Ultimately, the first scrimmage of any fall camp is like the fresh watermelon slices that Ohio carved and served up after its 50-play exhibition on Saturday morning in Peden Stadium.
Sweet. Tasty. Hits the proverbial spot. And quickly processed while you move on to what’s next.
The Bobcats are 10 days into their first fall camp with Tim Albin — installed in late July after the retirement of program stalwart Frank Solich — as the head coach. Ohio has successfully made through a rapid-fire spring camp and now the opening half of fall camp without any of the interruptions that marred the 2020 three-game season.
The transition has been smooth, the energy is high, and right now the promise of a ‘real’ season is motivation aplenty for a team hungry to get back to competing and winning instead of just trying to get the next gameday (as was the case last fall).
“I just didn’t feel right ending my senior season only having three games. Closure was definitely a big thing in coming back,” said sixth-year wide receiver Cam Odom, one of several ‘Super Seniors’ expected to add ballast to OU’s championship hopes this season.
Viewed through that lens, Saturday’s exhibition was another productive step. It felt normal as the players competed without masks, spectators dotted the bleachers, and Albin noted the team’s vaccination rate continued to climb. Depth chart matters weren’t decided one way or the other, and there appeared to be a pleasing lack of season-altering injuries.
Albin didn’t offer any clear declarations afterward, mimicking Solich’s many scrimmage related statements over the past two decades. He did take pride in springing a surprise red zone segment into the scrimmage near the end, however.
“I stay out of their way. We got an unbelievable staff. Our staff is what is the difference. The guys do a great job,” Albin said. “But I threw a curve ball at them. I went off script. We never put the ball in the high red zone (25-yard line) really in the first scrimmage.”
It was a way to make newly minted offensive coordinator Scott Isphording (quarterbacks coach) and co-offensive coordinator Allen Rudolph (offensive line) adjust and think on the fly.
“Threw them a little wrench, and the guys handled it.”
The day’s only two touchdowns came through the red-zone segment. Redshirt freshman quarterback Kurtis Rouke found a wide open Jerome Buckner in the right corner for a 15-yard touchdown. On the final play of the day, redshirt senior QB Armani Rogers dropped in a 3-yard touchdown on a fade route to tight end Alec Burton.
Rouke and Rogers split reps equally in the ongoing evaluation of the quarterback position. Rourke, like in the three games last season, was the starter and finished 5-of-7 passing for 37 yards and the late score. Rogers hit 3 of 7 passes for 42 yards, and ate up swaths of yardage with his legs by rushing for 51 on five carries.
If OU has already named a starter, no one has spilled the beans yet. It’s expected the QB competition will continue into the start of the regular season, which begins Sept. 4 against visiting Syracuse.
“We just continue to do the best we can,” said Rourke. “I know for myself, (Rogers) makes me better, makes me want to work harder.”
Both sides of the ball had reason to be encouraged. The offense rushed for 161 yards on 30 carries, didn’t have a turnover, and suffered just two negative yardage plays. On the other side, the defense didn’t give up a score until the red zone period, held firm on 5-of-7 third-down conversions, and gave up just one explosive play through the air.
“There were some good holes, we were getting to those holes,” Albin said. “I thought ‘Oh, that’s gonna be a big one.’ And it’s only about a 6-yarder. Defensively, we can run. They close really fast.”
De’Montre Tuggle, one of those Super Seniors, had 46 yards on seven total touches and was effective in a limited amount of reps. Freshman RB Sieh Bangura impressed with 35 yards on six carries, including a couple of attempts that moved the pile.
Freshman flanker Miles Cross had the day’s biggest play with a heavily contested 32-yard catch on a deep ball from Rogers. Another freshman, CB Torrie Cox Jr., held up well in a couple one-on-one matchups on the outside.
“They were matched up. Quarterback saw it, got us in the right play, gave him a chance,” Albin said. “ Both those kids are going to play for us.”
Freshman DT Bralen Henderson had the only sack, when he tagged down Rourke. LB Cannon Blauser, and DEs Will Evans and Bryce Dugan also turned in impact plays.
Special teams were not live for the scrimmage with the exception of one 43-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first offensive series. Tristan Vandenberg pushed the kick wide right.
In terms of ‘concern’ the only one for Albin on this particular day was his depth on the defensive line. Five players were out from that contingent, including top of the rotation options in DT Kyle McCracken and DE Bryce Stai. Stai’s situation is the most serious, with him posting on social media from the hospital later in the day on Saturday due to an illness.
It’s a reminder there will be challenges and difficult and hardship — as there is every season — in the coming weeks and months. But for this day, the weather was good, the watermelon was crisp, and the optimism unchecked.
“It’s going to be fun to watch, that’s all I got to say,” Rourke said.
Bobcat bits — Other notables out, or held out, of the scrimmage includes WRs Isiah Cox, Tyler Walton and James Bostic, RB Julian Ross, and LS Justin Holloway. …LT T.J. Jackson is listed at 6-foot-7 and 375 pounds and looks every bit the part. He’s joined by Kurt Danneker, Nick Sink, Hagen Meservy and Jay Amburgey on the projected starting offensive line. …Freshman QB C.J. Harris completed 1 of 3 for 10 yards, and had one rush for 15 yards as the only other QB to get live reps in the scrimmage. …O’Shaan Allison (5 touches, 7 yards), Jake Neatherton (4-11) and Walter Wilbon (2-11) also worked at RB. ..The starting DL included DEs Dugan and Michael Taylor, and DTs Kai Caesar and Denzel Daxon.