On one side, Tennessee State welcomes back all 11 defensive starters.
On the other, the Tigers search for a starting quarterback, running back and two offensive linemen.
Rather than look at spring football at TSU as a mismatch of experience versus inexperience, the offense has taken each practice as an opportunity to close the gap between the defense.
“We use that as motivation for us, just to be able to have the opportunity to go against somebody like that,” quarterback Ryan Turnage said before practice Wednesday. “Since we have a pretty good defense it helps us out.”
Coach Rod Reed said the offense has made strides as the Tigers approach the finish of spring workouts and prepare for Saturday’s spring game. The annual intrasquad scrimmage will be held at Hale Stadium at 3 p.m.
There was a giant learning curve on offense when practices began three weeks ago due to voids at several key spots from a team that went 8-3 last year and finished fifth in the Ohio Valley Conference. Running back Trabis Ward declared for the NFL Draft early after leading the OVC in rushing as a junior. Center Sherman Carter and left tackle Rogers Gaines are also gone.
Plus, quarterback unexpectedly came open when junior Michael German was arrested in March for felony vandalism with transfer defensive back Joseph Johnson. German has not participated in spring workouts and Reed is unsure if he will return in the fall. German was the OVC Freshman of the Year in 2011 and passed for 2,751 yards and 18 touchdowns last year.
“Right now, we’re planning that we’re going to play 2013 without Michael German,” Reed said. “If we’re fortunate enough to get Mike back that will be a plus but we have to move on right now with what we’ve got.”
What they have are two quarterbacks with little experience.
Turnage, a sophomore, appeared in four games last year and started the opening series of one when German was temporarily benched after a violation of team rules. Turnage completed just one pass out of six attempts for four yards. Holt Claiborne is a fifth-year senior who transferred from Alabama State after the 2010 season. Reed said the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Claiborne has a slight edge over Turnage but both have shown progress in a close race.
“It’s going to be a fight. We’ll see what the spring game says,” Reed said. “Our pass game has progressed from the first couple days of practice. It looked pretty shaky but now they’re getting their reads down. [Quarterbacks] coach [Jeff] Parker has done a good job of working with those guys. They’ve got some good targets to throw to.”
All-American tight end and Florida transfer A.C. Leonard returns, along with wide receivers Devin Wilson and Joe Bowen, who is participating in non-contact drills after having arthroscopic knee surgery.
Blocking should not be an issue either, Reed said. Even with Carter and Gaines, an All-American, gone, four players with starting experience return to the offensive line. Anthony Morris, Kadeem Edwards, Robert Meyers and Demetrius Rhaney are back and Vanderbilt transfer James Lewis joins the squad.
Therefore, Reed is optimistic his plethora of running backs will have plenty of holes to run through.
Third-year sophomore Telvin Hooks is the frontrunner after finishing second on the team with 425 rushing yards. Tim Broughton and Darion Hall are right behind him. Riverdale product Adam Davenport, who transferred from the Navy, was also in the mix before injuring his hamstring.
“Most people are looking for me to start but there are guys out here that can also be in the starting lineup,” Hooks said. “Every day I’m just competing for a spot and trying to be accounted for. I just need to be healthy, be durable and hold onto the ball. That is one of the main things – if you hold onto the ball anything can happen.”
Defensively, not many spots are up for grabs with all 11 starters back. But with Nick Thrasher out this spring after undergoing knee surgery, Mike West has made his case for the middle linebacker job.
“We’re pretty fortunate,” Reed said. “We played a lot of those guys and we took our lumps when they played as redshirt freshman and sophomores. Last year, we started to mature a little bit. So it is good to see us maturing a lot on defense and having a good spring defensively.”
On the flip side, the offense is trying to keep pace and grow up quick.
“This is big time for us to learn, get better, get reps with the offense and take advantage,” Turnage said. “Just take care of business. We’re out there trying to get better. Everybody is trying to stay focused and know what they have to do.”