, who caught it, turned, and was met by Green. Suggs got up quickly (if you saw Suggs's biceps after the game, you know he's a hard one to knock out), but it was a solid hit.

Funniest Moment: Andre Davis got surprised on a punt return late in the third quarter. Davis was playing for the White team, and for a few plays, the Maroon team's punt snapper was actually a White team member with a small off-color jersey with an X on it to identify him as having switched sides.

Burns kicked a 53-yarder to Davis, who caught it and had room to run. He started up the middle, straight towards the snapper wearing the White jersey with the little X on it, not realizing that he was a defender, not a blocker. 12 yards after starting his run, Davis found himself flat on his back, the victim of a tackle that was obviously a big surprise to him. Fortunately for Andre, it was a clean hit that didn't knock him out.

Richard Johnson's Debut: redshirt freshman receiver Richard Johnson did not disappoint the crowd in his debut. Johnson led all receivers with 6 catches for 49 yards, with several of them being very nice catches of poorly thrown balls. Johnson grabbed one low flanker screen with one hand. He did not get the chance to showcase his running ability in the open field, which is said to be his best asset at this point in his career.

Defensive Standout: Brandon Manning, #48 for the White team, is a walk-on whip linebacker who acquitted himself well. He led all tacklers with 7 (tying Eric Green), and he returned his interception of Jason Davis's pass 31 yards. Those who follow the walk-ons closely believe that Manning will have a scholarship soon.

Watching the Recruits

Half the fun of going to this Spring Game was watching the recruits on the sidelines. By recruits, I mean the 2001 class of signees who will be arriving at Tech in the fall.

About 10 signees spent the afternoon on the West (press box) sideline, including QB Bryan Randall, RB Kevin Jones, DL Chris Pannell, DL Jason Murphy, OL Reggie Butler, and WR Fred Lee. There were others, but those are the ones I could identify by sight.

Randall was wearing a bulky warm-up suit, so it was difficult to get a feel for his physical size, but Murphy was a monster. His back is broader than what seems physically possible for a high schooler.

Jones caused the most commotion. He is in great physical shape and looks ready to play. One arm bears a tattoo that says, "KJ -- God's Property." During the game, while most of the recruits received little attention (other than a BeamerBall.com photographer taking pictures at times), Jones gave a steady series of interviews to media members who came by.

One interesting moment: after Burnell's 57-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, Jones walked down the sideline to meet him and congratulate him.

Every year, the incoming recruits get more physically impressive. In the fall of 1994, I attended the yearly Outback Steakhouse Welcome Back Picnic, where among other things, the new recruits are introduced. That was the year that Ken Oxendine and Tony Morrison were Tech's star recruits, and other than those two, none of the kids looked even close to being ready to step on a Division 1 field and play. The linemen in particular looked like they were badly in need of "Gentry-fication."

Not so this year. As I said, Murphy and Jones in particular are physical specimens.

The Long Wait

Now we dig in and wait until August. Between now and then, vacations will get taken, the coaches will sit down and work on their recruiting target lists, and the annual Iron Man competition will take place.

On the TSL message boards, the tired topics of schedule strength and uniform colors will come up and get worn out. There will also be a few surprises during the spring and summer months. There always are, and most of the time, they're not pleasant, unfortunately.

See you on the other side, when the Hokie football team starts gearing up for the 2001 season.

          

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