PROVO — The Cougars got in just short of 50 reps for the team in their first scrimmage of the fall practice session. Fans from all over gathered to come out and support their team.
“I’ve never seen an opening scrimmage with this much support,” said head coach Bronco Mendenhall. “When I was driving over and saw all the cars, I thought that something else was going on as well on campus. It was pretty neat.”
The scrimmage got off to a rough start as emerging fullback, Iona Pritchard was left on the ground after the opening kickoff. He was carted off the field with a fractured fibula and a bone dislocation in his lower leg and will miss a minimum of six weeks.
Pritchard’s role was starting to expand, according to Mendenhall, and he was beginning to remind coaches of Manase Tonga with his play.
“There will have to be some adjustment now, but fortunately we’re deep at running back,” Mendenhall said.
The first set of reps saw quarterback Jake Heaps march the first team offense down the field with 5-for-5 passing for 49 yards. He capped off the drive by hitting McKay Jacobson in the end zone from 15-yards out.
“It’s huge. It sets the tone for the rest of the game,” said Heaps about scoring on the opening drive. “It deflates another team when you’re able to put drives together like that. Not just me, but our run game with our running backs getting four, five or six yards a pop.”
Bryan Kariya had two runs for a combined 11 yards during the first set with JJ Di Luigi contributing another run of six yards.
The opening play of the drive had Heaps attempting a long pass to Ross Apo, who had man-on-man coverage. Although the pass wasn’t complete, Corby Eason, who was in coverage, was flagged for pass interference.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer type of thing,” said Heaps about recognizing Apo in man-coverage down the field. “Ross is a special player. He’s such a vertical threat that if he’s not catching the ball that you’re going to have to PI (pass interfere) him. He’s so good that it’s really the only decision that a DB (defensive back) has. They can let him catch the ball or they can get a penalty.”
Riley Nelson got the second set of reps, going live with a blue jersey. The second drive ended with a pass that was dropped by tight end Richard Wilson and summarily picked off by Carter Mees. Nelson ended going 1-for-3 with a completed pass of 11 yards to Di Luigi.
Heaps took the field again for the third set and threw his only pass incomplete after Di Luigi started the drive off with a 22-yard run. A sack by Eathyn Manumaleuna helped hold the offense short of the end zone.
“I think the offensive line was perhaps the most cohesive group; that stood out the most,” said Mendenhall on his impressions of the scrimmage and in opening holes that allowed for big-gainers by Di Luigi and others. “I liked how physical they were today, and without sending a lot of pressure in terms of one-on-one battles, the offensive line (played well) and the running backs ran hard.”
Riley Stephenson let go of a punt for 50 yards to end the set. The punt featured the swinging gate formation consisting of Romney Fuga, Walter Kahaialii and Braden Brown as the last line of the defense right in front of the punter.
James Lark saw the field for the first time during the fourth set and went 2-for-3 for seven yards on a completion to David Foote.
Heaps then took the field and went 2-for-4 for 44 yards with both of his completions going to Marcus Mathews.
“I didn’t practice on Tuesday or Wednesday because of injury, but I’ve hurried to get back and I’m playing a bit hurt,” said Mathews. “One of the main motivators is how open the tight end spot is. There are a lot of good guys competing and we all want to start, so you can’t fall behind. You miss practices and other guys get in front of you, so I’ll play through as much as I can.”
Linebacker Alani Fua contributed a sack on a drive that ended with Justin Sorensen making a field goal from 13-yards out.
Nelson completed all of his three passes for a combined 32 yards during the fifth set. The run defense stepped up during the series, with true freshman Austin Heder making a big hit in stuffing a run attempt on the edge of the defense.
“The general execution was more solid,” said Mendenhall about the defensive play during the scrimmage. “I would have liked to have seen the defensive front play more physical, and I think our play-action recognition in the secondary can improve, but around those two points it’s stepping forward.
Jason Munns directed the final set of reps for the day and went 2-for-4 for 20 yards which included catches by JD Falslev and Ryan Folsom.
Overall, Mendenhall was pleased with the progress his team has made so far this fall.
“It feels like more than a week and I think we’re a little farther than what one week (usually) shows," he said.
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