By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There's no underselling the value of spring football.
Star players sit out, intrasquad scrimmages can be mere situational plays and some of the new standouts may not be heard from again in the fall.
But, in most cases, the spring can be a microcosm of what can be in store for the fall. The spring is when some players take important steps out of the shadows of other established players.
It can lead to increased playing time or a starting role.
All of the teams that finished in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25 last season have wrapped up their spring practices, with New Hampshire the final one on Saturday afternoon.
Most of the teams played spring games, and they vary in their structuring. Some used a modified scoring system that awarded points to the offense for first downs in addition to touchdowns and field goals and to the defense for changes of possession and turnovers.
It's important for teams to remain healthy in the spring, so some standouts - hey, careful there, QB No. 1 - even sat out spring practices.
Following are short synopses of how spring games went for last year's Top 25 teams:
1. Eastern Washington - Ronald Baines and Shane Stagg returned interceptions for the first two touchdowns of the Red team's 28-14 victory over the White. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the Most Outstanding Performer of EWU's national championship game win over Delaware, didn't rise to an elite level, but the top running backs excelled. Mario Brown rushed for 30 yards and a touchdown for the Red, while Darriell Beaumonte rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown for the White. Linebacker Bobby Gentry had nine tackles and a sack, and defensive back T.J. Lee III had six tackles, two sacks and an interception for the winning side.
3. Villanova - Depth was down as the Wildcats await a heralded freshman class this summer, so coach Andy Talley concluded spring practice without a true spring game. He said he is pleased with the attitude and work ethic of his squad, but the Wildcats lost a lot of top players. Five starters from the 2009 FCS championship club will help lead the team in August, when a number of jobs will be won. The top returning players are wide receiver Norman White, center Dan Shirey and cornerback James Pitts, with defensive end Marlon Johnson returning from a knee tear.
4. Appalachian State - The Mountaineers played three intrasquad scrimmages and their new 3-4 scheme impressed in all of them. Troy Sanders stood out as he transitioned from cornerback to the strong safety spot vacated by three-time All-America Mark Legree. Quarterback DeAndre Presley played well, with a lot of the key skills position players missing the final scrimmage.
6. Wofford - There were three intrasquad scrimmages, and the last one did not include many starters. Coach Mike Ayers says he likes how quarterback Mitch Allen has taken command of the offense. Linebacker James Zotto had a pair of interceptions in the second scrimmage. Place-kicker Christian Reed was 5 of 6 in the first scrimmage (missing only a 52-yarder) and 4 of 4 in the second scrimmage.
7. New Hampshire - Wildcats fans are excited about new quarterback Kevin Decker and he performed well in Team Wild's 31-16 victory over Team Cats. Decker, a senior who is replacing three-year starter R.J. Toman, completed 9- of-15 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns. Jimmy Owens also rushed for a 65-yard touchdown. Defensively, Tre Williams collected six tackles for Team Wild. Also, Jimmy Vailas had two sacks, both against his brother, Andy.
8. Stephen F. Austin - Lightning in the area cut short the Lumberjacks' spring game, but not before junior quarterback Dalton Williams played well, completing 13-of-19 passes for two touchdowns to Cordell Roberson. Sophomore Brady Attaway, last year's backup to Jeremy Moses, the 2010 Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) winner, had an interception that defensive back Justin Isadore returned 45 yards for a touchdown.
9. North Dakota State - The Bison divided their teams equally and the Green tripped the Gold, 24-17, before an impressive 3,051 at the Fargodome. The special teams made the opposition Green with envy as Ryan Smith returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and Brendin Pierre scored off Christian Dudzik's blocked punt. Tight end Matt Veldman was solid with five receptions for 68 yards.
10.William & Mary - No. 1 quarterback Mike Paulus sat out the spring after having offseason shoulder surgery, but reserve signal-callers Raphael Ortiz and Michael Graham threw touchdowns in the Green and Gold Game. The defense was particularly active, led by returning middle linebacker Jake Trantin (sack, forced fumble) and defensive lineman Nick Zaremba (two sacks). Maybe punter Tyler Bailey should have saved his 82-yarder for the regular season.
11. Montana State - The Bobcats' offensive backfield is crowded enough, but Cody Kirk, last year's top special teams player, staked his claim by rushing for 94 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries in the Blue team's 26-0 win over the Gold. Grayson Galloway was the quarterback of both teams, while standout DeNarius McGhee continues to heal from offseason surgery on his non-throwing (left) shoulder. Wide receiver Kruiz Siewing also impressed, while Clay Bignell was a standout defensively.
12. Jacksonville State - The White team's 20-point halftime lead shrank in the second half, but it held on to beat the Red, 30-28. For the White, starting quarterback Marques Ivory had a touchdown pass, and Calvin Middleton rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Thomas Darrah isn't expected to be one of the top two quarterbacks, but he was 24 of 38 for 243 yards for the Red. In addition, Trey Smith solidified himself as an impact transfer with 12 receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
13. Southeast Missouri State - The defense outperformed the offense in a 41-20 win. Linebacker Blake Peiffer had nine tackles and a sack, and defensive end Steve Hendry totaled three sacks. Renard Celestin rushed for 65 yards on 13 carries. In two earlier scrimmages, Celestin, converted-linebacker Bryant Worts, Ron Coleman and Lennies McFerren indicated there are some rushing options now that standout Henry Harris has moved on.
