NCF Nation: Kevin Pope

Big East spring game previews

April, 19, 2013
Nine of 10 Big East teams will be through with spring practices come Monday, with Rutgers serving as the outlier. With UConn, Temple and SMU all gearing up for their annual spring games this Saturday, here's a peek at what to look for.

Fans in attendance for the noon start at Rentschler Field should keep an eye on how the offense moves under new coordinator T.J. Weist. The Huskies ranked 118th in total offense last year as coordinator George DeLeone was stripped of his duties, though he remains the offensive line coach. But the squad returns all five starters up front to protect incumbent quarterback Chandler Whitmer, as well as top running back Lyle McCombs, as the unit will look to keep pace with a defense that was nothing short of outstanding last season but is down a few stars who will hear their names called next weekend in New York.

Hank Hughes is the new man in charge of the defense, and he has Yawin Smallwood back to anchor a unit that has said goodbye to Sio Moore, Jory Johnson, Trevardo Williams and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. The Huskies boast plenty of potential in the middle with linebackers Graham Stewart, Ryan Donohue, Jefferson Ashiru and Omaine Stephens -- but that is just potential, for now.

UConn needs answers on both sides of the ball if it hopes to improve off head coach Paul Pasqualoni's consecutive 5-7 seasons.

The Mustangs will have an open practice at 9 a.m. local time at Pettus Practice Field, with many current and former players signing autographs afterward. There will be an NFL Punt, Pass and Kick competition afterward for kids ages 6 through eighth grade.

The Mustangs are intriguing, first and foremost, because they brought Hal Mumme aboard as their assistant head coach and passing game coordinator. Pairing the Air Raid curator with head coach June Jones and his run 'n' shoot pedigree is a fascinating experiment in and of itself.

Kenneth Acker, who is coming off a second-team All-Conference USA season in the secondary, is another experiment this spring, with the staff splitting the cornerback wide to catch some passes with the offense.

Defensively, the Mustangs are replacing a bulk of their production from last season, with Margus Hunt, Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed all gone. Kevin Pope and Robert Seals must step up at linebacker.

Head coach Matt Rhule's first spring will feature live kicking and punting, normal scoring and 15-minute quarters. Who will eventually emerge as quarterback, however, is another matter. Juice Granger and Thomas Rumer will see action on the Cherry squad, which is coached by defensive coordinator Phil Snow, while Chris Coyer and Connor Reilly will take reps for the White team, coached by offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield.

Reilly has thrived under the pro-style attack, ascending to No. 1 on a depth chart that was expected to see Coyer and Granger fight for the top spot. Coyer has seen time as an H-back in practice, but Rhule said he will remain under center. Kevin Newsome, out with a shoulder injury, has been moved to H-back.

Reigning conference freshman of the year Tyler Matakevich leads a defense that struggled across the board last season, while Levi Brown and Sean Daniels are the big guys up front worth keeping an eye on.

The live kicking and punting part of Saturday's 1 p.m. contest at Edberg-Olson Hall is worth noting in that the Owls need to replace Brandon McManus, who held the school records for field goals made and punting average.

Spring Start: Feb. 28

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
  1. Quarterback: Jacob Karam returns as the starter after throwing for 1,895 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. But coach Justin Fuente says Karam will be pushed during the spring and has to win the starting job all over again.
  2. Bump up the physicality: Fuente has said repeatedly that he wants to see his team be more physical, especially now that it is joining the Big East. The spring is the perfect chance to improve in this area. "We will play some of the same teams we played last year, but they will be the bigger, more physical teams we played last year," he said. "We have to understand that we have a lot of ground to make up. That is not ground that is made up easily."
  3. Competition at defensive back: The Tigers lose two starters from their defensive backfield -- Cannon Smith and Robert Steeples -- and Fuente is excited about the competition at this position going into the spring.

Spring Start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:
  1. Quarterback: Even though coach Kyle Flood says Gary Nova is his starter, you can bet there is going to be competition at this position going into the spring, especially with a new offensive coordinator in Ron Prince. That doesn't mean there will be changes, but certainly Prince is going to want to take a look at all the players he has available to evaluate what they can or cannot do.
  2. Defensive leaders: Rutgers lost its top defensive playmakers and needs to find guys who can step in for Scott Vallone, Khaseem Greene, Steve Beauharnais and Logan Ryan, to name four. Plus, there is a new coordinator in Dave Cohen, so there might be some adjustment period.
  3. Huggins stepping up: The time is now for the highly heralded local recruit to live up to the expectations that came with him when he arrived on campus. Jawan Jamison is gone off to the NFL, so all eyes have turned to Huggins to see if he has what it takes to be the next 1,000-yard rusher.

Spring Start: March 25

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  1. Replacing Zach Line: The Mustangs have to replace their top runner over the past several seasons in Line, who had three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Leading the charge this spring are junior college All-American Traylon Shead and reserve back Rishaad Wimbley, who switched from defense a few seasons ago.
  2. New defensive starters: The Mustangs lost the bulk of their playmakers on defense in Margus Hunt and linebackers Taylor Reed and Ja'Gared Davis. Finding guys to step up without them is a huge priority. Watch for Zach Wood at defensive end in place of Hunt; and Kevin Pope and Robert Seals at linebacker.
  3. More consistency at QB: June Jones' offense runs best when the quarterback is at his best. Garrett Gilbert returns as the starter, but he is going to need to find much more consistency this spring and into the fall. Two numbers that have to be improved: accuracy (53 percent in 2012) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (15-to-15 in 2012).

