Not one week has passed this spring semester where I haven’t found myself in Morty’s around lunchtime, ordering a breakfast burrito and one of those little bottles of chocolate milk (if any remain after the morning rush). Every so often, a customer beside me will pick up their to-go order burger with sizzling-hot french fries while Lara the cashier swipes my card, and I think to myself “Hot dang, just look at that appetizing tray of expertly prepared, hot-out-of-the-oil starchy goodness.” With literally zero regard as to the price tag, I’ll inevitably order myself a serving of those famous fries. The additional two bucks or whatever the dollar amount was didn’t matter — what mattered in my moment of weakness was they simply looked too good to resist.
As is the case with that small carton of fries, Utah State’s spring football scrimmages are a tempting side dish to an impossibly far-off main course, readily consumed by us junkies who dig into every scrap of football news we can get our oily fingers on throughout the middling spring and the dry desert summer’s offseason. As we dive into Friday afternoon’s scrimmage — the second of three total spring outings for Aggie football — let’s keep in mind what exactly we’re dealing with here. We’re essentially drinking in the football equivalent of empty calories, with quarterbacks all but immune to pass rushing, two-hand-touch style kick returns and secondaries playing at about 75 percent game speed. Spring ball is more about evaluation and execution, in contrast to fall ball’s blatant competition for a better standing on the depth chart.
Spring ball’s numbers should all be taken with a few grains of salt, which is perfectly okay — that’s what makes it so delicious.
1. Try to keep up with Ron’quavion Tarver
Tarver is Utah State’s best big-play target, capable of bursting past defenses and catching those 20+ yard game-changing bombs. He’s a 6-foot-3 junior from the infamous Florida-Utah pipeline, and despite matching up with the Mountain West’s best corners over six starts last season he proved to be invaluable asset in do-or-die scenarios. Tarver led the Aggies’ 2016 receiving corps in every statistical category, with more than half of his 46 receptions resulting in first downs. He’s kept up that home run swagger this spring with a 71-yard TD reception on just the second play of Friday’s scrimmage — nobody in the secondary was even close. Probable starting quarterback Kent Myers hasn’t always looked willing to unleash the deep ball, but Tarver is too dynamic a player not to trust every now and then.
And remember — nobody outside of the most rabid USU fans and Tarver’s own immediate family even knew this guy’s name before the Air Force game. Now he’s an experienced junior expected to feature heavily in an offense with shiny new shot-caller David Yost running the show. How Tarver fares with a new offensive coordinator remains to be seen, but those 46 receptions mentioned earlier are tied for the most by an Aggie underclassman in the history of Utah State football. So that’s something.
2. Hobbs at Tight End is a thing
A really intriguing thing, actually. With the ever-reliable Wyatt Houston moving on from his college career, USU needs another sure-handed athlete who can throw a block and catch a pair of passes in traffic every game. Enter former-QB Damion Hobbs, who frankly is too beastly not to somehow incorporate into the Aggies’ offense. Hobbs snagged two passes for 36 yards Friday; one in particular was an impressive jump-ball that appeared to be heading nowhere until 225 pounds of freakish strength elevated over a hapless linebacker and snagged it.
Hobbs is a big, physical dude who undoubtedly wants to make the most out of his senior year after sitting out 2014 due to transfer restrictions and only throwing 19 passes last season. The switch to TE opens up tons of possibilities if Utah State is willing to be creative with its play calling, as Hobbs is a gifted enough athlete to catch, throw or run the ball if called upon to do so. Keep in mind that despite seeing limited action, Hobbs tied for the team lead last year in touchdowns scored (6) with half of those coming in one game against Wyoming. If this fall is going to be any fun at all, it’ll be due to coach Yost unleashing a Hobbs-to-Rayshad Lewis flea-flicker against BYU.
3. Quarterbacks are looking sharp
…Which is sort of to be expected when nothing but blatant, unimpeded definitely-gonna-flatten-you type sacks are counted, but still — scrimmages are what they are, and on Friday Myers and company really performed well. Success in the red zone made for an encouraging afternoon, as 12-yard scoring strikes to Tarver and redshirt freshman Jordan Nathan added to a sharp afternoon for Myers. In fact, throwing Nathan open in the back of the end zone may have been Myers’ prettiest pass of the day, and the team seemed genuinely amped for Nathan completing a nice play.
Maybe this doesn’t count as a red zone target since it all went down on the 23-yard-line, but senior wideout Jaren Colston-Green — already on our radar as a potential breakout candidate next year with an uptick in targets — also came away from the scrimmage with a touchdown reception off a zippy “this play is about to go sideways” fastball from Myers. Nice.
4. But still so many questions
Who is the lead back on this team? Tonny Lindsay had himself a great scrimmage a few weeks back, but LaJuan Hunt and Justen Hervey dominated touches this time around. Not to be a downer, but they’re all basically the same guy — finesse over power, good at bouncing outside and seeing plays develop but each lacking the ability to get much of anything after contact. Perhaps Yost plans on hurrying up the tempo and swapping out backs routinely, and the idea of boasting a 3-down back will evaporate entirely. That’d be a risky move in a conference known for powerful running games, but there’s also some merit in trying to zig while others zag. Keep an eye on how the backfield develops.
Just one final thought here; I cannot wait for the spring game. This team is trying to build from the ground up after discovering last year that Gary Anderson’s coattail ride was finally over. That means a lack of obvious stars on the linebacking unit, a secondary that could actually be the defense’s greatest strength this fall (maybe), a quarterback with one more season to prove he can be the full-fledged dual-threat touchdown machine we thought he could be in 2015, an offensive line with a lot to atone for and more may not even be the biggest questions this team of mysteries needs to answer. What I want to discover is this team’s composition. Can Dallin Leavitt’s infectious competitive spirit spread through the whole defense? Will the offense accept yet another year of changes in playcalling and philosophy? What are these guys made of, anyway?
Something tells me after a 3-9 season, that locker room isn’t interested in any more empty calories.