Going into the beginning of spring practice, no position on the Middle Tennessee football team was in more of a numbers crunch than linebacker.
But in Saturday's first spring scrimmage, the linebackers were a huge part of the defense's strong showing.
Led by returning stalwart Danny Carmichael in the middle, the unit took some positive steps.
Carmichael broke up two passes and recovered a fumble. Cam Robinson recorded an interception and Gorby Loreus was active in some key defensive stops.
"What we are doing a lot better is just matching up on receivers," Carmichael said after the scrimmage. "I think we are identifying (routes) a lot better and we're getting better at reading the quarterback. We're able to cut those short fire zone routes and those hot routes, so we've been doing a lot better jumping those quick routes and forcing the quarterbacks to make quick decisions. That's why we had six or seven sacks today."
Carmichael may be the single most important returning defensive player because of his status as the only truly proven linebacker.
He is taking that role very seriously and is using the situation as motivation for himself as well as others at his position that he leads.
Including Saturday's scrimmage, he really likes what he has seen from those around him trying to carve a spot on the depth chart.
"They've really come along great this spring," Carmichael said of his fellow linebackers. "Today I thought Antwan (Davis) and Cam (Robinson) both made some big plays. Usually, the first couple of days of spring they are going to be kind of slow catching on but this is day six or seven, and once they started making a couple of plays I think they got more confidence in themselves. They started playing ball then instead of having to think so much."
Carmichael is also quick to point out that linebacker was considered a question mark going into the 2008 season before the unit ended up having a very successful season. He forecasts a similar result this year.
"We had the same problem last year with (linebackers) coming in that hadn't played much or at all the year before. I think we're in the same situation, but a lot of people doubted (the linebackers) last year and we ended up being the heart of our defense. I think we can do the same thing this year. We have just as good of talent and I think we'll be alright."
QBs produce mixed bag of results
Dwight Dasher and Brent Burnette each showed positive flashes of their ability on Saturday, while also doing their part to make sure offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has plenty to correct during their next film session.
The stat lines were very similar. Dasher completed 12 of 24 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns, while Burnette connected on 13 of 27 attempts for 133 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.
"They did some good and bad things," head coach Rick Stockstill said of his two signal callers. "It's really hard to judge them right now just because they are learning so much. Nothing is natural right now because they are still learning to go through all of their reads. I thought Dwight made some good throws and I thought Brent made some good throws."
Dasher's best pass of the day came when he lofted about a 30-yard touchdown pass to Desmond Gee down the seam against coverage from Derrick Crumpton.
Burnette's best toss of the day came when he bought himself extra time by sliding to his left in the pocket before firing a deep strike to a crossing Malcolm Beyah.
Stockstill says both passers are still a little mechanical in their thoughts and movements right now as they adjust to the new system.
"Once they understand the offense better, where they can improve as much as anywhere is in their leadership," Stockstill said. "Right now they aren't doing that because they are so worried about what play is being called and what they are supposed to do (on the play)."
Dasher and Burnette faced some challenging weather conditions because of gusty winds during most of the scrimmage. Heavy winds were blowing toward the North end zone inside Floyd Stadium, which caused some dramatic differences for quarterbacks depending on which direction they were guiding the offense.
"Wind, rain or whatever, you can't let it affect you," Burnette said. "We obviously knew it was blowing but you can't let it affect you. You just have to block that out."
Stockstill noticed the effects of the wind on deeper throws.
"Going (toward the South end zone) early it was a pretty good wind," he said. "I think when the wind was to our back it might have affected some of the deeper throws when we were coming (toward the North end), but as far as the intermediate passes I don't think the wind was a factor."
Burnette said as the offense continues to mature as a unit, the flow should become more smooth, but lackluster ball security will give him and the rest of the offense plenty to work on as spring drills continue.
"We just need to get on the same page with everyone as an offense so we can drive the ball up and down the field," Burnette said. "We had quite a few three-and-outs and we need to eliminate the turnovers. The number one thing is to take care of the ball. You always want to have the ball at the end of the play so we'll come out next time and do a better job of that."
McCoy answering the call
When asked before spring practice which players Stockstill wanted to see emerge as consistently reliable playmakers, senior defensive end Chris McCoy was one of the first names to come out of the head coach's mouth.
So far, McCoy has risen to the occasion and his strong effort in Saturday's scrimmage underscored that fact.
McCoy registered two sacks and also got his hand on at least one pass to earn a deflection. The results on the field are due to McCoy's motor running at a higher level this spring, according to Stockstill.
"I think Chris has really done well so far. He's playing with a sense of urgency and he's playing with great effort," Stockstill said. "He's playing with concentration and is coming out here with a purpose. He is working hard and getting better. He's playing with some toughness and I think maybe he is realizing that this is his time."
Playing past the whistle
Stockstill loved the energy and intensity on the field in Saturday's scrimmage, and on one play in particular that intensity continued past the whistle.
After a pass from Dasher to Chris McClover netted a short gain, Carmichael tackled McClover to end the play.
But the action didn't stop there, as Carmichael and McClover ended up in a skirmish that escalated to include most of the team.
The whole ordeal lasted less than a minute, but it spoke to the sense of urgency and competitive spirit on display this spring.
"I made a tackle and (McClover) got mad," Carmichael said. "The offense was struggling. I tackled him, he got up and kind of gave me an elbow, so I gave him an elbow. He kind of shoved me then, so I thought alright here we go."
The brief altercation quickly broke up and the two sides made peace, but on a day when the defense had the upper hand, Carmichael knows the offense is on an upward track.
"I think the offense had a bad day but it's still early," Carmichael said. "With them putting in a new offense you're going to expect them to be a little slow early on. Coach Diaz has been here running the same defense since I've been here for four years, but the offense will come along and they will be alright."