Spring Start: March 20

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. New coaches, new style: Coach Willie Taggart has promised to ratchet up the intensity and transform his team into more of a smash-mouth group. That process begins in the spring, when he has his first opportunity to really show his players what he expects out of them. You can bet he expects a lot more physicality from his offensive and defensive lines to start.
  2. Quarterback competition: Who will emerge as the starter? Will we even know after the spring? Matt Floyd and Bobby Eveld, the top two candidates, have plenty of work to do as they fight to win the starting job. But this competition could very well go into the fall, when freshman Mike White arrives on campus.
  3. Defensive back improvement: This was the worst group the Bulls had a year ago and the one in most need of immediate improvement. USF registered two interceptions in 2012, tied with Auburn for the fewest among all 120 schools in the nation. And they both came in the same game -- against UConn on Nov. 3.

Spring Start: March 22

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  1. New staff: Matt Rhule certainly has a familiarity with Temple, having served as an assistant there under both Al Golden and Steve Addazio. But anytime a new coach comes in, there is change, so the spring gives him his first chance to really start implementing his style and what he wants to get accomplished.
  2. Quarterbacks: You can bet this competition is going to be open this spring, with Chris Coyer, Juice Granger and Kevin Newsome all returning. Coyer and Granger both started a year ago; Newsome transferred in from Penn State a few years ago. How this shakes out is one major story to watch.
  3. Running backs: Montel Harris and Matt Brown are gone, taking with them 1,426 yards rushing and 16 of the team's 21 rushing touchdowns. Jamie Gilmore got more carries as the season went on when Brown was hurt; Kenny Harper also is back and certainly will be relied upon even more.
SMU opened spring practice Monday with a lot of questions, especially in the offensive backfield. Many of those answers came after the first of 15 sessions was completed.

Coach June Jones raved about the play of quarterback Kyle Padron, who enters spring camp as the starter, but was supposed to get a hefty challenge from New Mexico State transfer J.J. McDermott.

Padron and McDermott are the only two scholarship quarterbacks this spring after Bo Levi Mitchell transferred and Braden Smith moved to safety.

“Already you can tell his confidence in what he’s doing,” Jones said of Padron, who started six games after Mitchell suffered an injury. “He’s worked real hard with [assistant head coach] Dan [Morrison], spending time on the films, and he’s going to get better and better. It’s so fun to have a quarterback that now gets it, and J.J. looked good today, too. He’s a very capable quarterback. So we’re going to have some guys that can throw it in the barn there.”

Padron’s confidence and experience will take some pressure off the running game, which will be young after star Shawnbrey McNeal decided to leave school early for the NFL.

Zach Line, last year’s backup, will miss spring practice as he recovers from an injury, so finding the back to replace Jones’ first-ever 1,000-yard rusher probably won’t happen until the fall. The Mustangs have signees Darryl Fields and Kevin Pope arriving in the summer.

Jones said both players will play this year instead of one of them redshirting like he originally planned.

“We’re going to miss Shawnbrey. Shawnbrey’s a good football player, but we have some young kids coming in and we’ve got some young kids on campus that are good players,” Jones said. “I think as Kyle gets to being more efficient throwing the ball, which obviously he’s going to be this year, it certainly gives the runner an opportunity to make some plays.”

Jones said the entire offense will be limited this spring with seven offensive players recovering from injuries and offseason surgery.

SMU continues with youth movement

February, 4, 2010
SMU would be the first to remark that the 2010 recruiting class is the best the Mustangs have signed, maybe since the 1980s.

That’s fitting considering coach June Jones has created a renaissance at SMU, notching an 8-5 record, the school’s first eight-win season since 1984, and the school’s first bowl game since that same year.

But even Jones would tell you that his program isn’t where it wants to be quite yet.

“We’re still probably a recruiting class or half a recruiting class from really just not holding on to your rear ends with injuries,” Jones said. “We’ve got a lot of good players. In fact, I think every one of the players we have in this class will have chance to get on the field and help us next year. So that’s pretty good.”

For the third consecutive season, Jones is going to put out a team that’s built around young players. The Mustangs started 11 freshmen or sophomores last season, including quarterback Kyle Padron, who came on in place of injured started Bo Levi Mitchell in the middle of the year and never relinquished the spot.

The strength of this class is built around in-state prospects. The Mustangs signed 18 players from the state of Texas and seven of those players are three-star recruits, according to ESPN’s Scouts Inc. Overall, the Mustangs signed 11 three-star recruits.

The headliner of the class is quarterback Steven Kaiser from De Smet Jesuit in St. Louis, Mo. Kaiser is rated the No. 17 quarterback in the country, and Jones thinks he’ll give SMU's other young quarterbacks, none of which are older than a junior, a run for their money.

“He might be the best quarterback I’ve looked at on film in the last 10 years of coaching college,” Jones said. “We’re excited about those prospects of what we have at quarterback.”

Madill, Okla., running back Darryl Fields might see early playing time with former SMU back Shawnbrey McNeal opting to leave early for the NFL draft. Fields rushed for 1,495 yards and 25 touchdowns on just 145 carries last season.

Kevin Pope is another running back prospect Jones said would probably be utilized as a freshman.

Jones also expects to utilize the versatility of some of his more athletic signees, including John Tyler (Tyler, Texas) duo Jeremy Johnson and Ricky Collins.

“I think this is probably the best recruiting class this school has had in a long, long time,” Jones said.