TALLAHASSEE, FL (Apr.6) – Bragg Memorial Stadium was filled with anticipation up until 2 p.m. on Saturday. Loyal Rattler fans were wondering if the team could show more promise in just a short five months since completing a challenging 4-7 campaign. Players were wondering if they could execute their assignments after just 15 days of practice in a totally new system. Media was curious as to whether FAMU was making any marked improvements. And finally, head coach Earl Holmes wondered how well the slew of personnell, concept and program decisions he had made over the five months would gel. Corporately, the anxiety yielded to excitement as the new-look Rattlers, from head-to-toe, appear to be moving in the right direction.
In front of about 1,500 people inside Bragg Stadium and hundreds more who enjoyed the atmosphere from the North end zone parking lot, the Florida A&M offense and defense displayed portions of their new playbooks and concepts.
On the first series of the game, the offense, under the direction of new offensive coordinator Quinn Gray, displayed what Holmes had preached all Spring. The Rattlers pounded the ball between the tackles play after play. Demont Buice, a redshirt-junior transfer, who began his collegiate playing at Clemson University, showed why Gray and Holmes were touting his progress since arriving on campus in January. Several times he plunged in the middle and carried the pile with him. All Spring Holmes said that the goal was to control the game by controlling the ball.
“Wherever I played football on a successful team, we’ve always had a big back. We’ve got that in Demont and we will concentrate our efforts on a solid running game,” Holmes said. Buice carried the ball 14 times in the scrimmage, gaining 57 yards. Running backs James Owens and Omaria Albert also combined for another 50 yards on the ground in 15 carries.
As expected, there were hiccups in the game. Confusion between quarterback and receivers cost quarterback Damien Fleming an uncharacteristic early interception, that was picked off by William Small. Small would grab another off of backup Jerry Caplan later in the game. Fleming would settle in and complete 8-of-14 for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
Fleming’s favorite target for the Orange and Green game was tight end Michael Morris, who showed spectacular hands, making two touchdowns on three catches for 66 yards. Morris had one of the most thrilling plays of the day as he went up and grabbed a pass out of the air on a seam route for 35 yards. Dennis Hall and Victor Goins made strides in the rebuilt receivers corps, making two catches each for 39 and 25 yards respectively.
Fleming spoke of getting the first test of the 2013 Rattlers out of the way. “I felt like we did pretty well as an offense. Everybody new we had coming in and adjusting to the offense. The no huddle and with us (quarterbacks) calling plays…I believe everybody did pretty well today. There's a lot of playbook time, a lot of studying and getting out there on our own to get it. Overall I was just happy to see the guys get it today, not just with us but with the fans there as well,” Fleming said.
Holmes liked the pace at which the whole team absorbed the new concepts. “Looking back at it, you're talking about 15 days to prepare for today. We had some young guys and some older guys, but at the end of the day, you're talking about learning a new system on offense and some defense and new coaches. Overall, I'm pleased with it. Looking back at it, you're talking about 15 days to prepare for today. We had some young guys and some older guys, but at the end of the day, you're talking about learning a new system on offense and some defense and new coaches. Overall, I'm pleased with it.
Defensively, Smalls stole the show. He not only grabbed the two interceptions, be he led the team in tackles with five solos and three assists. He gained 69 yards on his two returns. Curtis Alexander finished with three solos and three assists. Brandon Denmark and David White finished with four solo tackles each. Akil Blount also tallied four tackles with three solos and one assist.
Defensive coordinator Levon Kirkland was encouraged about what he saw on the field. “When guys put that orange and green on and they step on that field, when we go 9-on-9 or 7-on-7 or team, it's game speed, so when you get out here in a game it's not a problem. That's what we're teaching. If we can do the little things. I was pretty impressed with the guys today…not bad,” Kirkland said.
All-American kicker Chase Varnadore was his usual efficient self, making two of three field goals under windy conditions. He nailed field goals of 25 and 44 yards, while just pushing the third attempt to the right. New punter Colby Blanton, who takes over duties from graduating senior Branden Holdren, made some impressive kicks. Coach Juan Vasquez says he is developing him in phases. “Currently we’re working on conditioning him to the technique we want him to have in the Fall. From now until then, he’ll get adjusted to the speed we need to him operate at on game days,” Vasquez said. Blanton hit some booming kicks, averaging 39 yards-per-punt on five kicks for 195 yards and a long of 53 yards.
The old saying says, “Defense wins championships, but offense fills the seats.” With the background of the head coach and defensive coordinator, you can expect defense to be solid, which Kirkland echoes. “We've got to recognize as far as coverages go as fronts go, we have to understand what we're going against. They got us a little bit on the play-action pass. Basically our linebackers have to get a little depth and making sure they are checking out the pass first. When you're aggressive like we're going to be, they're going to try to play-action pass you to throw you off, so we have to be aware of certain situations. If we can get that done, we can do some good things,” he said.
Several positives came out of the scrimmage, officially teeing off the Earl Holmes era as head coach. He got his coaches, he got his offense and he has his dream job. No one is more impressed with the running back situation than Fleming, who saw some good things out of Buice. “Buice sticks out. A lot of times we have linebackers come off the edge, but now it causes them to think. I saw him pick up one of our best linebackers, Brandon Denmark, and that makes me feel comfortable because if he can do it to him, he can do it to anybody,” Fleming said.
Overall, the fans got an entertaining game, the media got to ask all of their questions and the coaches got to see what the players retained. The Orange and Green Game was played on a chamber of commerce beautiful day, with temperatures between 65-75 degrees for the duration. Holmes can now turn his attention from anxiety to focus on Mississippi Valley State. He has a plan for that date and the season and it starts now.
He concluded, “I think the guys came and played their hearts out and that's what we're asking them for and they gave us great effort. When it comes to the mistakes, I think we really improved from last week to this week and that's another positive step. Now, we've got to shape this thing up and finish strong in the classroom the rest of the Spring and Summer and get ready for August. We start Monday preparing for the Sept.1 game. We'll look at it (film) and we've got some guys coming in and we've got some calls from some transfer kids that we've signed so far, so we'll look at it to make sure we get those missing pieces. Overall, I thought looking back at it, in 15 days with a new coaching staff and a new mindset, it was not bad. What was pleasing to me was that we really cut down on the penalties.”