Cullowhee, N.C. - Freshman quarterback Will Jones rushed for two touchdowns while tossing a third and the Catamount defense came up with three takeaways and consistent pressure against their offensive counterparts to highlight Western Carolina's annual Spring Game, presented by Wells Fargo, held Saturday afternoon on the turf at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field.
The 12th practice opportunity for the Catamount football team during its spring drills, Saturday's Spring Game included six practice periods before the squad held its most extensive, unscored intrasquad scrimmage that lasted nearly 90 minutes under cloudy conditions.
"We got a lot of inexperienced players a lot of valuable reps today which is going to help us tremendously this fall," said WCU seventh-year head coach Mark Speir following his squad's highly-anticipated, two-hour session. "These young quarterbacks, DJ Thorpe and Will Jones, have done a great job and have battled. They've run a lot of this spring with the first string just to give us the best look at who is going to win that back-up job and be the future there at quarterback, so I've been really excited about that."
Speir added, "Our defense is getting better and better -- and we've yet to play with a full deck this spring as we've had so many injuries or guys being held out for precautionary reasons. But I'm excited about seeing some of these young players and what they're capable of. Now the whole deal is just finding that consistency -- and that's what I told them after today's scrimmage. There are so many great things that are happening out here, just have to do it consistently -- and that's what happens when you have an inexperienced football team."
WCU's defense set the tone early in the scrimmage, forcing a pair of three-and-outs and two takeaways among the first four possessions. Jones moved the offense down the field on the opening drive before trouble struck in the red zone. Redshirt freshman defensive back Michael Murphy broke up an option play, hitting the running back on the pitch to force a fumble that was scooped up by Marvin Tillman.
After forcing the offense off the field on back-to-back possessions after just three plays that included good interior pressure by defensive lineman Ricky Palao, the defense created its second takeaway on the fourth series as John Brannon III jumped a passing route in the flat for the first of his two interceptions on the day. He later came away with a pick over the middle on a juggled ball.
Jones, a product of Greensboro, N.C., capped one of the best offensive drives of the day with a 24-yard scoring romp on the read option for the first of his two rushing scores. He later added a two-yard scoring plunge as a part of red zone situational scenarios, a point-producing drive that was spurred by an acrobatic reception by receiver Daquan Patten.
Collectively, five quarterbacks saw action on Saturday afternoon with three QBs splitting the bulk of the reps. Jones and D.J. Thorpe saw much of the action with returning starter Tyrie Adams never far from the offensive backfield. WCU also got its first look at incoming freshman signal caller Bubba Williamson, who is an early enrollee, and Nolan Beasley impressing the crowd with some illusive moves to avoid defensive pressure to throw the ball downfield on a near-miss for a scoring strike that was broken-up by the WCU defense in the end zone.
Likewise, five running backs shared the load on Saturday as most inquisitive eyes were focused on how WCU's high-powered offense would replace the void created by one of the program's all-time best all-purpose backs, Detrez Newsome. Converting back to tailback from wide receiver after a season, Connell Young was joined by rising senior Corey Holloway and Donnavan Spencer in receiving most of the carries. Transfer Haki Bradley and returning freshman Caleb Ferguson bot saw reps with the local product, Ferguson, scoring on an 18-yard scamper up the middle late in the scrimmage.
Rising senior WR Jordan Mathis was among the team's leading receiving threats including a 42-yard reception from Will Jones early in the scrimmage. His classmate, Tyran Reynolds, caught several passes including a touchdown from Jones in the two-minute drill. Both tight ends in Owen Cosenke and Austin Phillips had big receptions including a 20-yard strike to Cosenke early in the festivities and Phillips hauling in a scoring strike from Adams.
Other scoring on the afternoon came off the leg of Will Horton, who split the uprights from 32 yards out near the midpoint of the scrimmage.
Defensively, without any official statistics, fans were treated to solid play up front and continual pressure from WCU's defensive line including Palao, Solomon Clark, Nate Link, and Jake Helms who were each heavily involved in run stopping. Perfectly-timed blitzes dialed up by the defensive coaching staff allowed linebackers Ty Harris and Alan Harris to find ways in to the offensive backfield, with Murphy adding a sack of Thorpe to his ledger in addition to the forced fumble.
Western Carolina has one more week remaining in its off-season spring drills as the Catamounts are slated to practice on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons in the coming week before turning attention to its off-season training regiment with the WCU Athletic Performance staff. Unless otherwise noted, each WCU spring football practice is open to the public. It is respectfully requested, though, that spectators observe from the stadium seating area and avoid being either on the field or sidelines.
"We've got three more practices this spring and we'll have 25 practice opportunities before we line-up right back here at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field against Newberry on opening night in 2018. But, I'm excited about where we're at as a football team," concluded Speir.
Catamount fans are reminded that season tickets for all five home dates in 2018 are on-sale now through the WCU Athletics Ticket Office, located on the first floor of the Ramsey Center, and online at CatamountSports.com. Returning season ticket holders must renew their season tickets to secure the same seats by June 29, 2018. Fans can call the ticket office toll free at (800) 34-GOWCU or (828) 227-2401. General admission season tickets for adults begin at just $75 with additional Purple and Gold Reserved and options in the Western Builders Inc., Family Zone seating options also available.
Fans can keep track of everything related to Catamount football and WCU Athletics through its social media outlets on Facebook (fb.com/catamountsports) and Twitter (@catamounts. @WCU_FB), as well as video updates on the department's YouTube channel (CatamountSports).
Upcoming 2018 Catamount Football Spring Practice Schedule:
(schedule subject to time/date changes)
Practice #13: Monday, April 9 (shells) -- 4:15 -- 6:15 pm
Practice #14: Wednesday, April 11 (shells) -- 4:15 -- 6:15 pm
Practice #15: Friday, April 13 (helmets only) -- 4:15 -- 6:15 pm