Youngsters impress in South Dakota State football Spring Game
Jackrabbits wrap up spring practice with intrasquad scrimmage
BROOKINGS — Like most modern day college football teams, South Dakota State tries to make its annual Spring Game as much like a real game as they can. They pay an officiating crew to referee the game, play four timed quarters and keep score, and sell concessions to the fans in attendance.
And on Saturday, the Sanford-Jackrabbit Athletic Complex bleachers were filled to capacity by some 1,200 fans who turned out to see the defending national champions compete under new coach Jimmy Rogers.
For Rogers, the simulation was important. The spring season and Spring Game are both chances for the coaching staff to do some serious evaluating of lesser-experienced or up-and-coming players, and making the intrasquad competition more realistic lends more credibility to those evaluations.
"I think it's important and valuable anytime you get a shot to see game reps," Rogers said. "And we had an opportunity to, with the crowd, some of these young guys, they do clam up a little bit playing in front of people when they haven't took a ton of reps. So the exposure the fans give us is really good as far as creating an atmosphere for the players."
Rather than use a complicated scoring system that gives the defense points for things like sacks and turnovers, the Jacks scored the game traditionally, and had the defense start the game with an 18-0 lead, based on the scoring difference between the two units last year (the Jacks offense averaged 34.2 points per game while the defense allowed 15.8). The starting offense went against the starting defense and the reserve offense faced the reserve defense.
With key starters on both sides of the ball sitting out due to injuries or precautionary reasons, a handful of players who played supplemental roles last year took the opportunity to step up. And aside from some early and late fireworks much of the game was slow moving and uneventful, but for good reason — the units were evenly-matched. Ideally an intrasquad scrimmage would feel like something of a stalemate, and aside from a few big plays that's what the fans saw on Saturday.
The Jacks opened the game with a trick play, with Isaiah Davis finding Jaxon Janke for a 40-yard gain on a halfback pass, and freshman running back Derrick Johnson racing in for a 23-yard touchdown two plays later to make the score 18-7.
The defense clamped down from there, with Jalen Lee notching two interceptions and the front seven mostly controlling the running game, swarming to the football well and forcing several runs that went for little to no gain.
Chase Mason, the former Viborg-Hurley standout who began his college career playing baseball at Nebraska, fired a 65-yard bomb to Grahm Goering for a touchdown to make it 18-14, and after a 43-yard Hunter Dustman field goal, Mason's former high school teammate, Angel Johnson, broke free up the middle and outran the secondary for a 65-yard run that proved to be the game-winning score.
With Davis only taking a couple snaps and Amar Johnson held out, Angel Johnson, Derrick Johnson (yes, SDSU has three running backs named Johnson) and Josh Buri and Isaac Kracl split carries on Saturday, with Angel Johnson finishing with 81 yards on 11 carries and catching a pair of passes as well.
"It was good to get out there and make some big plays, get out there and get some game reps," Angel Johnson said. "We know we have a talented defense that's gonna make plays and we're a talented offense, so we're going to make some plays as well. It's good to know we can be a dominant team on both sides of the ball."
Mason completed 3-of-5 passes for 79 yards, while starter Mark Gronowski went 5-of-7 for 38 yards in limited action.
Rogers singled out Angel Johnson and Goering, as well as tackle Bo Donald as offensive players who stood out this spring, while Lee, cornerback Aydan Dautermann, tackle Logan Green and edge rusher Blake Peterson were the defensive players he complimented for their work throughout the spring.
"On offense, some of the backups need to take a step (up) — they do," Rogers said. "I was happy with some of the defense. Overall, spring in general was good. We just have to stay healthy going into the summer."
The Jacks also have an impressive class of incoming freshmen set to join the team this summer, and Rogers said he looks forward to seeing some of them compete for roles or help to build depth in the fall.
When they do, the Jacks will be ready to begin their defense of the national championship, and they'll do so with a better feel for how things will work in the post-John Stiegelmeier era.
"I feel like it was a smooth transition," said Angel Johnson. "A lot of guys rallied behind Coach Rogers. We all have a lot of respect for him. He comes with that attitude and that demeanor that it's time to play. I think this spring was another good step forward for our team."