Ready for Some Football
My Whereabouts Tomorrow (CREDIT: Columbia Athletic Dept.)
Sure, it's only a practice game, but after more than a five-month layoff I am really ready to take in some Columbia football at tomorrow's spring game. And after tomorrow, it's basically another five-month wait until the season begins. So we all better take in as much as I can.
The weather should be just wonderful... at least for the folks in the stands. The forecast is calling for sunny skies and 72 degrees. So the players might get a little hot out on the field. But the folks who suffered through last year's "spring" game in those cold conditions, this will be fine.
I am not 100% clear on the rules for the game as of yet, but it looks like rising sophomore M.A. Olawale will start at QB for one side with his fellow rising sophomore Jason Pyles under center for the other.
If Pyles' name rings a bell, it should. He got into all 10 games as a freshman last season on special teams. He even made a great play to recover a muffed fumble before it went out of bounds in the Princeton game. My gut feeling is the coaches are impressed with Pyles for his athleticism and his commitment, and that may be the real reason why he's getting this look at QB. With a couple of good quarterbacking prospects on their way to CU, I'm not sure Pyles is a legitimate candidate for much play under center next season. But I could be wrong, and in his case I would be happy to be wrong. There's nothing better than a player who hustles like Jason Pyles.
My more-detailed preview of spring practice and the spring game is here, but here are the top 5 things I'll be looking for:
5. Kick Returners
The game may not run full-contact punts and kickoffs, but hopefully there will be something to let us know if there are any legitimate candidates to fill this very serious gap in the Columbia attack.
4. Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Austin Knowlin did a great job of attracting a crowd of defenders as last season went on, but if Columbia doesn't develop another legitimate receiving threat, the Lions won't be able to take much advantage of that. I was impressed with rising sophomore Taylor Joseph's play as a freshman last year, and I think he has a very good shot at starting in 2007. But I will also be looking very closely at Tim Paulin, who needs to regain the coaches' confidence as he enters his senior year.
At tight end, rising senior Jamal Russell needs to show the same stuff he exhibited in the last two games of the season. Rising junior Troy Evangelist needs to show what he can do as a receiver, something we haven't seen at all in his first two seasons.
3. Defensive Replacements
Columbia had a lot of underclassmen stars on the defense last year, but five senior starters are graduating, and they must be replaced with the best players out there. I'd like to see some inspired play from rising sophs Matt Bashaw, Lou Miller, and Drew Abeyta, and rising juniors Cory Cameron, Conor Joyce, Eli Waltz, and Clark Koury.
2. Is M.A. Olawale Ready?
Olawale needs to show he'll be ready to lead this team as a sophomore this year in case Craig Hormann isn't healed in time to play. We know he can run, but he needs to throw the ball with more authority than the few times he got a chance to pass in 2006.
1. Running Game Improvement
This is the top priority for Columbia football, because no matter who is playing QB, he's going to need a better running game behind him than the Lions showed last season. Actually, 2006 was a big improvement over 2005 in the running department as the Lions went from 464 yards rushing in '05 to 678 yards on the ground in '06. But I don't think Columbia will win five games again with less than 800 yards rushing as a team.
This all means that we'll be looking for the offensive line to get more of a push up front, and we'll also be on the look out for either some improvement from starter Jordan Davis or something special from backups Ray Rangel and Grant Jefferson.
It's hard to make it clear just how important improving the running game is. I don't think anyone was really satisfied with Columbia's offensive attack, but because the Lion defense was so strong, the true weaknesses were not always evident in 2006.
Consider this: Columbia scored just 150 points last season; 15 points a game. BUT the Lion defense scored six defensive touchdowns, which accounted for 41 of those points, (one PAT after a defensive TD was missed). That brings the total down to 109 points.
BUT the Lions offense scored an additional 22 points on TD's and field goals on drives where the Columbia defense forced turnovers that set them up inside the opponent's red zone. So essentially, 63 of the offense's already meager 150 total points really belonged to the defense. And that means CU's offense didn't even eke out an average of nine points a game on its own.
Columbia's passing game was relatively strong. It averaged about 210 yards a game, threw just six interceptions, and posted a solid 56.5% completion percentage. With that passing attack, even an average-to-mediocre running game would have been enough to net the Lions 2-3 more wins last year. Just imagine what a strong running game could bring.
But I think the real reason to go out to the spring game tomorrow will be to have some fun. I think the players and coaches enjoy their time out there a lot more than a real game with all the pressures involved. And now that winter is finally over here in NYC, (it wasn't very cold, but just wouldn't end), it'll just be nice to get outside!