14. Lehigh - The Brown team (defense) kept the White (offense) without a first down on its first five possessions while pocketing a 39-25 win. Linebacker Mike Groome had a team-high five tackles and Nigel Muhammad collected two sacks. Surprisingly, quarterback Chris Lum struggled, completing 5-of-14 passes for 27 yards with three interceptions.
15. Bethune-Cookman - The Maroon team defeated the Gold, 14-7. The Wildcats are looking to replace quarterback Matt Johnson and David Blackwell showed off his moves on a 69-yard touchdown run to end the first half. The depth of the running backs was on display with Andronicus Lovette, Jonathan Moment and Rodney Scott. Place-kicking was a problem last season, but Sven Hurd made a 57-yard field goal in a post-game contest.
16. South Carolina State - In a scoring system that rewarded stops, the defense beat the offense, 32-23. Scoring on touchdown returns were Marquel Goodman (blocked kick), Cortney Ingram (43-yard fumble return) and Mason Harris (75-yard interception return). Richard Cue and Derrick Wiley were most impressive in the battle for the starting quarterback job. Talented wide receiver Lennel Elmore was effective on end-arounds, tallying 73 yards on six rushes.
17. Western Illinois - In a final controlled scrimmage, the defense had its way, or, more specifically, Ryan Demming did. He had four of the defense's eight sacks, including three in one set of plays. Junior quarterback Wil Lunt directed the No. 1 offense and threw for one touchdown. Josh Hudson remains in the running as well.
18. Penn - Under a scoring system in a simulated, situational scrimmage, the Red team shut out the Blue, 24-0. The biggest play was quarterback Andrew Holland's 50-yard touchdown pass to Conner Scott. Matt Hamscher played both offense and defense and was back for punt returns. The two-time defending Ivy League champions spent the spring solidifying at offensive line, fullback and defensive back.
19. Northern Iowa - The Purple and White teams played to a 14-14 tie. Maybe an overtime period would have benefited the defending Missouri Valley Conference champions? The standout was Zach Cutkomp, who rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries for the White. For the Purple, wide receiver Brett LeMaster caught three passes, including a 45-yard touchdown, and linebacker Jordan Smith collected seven tackles.
20. Montana - Head coach Robin Pflugrad used a fast-tempo offense in three scrimmages (the 87-play second scrimmage took only 57 minutes). The big question is who will be the Grizzlies' quarterback, with Jordan Johnson probably holding an edge over Nate Montana, son of Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. Wide receiver Justin Sambrano played well. Defensively, John Kanagota was active for a unit that already has excellent linebackers.
21. Liberty - Nothing like a spring thriller. Alex Kacere's 36-yard field goal with 21.9 seconds left lifted the White team to a 10-9 victory over the Blue. Ironically, Kacere also kicked for the Blue and missed a 39-yard attempt as time expired. The defense shined during the game with defensive back Brandon Robinson making seven tackles, defensive lineman Paco Varol three sacks and defensive back Walt Aikens four tackles and two pass breakups for the White, and linebackers Jimmy O'Grady and Nick Martin collecting 10 and six tackles, respectively, for the Blue. The offensive player who was hard to stop was Ervin Garner, who had seven receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown, and added 63 yards on four carries for the White.
22. Jacksonville - Life is good in the Sunshine State when a program can run spring drills in February. The Dolphins were done a long time before many other programs. Quarterback Josh McGregor has taken his play to a higher level, and he got help when the left side of the offensive line found some candidates to block for him and running back J.J. Laster. Head coach Kerwin Bell also worked to improve his linebackers unit, which is led by Mike Klein in the middle, and the secondary, where Andre Addison, Colby Walden, Antwain Matthews and Leonard Smith have stepped up.
23. Grambling State - An announced crowd of 1,563 came out to see head coach Doug Williams back at Grambling, where the Gold team beat the Black, 14-7. The QB derby remained heated after incumbent Anthony Carrothers completed 4-of-6 passes for 115 yards and one touchdown, Antoine Temple went 8-for-12 for 66 yards and a touchdown, and D.J. Williams (Doug's freshman son) completed 5- of-11 passes for 55 yards. Defensive linemen Jomarcus Savage and Stuart Hein had strong outings.
24. Cal Poly - Trevor Weis' interception on the final play helped the defense slip past the offense, 33-32. Senior slotback Mark Rodgers, the Mustangs' offensive star, rushed for a touchdown and threw for one on an option pass. The defense, though, shut down the running game quite nicely, allowing 93 yards on 49 carries.
25. Dayton - The Red team topped the White, 7-2, behind safety Steve Wirkus' 35-yard interception return. Windy conditions hampered the quarterbacks, but redshirt freshman Zachary Splain stood out while he completed 12-for-20 passes for 185 yards. Three other QBs saw action as the Flyers look to replace standout Steve Valentino.