By Grace Remington, Former Sports Editor
Saturday afternoon marked the official end of Miami University football’s spring training season.
Head coach Chuck Martin said he’s seen noticeable improvement since the end of last year’s 3-9 season, which was scattered with poor game decisions and an excessive amount of penalties Martin described as “incompetence.”
“We’ll be good next year if we play clean football,” he said. “If we don’t play clean football, we’re gonna be hard to watch like we have been the last couple years.”
Miami will remain a young team, as it returns 15 upperclassmen and 70 underclassmen for the 2016 season.
“But our younger guys are more experienced than other people’s younger guys because a lot of our younger guys played last year. They might be a returning starter,” Martin said. “I still think when next year’s sophomores are seniors, we’re gonna be really good. I don’t know that we’ll be really good yet, but all the pieces are there and we’re heading in the right direction.”
The highlight of the day was a ceremony before practice in which Brandon Brooks, who played offensive guard for Miami from 2008-11, presented a gift to the football program. He and Athletic Director David Sayler unveiled the new lockers to be used in the Gunlock Performance Center. Brooks, who now plays with the Philadelphia Eagles, will be the namesake of the offensive line team meeting room.
Below is a list of updates and observations at this point in the offseason.
Quarterback first-years Billy Bahl and Jordan Martin split time during the scrimmage Saturday. Redshirt freshman Gus Ragland is out with a lower body injury until early October and was using crutches Saturday.
Bahl looked solid on a few long completions, but at other times missed targets when under pressure.
“With Billy, we still got a long way to go,” Chuck Martin said. “He’s still super talented, but as you could see today, under duress, he doesn’t protect our football team.”
Jordan Martin finished with 40 yards and a long touchdown to sophomore tight end Ryan Smith. Martin also looked good on the ground, picking up 20 rushing yards.
Freshman and Oxford local Maurice Thomas looked just as electric as he was last season, collecting 31 yards and a touchdown on five carries.
“We’re very excited with where we’ll be heading with our running game,” Martin said.
Sophomore Sam Martin has been out all spring with a lower body injury sustained in the last game of the 2015 season. Redshirt sophomore Jared Murphy was on crutches Saturday after breaking his foot last week. Chuck Martin expects to have Sam Martin back by the start of the 2016 season and Murphy back in a few weeks.
Redshirt junior Rokeem Williams had a few long catches during 11-on-11 play.
Martin said strength is still an issue up front, as four freshmen and one senior started all spring, but the size and flexibility the RedHawks need are there. He said play in the trenches has been clean and more physical.
“It’s learning how to work hard without being nice,” Martin said. “This isn’t a nice sport. It’s still ‘that’s my teammate lined up, I gotta bury him. But I gotta do it clean and do it right so we both can get better.’”
Redshirt freshman Zach Swarts and sophomore Zach Hovey missed some spring practice with injuries.
Redshirt junior Heath Harding has been practicing during the spring, after missing most of the 2015 season with a lower back injury.
“Having Heath back changes the whole thing,” Martin said. “You go from losing your best DB – total run/pass defender, smartest, oldest, most confident, one of your best leaders – to getting him back, and exponentially you’re better.”
Martin moved freshman De’Andre Montgomery to safety, and likes who he already has there – sophomore Tony Reid, junior Buchi Okafor and freshman Josh Allen.
Martin said freshmen Allen Koikoi and Deondre Daniels and redshirt sophomore Bert Birdsall will be better after having gained experience last season.
Redshirt freshman Justin Martin was the frontrunner for punter until hurting his knee, but Chuck Martin said he isn’t too worried about it.
Justin Martin and freshmen Evan Jakubowski, Nick Dowd and Ryan Sandles are each capable to fill the kicking position, but the coaching staff hasn’t made a decision on the starter.
“Our kicking game right now is not very good,” Chuck Martin said. “It’s gonna be the last piece of the puzzle to get right. But we’ll get it right.”
The snapping game is solid, but punt and kick returners aren’t set in stone. Maurice Thomas is the most likely candidate for kick returns, but Chuck Martin said he wants to find a returner who won’t let the ball roll on punts.
“We’ll stick [junior offensive lineman] Colin Buchanan back there if we have to,” he said. “We’re gonna stick three guys back there if we have to.”
With the conclusion of spring ball, Martin is confident, but expects even more improvement after another summer in the weight room.