Reinhardt’s redemption road started in earnest with the Spring Game at Ken White Field in Waleska on Thursday.
Based on the initial results, defense will be served.
With a scoring system that put more emphasis on big plays than finding the end zone, the defense manhandled the offense by a score of 58-26. The offense staked itself to a 20-3 lead, but it was whittled down to 21-19 at the break. The second half was all defense, as they generated turnovers, made sacks and tackles for a loss, and generally beat up an offense that was the top-ranked in the NAIA last season.
The format was two fifteen-minute quarters, separated by a ten-minute intermission where spring practice award winners were recognized for their contributions from the coaching staff.
Billy Hall wore a light gray jersey as he took every snap at quarterback. This was by necessity, as he is the only QB on the roster. That will change once the freshman class makes it into fall practice. To protect Hall, head coach James Miller put a no-tackle rule in effect for the sophomore. If he was touched, he was down. That made sacks easier to attain than in a fall contest, and it also made it harder for him to move downfield on keepers. But he was still the leading rusher, garnering 50 yards on ten carries.
It also put pressure on a revamped offensive line that will miss departed seniors Jesse Dyer and Xavier Carter. Junior Tre Coney becomes the new center, and Chase Harof stepped in at right guard. “We had some issues snapping the football,” said Miller after the contest. “It’s Tre’s first live game playing center. I think he’ll continue to get better every single practice. I really believe it.”
Miller believed the defense’s strength was keeping firm on first down. “The biggest thing (for the offense) is not getting behind the sticks. You have to get a positive play. We’d have a good one, and then we’d have a negative yardage play. Those kill you.”
Some of those positive plays involved Hall connecting deep with Deondre Sanderson and Ace Williams, and Miller singled both out for praise. “I thought (Sanderson) did an outstanding job and stepped up. I’m proud of him. He has to keep doing it. I thought Ace made some plays on the edge. Our last scrimmage, the receivers dropped three touchdowns. For them to step up, it was nice to see.”
It appears the defense will carry the day. Tevin McCoy returns to lead the veteran line. Helping him out are stalwarts Kareem Warren, Teon Burroughs, and JT Graydon. The secondary will be minus the graduated Marcus Miller, Nick Johnson, and Taylor Hawkins. Brandon Ballard had a strip fumble and scored, and Samad Foster picked off Hall, so promising signs are there, but it all starts with a stuffing, grinding line that could leave opponents stuck in neutral.
Even though there were no significant injuries during the game, they did take a toll through practice. Backs Mc’alun Lanier, Stanlee Logue, Jace Jordan, Isaiah Blake, and Andy Whisenant all missed the game, while the defense was without Dawson Mitchell and Casimir Isles. “It’s been an issue all spring for us,” said Miller. “But the guys in there (tonight) all played their butts off.”
Miller referred to Hall as “gassed at the end.” It was not surprising given that he did not have any relief, as it was his offense on the field at all times. Still, the Scott County (TN) native felt he has better command of the offense. “Everybody around me is good, so that helps me out of well. I gotta get better. I gotta get in shape.”
In his message after to the team after the game, Miller stressed that while spring practice is over, preparation for the season opener against Bethel in late August begins the next day. “We have to be working every day,” said Hall. “We have to be lifting weights, running routes (with the receivers). We work outside of practice. We’re studying. It’s all about connections and timing.”
While the road may get serious tomorrow, for Reinhardt the goal is to get back to the National Championship of the NAIA in Daytona Beach, and excise the bad taste left by last year’s performance. It took awhile for the Eagles to feel comfortable amid the big stakes. When it happened, St. Francis (IN) had an insurmountable lead and coasted to their second straight title.
Miller made the trip to the title in his first year as Reinhardt head coach, and in his second he’s not going to change his philosophy. He did learn some lessons from that title tilt, however. “It’s always going to come down to doing the little things right. You can’t fumble punts. You can’t drop touchdowns. You can’t fit in the wrong gap on the running play and think you have a chance to win. We got better at that this spring.”
For Reinhardt’s opponents, the knowledge that the defense was able to handle such a powerful offense will probably give them nightmares. Coach Miller knows that redemption will come with a cost, and it is one he is not afraid to place on his team.
“I was tough on my team this spring. And the kids responded every single time.”