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Secondary sets pace in Bucs’ first preseason scrimmage

By Jeff Birchfield • Aug 11, 2019 at 1:20 AM

JOHNSON CITY — The East Tennessee State defense, particularly the secondary, stood out in Saturday night’s intrasquad football scrimmage at Greene Stadium.

That was no surprise to coach Randy Sanders, who has high expectations for the unit.

“They did some good things, but they should be good when you have that many guys with experience,” Sanders said. “They’re setting a good pace for the defense, setting a good pace for the team. They played like they should tonight other than they missed too many tackles. They need to support the run a little better at times, but they’re playing the pass awfully well.”

That was certainly the case later in the practice/scrimmage when the Bucs faced off in a two-minute drill.

Junior Tyree Robinson and redshirt freshman Donovan Manuel each came up with interceptions.

Robinson said he felt the past seven days of practice, battling with the offense, helped set the tone for the secondary.

“We’re really coming together as a unit,” he said. “We’ve been growing. Our DB coach (Steve) Brown has been helping us read plays and get through them. I think I’ve matured with Coach (defensive coordinator Billy) Taylor. He’s seen me at my highest and lowest, so he helps me bring my best game out.”

WHAT ABOUT QUARTERBACK?

Trey Mitchell got the snap on the opening series of the scrimmage. That doesn’t mean he’s the starting quarterback, Sanders noted.

Each of the six quarterbacks listed on the roster had his turn running the offense. Mitchell, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman from Knoxville, completed 3 of 5 passes on his opening drive while leading the Bucs down the field.

“He’s the oldest, been here the longest,” Sanders said. “But we tried to keep it as even as we could as far as the series. If a quarterback kept the drive alive, they got more plays. If they had one play and out, that was their series.”

Mitchell was followed by Cameron Lewis, the Bucs’ only available quarterback in the spring. Lewis’ highlights included breaking free on a long first-down run, a 12-yard pass down the middle of the field and escaping a sack to get a pass off down the right sideline.

Next up was Miami transfer Cade Weldon, the son of 1991 Heisman Trophy runner-up Casey Weldon. The younger Weldon went 1-for-3 before getting banged up.

Freshmen Tyler Riddell and Ford Cooper and Coastal Carolina transfer Chance Thrasher each took a turn, with Thrasher getting a lot of the later snaps. Thrasher ended 5-for-9 with 41 yards and a touchdown along with four rushes for 26 yards.

“I thought at times each did some good things and at times they did some things that will get you beat,” Sanders said. “The thing I was pleased with is that we didn’t have any communication problems where they called the play wrong and I had to call time out. That was good considering how many young guys were out there offensively.

“We have to get better in the passing game and we have to be more efficient. We have to have our eyes in the right place at the right time based on coverages, but it was good to see the guys get out there and compete.”

MOVE TO CENTER

D.J. Twitty powered into the end zone late when the Bucs were practicing their red-zone offense. After losing All-America center Matt Pyke to graduation, the Bucs have compensated on the offensive line by moving Ben Blackmon from guard to the position.

It’s different for Blackmon having the ball in his hand, but he had no issues snapping the ball when the quarterbacks lined up both under center and in the shotgun formations.

“I did it in the spring some and it wasn’t my first time doing it, but it’s a new challenge after playing guard my whole career,” Blackmon said. “After Pyke, I have big shoes to fill, a lot of work to do. There are a lot of differences like making the calls for the other linemen, the quarterback behind me. I have to make sure my chemistry with every quarterback is good where we don’t have bad snaps or anything like that.”

POWER ON

The Bucs ran a number of plays — not just short yardage — out of the I-formation. Sanders expressed a desire to line up more under center this year with defenses geared more toward stopping the spread offenses.

“It gives you a lot of different options in the run game,” he said. “Not many people do it anymore, so not many defenses prepare for it. Everybody talks about the three-back offense with the option and wishbone, how hard it is to prepare. Lining up in an I-formation is different for a lot of teams. It’s something that worked well last year. It’s not our base offense, but we have the ability to do it when we want to.”

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