The trees and the plants may not know that it’s time for spring football here in Portland, but the calendar says it is. Monday afternoon 70+ Portland State Vikings will take to the Stott Community Field come rain or shine (most likely rain).
After two springs that better resembled scavenge and salvage sessions, there is reason for excitement around the Vikings camp this spring. For the first time since Nigel Burton took over in 2010 the Vikings start spring football with legitimate playoff expectations following last year’s surprising 7-4 finish.
Players and coaches will always tell you the playoffs are the goal, but this spring there is a conviction to their statements that had been lacking in the past. The biggest question, aside from ‘Will the sun ever come back?’ is, ‘Can the team build on last year’s success and take that next step?’
“Our mantra from the moment the season ended was trying to go from good to great,” said head coach Nigel Burton.
I outlined some of the big questions surrounding the team as spring ball starts in the Oregonian, but as always, I had more to say than the space allotted. Here’s the rest of the low down …
When I talked with Burton prior to the last two springs, he identified the same goals for the month of practice: find depth, build leadership and instill the systems. Those goals remain but this year Burton’s objectives are more specific.
“If something wasn’t going to help us go from good to great then we we’re not going to do it,” he said. “We can’t improve doing the same things. In order to get better you’re going to have to do things you haven’t done.”
Borrowing the “good to great” slogan from a popular business how-to book isn’t the only way Burton seems to be reshaping himself into an efficiency-focused business man.
He assigned his coaches research projects over the offseason. He honed in on ways they could coach better. He’s changed up the structure of his staff, adding a run-game coordinator and divvying up the special teams between two coaches.
He’s also changing how the team practices, “structuring practice to really emphasize the sections we need to improve upon.” That means more periods working on 3rd and 4th and short, more red zone work for the offense and an emphasis on avoiding turnovers and creating takeaways.
It’s clear that Burton believes he can narrow the focus of practice more because he has developed a corps of players who understand the system and can help bring newcomers up to speed without him and his staff having to slow things down for them.
As I mentioned in the Oregonian story, the team has had its most active offseason since Tim Walsh’s departure. Burton and senior Justin Monahan raved about the buy-in for the voluntary Saturday 7-on-7s and practices. The trend started last year but both said the number of players was never close to the 70+ who have shown up all this winter.
“Just from the showing we’ve had at optional 7 on 7s all offseason this winter it’s pretty apparent that guys know what we’ve got to do to win ballgames,” Monahan said. “It’s pretty cool to see that happening when that really hasn’t happened here in a while.”
Burton and the coaching staff have limited access to the players during the offseason, but he likes the new, more hardnosed approach to leadership his seniors have embraced.
“Now there’s a little bit more of what I kind of like, guys that are like, “Listen this is the way we do things at Portland State. It results in wins and guys graduating. If you like it come, if you don’t, you’ve got to go,’” he said. “I appreciate that. It’s pretty blunt but the guys still take care of each other.”
In addition to changing the way they practice, look for the Vikings to use spring to tinker with the offense and the way they move the ball. The coaches know there is no one on the roster that is immediately capable of contributing the mix of running, passing and leadership that graduated quarterback Connor Kavanaugh did. That’s not to say they don’t believe in the guys they have, just that they realize the offense will have to change. Expect more passing and more creative backfield mixes that take advantage of the team’s expected depth at running back.
Here’s a position by position look at where the Vikings stand: (only players who are expected for spring ball)
QB: Junior transfer Collin Ramirez is the heavy favorite to win the starting gig. He excelled as a passer at Butte JC, breaking Aaron Rodgers school touchdown record. “Collin has definitely got the tools and the skillset to win a lot of football games for us here,” Burton said. His biggest competition right now looks to be senior Nick Green, a high school quarterback who switched to safety and special teams two years ago. Burton stressed that he is looking for more than skills. “I’ll take a guy who is a great leader and makes everybody around him better than a guy who just throws a great ball.”
