And on the 15th practice, the Saints offense won the day.
Ending the spring football season with flashes of moxie, the Saints’ offense got scores from Ryan Walsh and Major Ali, as the first-team unit outshined the defense during 60 plays at the spring game on Saturday in front of a few hundred fans at Nelson Stadium.
Coach Mike Van Diest thought it may have been the worst showing by his defense this spring.
“I thought our offense did a great job,” he said. “We had them a couple times on third down -- and that was our nemesis last year, not getting off the field -- and today I think it hurt us again. We had a couple of big plays here and there. Defensively we just didn’t have guys that could shut guys down on the perimeter. Our corners have got to step up and make those plays. A couple times they did. That last drive maybe maybe put the nail in the coffin for the defense. We had them third and long and a post route over the middle which has kind of been our nemesis this spring.”
Throughout the 60 plays, the Saints mixed in their No. 1s, 2s and 3s, giving the lions' share of the work to the backup players. It’s been the focus of the springtime, cementing a depth chart that carries over into the fall. After the scrimmage on Saturday, while speaking to reporters, Van Diest wasn’t sure his team had fully figured out their corps.
“I just talked to the team,” he said. “Our purpose was to get a two-deep at every position. I don’t think we accomplished that this spring. I don’t know that we have every spring. There’s a few surprises for me. When we look at it as a staff there’ll be a few players that we’ll say, 'This guy really worked his way up the depth chart.' But I don't know if we’re two deep everywhere. I think in the secondary we might be a player short back there.”
Early on, it was evident the offensive line was jelling. Ali and Walsh found running room on the first drive, as Walsh hit a nifty cutback to score from about 13 yards out.
“It was good to be able to do both today,” offensive coordinator Nick Howlett said. “Obviously, we didn't just hang our hats on the run or the pass. We were able to mix it up a little bit.”
The offensive line returns three starters in Chris Emter, Joel Kramer and Willy Clements. David Barnett who, along with Seamus Tully, moved from D-line to offensive line, worked with some first team, along with Todd Pays. Tully also mixed in with the No. 1s in later series, too.
While it was only a scrimmage, the offensive line made an impact, something that didn’t always happen last season for Howlett’s offense.
“It’s always nice,” he said. “You want to see improvement; that's the one thing we saw throughout the spring. Consistently we were inconsistent in terms of our lineup. We need a lot of guys around. It’s nice come together be able to jell a little bit today and still not know exactly who will be where come fall. But that’s what two-a-days and the summer are for.”
The defense had its moments, too. David Anderson recovered a fumble after Tanner Gustavsen and Ali miscommunicated on an option flick. Sam Johnson and Cole Adams each recorded a sack after tough snaps left Reece Hiibel in poor positions. Sean Pittman nearly had an interception, stepping in front of his man to break up the pass.
The scrimmage had a controlled, simulated feel to it. On special teams plays, punt returns were blown dead after the returner caught the ball, a cautious approach to avoid unnecessary injuries. Veteran Dylan Torgerson and Anders Conwell both let loose a few booming punts on the day, and Torgerson took and made the majority of the field goal attempts.
Even with an emphasis on player safety, all-conference tackle Beaugh Meyer went down and remained on the field for several minutes. The stalwart in Carroll’s defensive line, Van Diest said, was OK.
“He was ready to go back in, but there were only a couple plays left,” Van Diest said. “He’s old enough that he know what he’s doing by now, I hope.”
Ali would get into the end zone late in the practice, capping off a drive where he ripped off a long run. Whether it was Ali or Walsh, the Saints showed they have a lot of weapons on offense this upcoming season.
The receiving corps is no exception to that. With Connor Fohn returning and a known factor, the Saints were able to get more looks at Joe Farris, Paul Hart and Shane Sipes this spring. Hart, a Helena High product, nearly hauled in the biggest play of the day when he stretched to grab a deep ball at the back of the end zone, but couldn’t quite get a foot down in bounds. Farris had moments, too, and Sipes once again got some looks as a punt returner.
The group, along with Eric Dawson and Connor McGree, will give quarterback Tanner Gustavsen a lot of options on offense next season.
The Saints are now off until fall practices, where the drive to wipe away two consecutive 4-6 seasons will continue.