Others to watch: sophomore Josh Milhollin, redshirt freshman Thomas Carter.
RB: In last year’s season finale the running back corps was so banged up the Vikings turned to cornerback Denzel Davis to run the ball. Perhaps as surprising as Davis’ success was, is the depth the Vikings should have this year. Maryland transfer D.J. Adams gives the Vikings the big back they’ve lacked. Davis will no doubt get a long look this spring after turning heads. Sophomore Shaq Richards will be back after missing the finale last year and so will junior Justin Lilley. One name to keep an eye out for is Julian Cruell, a 5-8 freshman who sat out last year after transferring. He turned heads and snapped ankles on the scout team and Monahan singled him out as “one of those guys that can come in and take somebody’s spot really fast.”
Others to watch: senior Ben Bowen, redshirt freshman Jordan Lewis.
TE: Seniors Kalua Noa and Gage Loftin will get the bulk of the reps here. Noa proved to be one of the Vikings’ most dangerous receivers after recovering from an eye injury. Look for him to see more balls thrown his way in the new pass-happier pistol. Senior Greylin James also deserves mention for his blocking skills.
Others to watch: sophomore Taylor Martinek
WR: Pretty much everybody from last year’s underused group returns. Monahan showed his star potential and is poised for a breakout campaign. Senior Nevin Lewis showed signs of making the transition from athlete to receiver and could also be in for a good senior year. The coaches loved sophomore Alex Toureen before his season was derailed by injuries. David Jones, a 6-1 freshman redshirt, was one of the most exciting players to watch in practice last year and should be in the mix for extended time.
Others to watch: Sophomore Roston Tatum, junior A.J. Powell
OL: The o-line loses Dustin Waldron to the NFL, but returns probably the strongest group on the offensive side of the ball. Juniors Mitch Gaulke and Mitchell Van Dyk and seniors Kyle Ritt and Joey Esposito are probably the strongest returning group of starters in the Big Sky. Sophomore Cornelius Edison was on the verge of breaking into that group as a true freshman before injuries last year and should only be better this year.
Others to watch: seniors Dalton Jasso and Anthony Moxley
DL: Probably one of the biggest areas of concern heading into spring. Juniors Julious Moore and Bryant Long and senior Dereck Jester have 22 combined starts but they will need help. Transfers Tomasi Molesi and Zack Ka’ahanui are not expected for spring ball, leaving the door wide open for sophomores Brandon Tobias and Vincent Jackson. Both were coaches favorites but looked overwhelmed on the field at times. Grayshirt Sadat Sulleyman, a member of the 2011 signing class, could also factor in.
Others to watch: junior Jeremy Boone, sophomore James Seuma’ala
LB: “The heart and soul” of the defense according to Burton, it should be fun to watch this deep, talented group battle. Seniors Ian Sluss, Joel Sisler, Dionte Brooks and Khalil Bass are all potential stars. Junior Jaycob Shoemaker was playing better than anyone when a broken leg ended his 2010 season. He’s back after using last season to heal. Redshirt freshman Dennis Taylor was a punt blocking machine in practice. Next fall the competition will get even fiercer with the arrival of three highly touted freshmen.
Others to watch: Redshirt freshman Kawika Stant, sophomore Corey Crowder
Secondary: Lots of new faces make the battle for starting spots in the secondary one of the most interesting. Senior Michael Williams is the vet and lone player to have likely locked down a starting gig. Senior Dean Faddis looked like the answer at safety last year after transferring from Nevada but was quickly hurt. He’ll battle Nathan Snow, also returning from an injury, and transfer David Edgerson to take over for the three graduated seniors. At corner, senior Aaron Kincy and sophomore Karrington Jones will have the leg up on a group of redshirts and transfers highlighted by 6-5 transfer Dennis Fite.
Others to watch: redshirt freshman Demetrius Jackson
Kicker: Zach Brown could shatter all the Big Sky kicking records with another good season. The NFL is watching.
Punter: Thomas Duyndam needs to be more consistent.