Younger Mavs play catch up during spring football
Russ Martin chuckled when recalling those early spring football practices only a couple of weeks ago.
“Our freshmen were running around, especially on the defensive side, they were in absolute panic mode just trying to line up versus our offense,” the Colorado Mesa football coach said. “We’ve got more experience on the offensive side and our guys were getting lined up and were ready to execute and those poor young guys defensively, they were scrambling.
“They were the classic deer in the headlights and it was like they flat got run over most of the time.”
The majority of defensive upperclassmen are recovering from injuries and offseason surgery, including linebacker Tom Saager, who missed all of last season with a broken foot, safety Dustin Rivas, who played through a myriad of injuries, and cornerback Antonio Clark, who broke a wrist during the NCAA Division II playoffs that required surgery.
That has thrust the players who redshirted or were deep on the depth chart onto the field.
And that’s a good thing, Martin said. Now those freshmen are making plays against the offense as they head into the final week of spring practice.
“To have the number of guys injured that we had and still be able to win a championship, it’s an absolutely phenomenal credit to our players and coaches for having that kind of depth,” Martin said.
“We don’t ever want to be in a situation where we have one or two people injured and all of a sudden it totally makes the season go end over end.”
The Mavericks play their annual spring game at 10 a.m. Saturday at Bergman Field. It’s open to the public, with a free-will donation barbecue after the scrimmage.
The spring has also been a boon to the Mavericks’ quarterbacks. With the graduation of Sean Rubalcaba, Eystin Salum, who started a couple of games last season before being injured, is getting plenty of reps as the No. 1 quarterback, and Rope Ruel the backup. Salum will be a junior, Ruel a sophomore, in the fall.
“Eystin is one of the most dynamic athletes in Division II. There are some things he can do, and Rope is throwing the ball tremendously well,” Martin said. “Both of those guys are getting a great feel for what we do and it’s a standpoint of getting some continuity, consistency, and quality reps.”
A handful of offensive players are also sitting out this spring, including running back David Tann, who has one semester of eligibility remaining, and will use that in the fall.
There’s a different feeling this spring than last, when the Mavs were still seething from being left out of the playoffs after a 9-2 season. The “unfinished business” mantra has been replaced by “leave no doubt,” and no doubt about it, Martin said, this team isn’t satisfied with the RMAC title and a cameo playoff appearance.
“Our players have very high expectations now and they want to take that next step,” he said. “We want to be a team that’s advancing deep into the playoffs. If you go back, last year there was a situation where there had been the disappointment of not being in the playoffs.
“We got back to that point and we were in the playoffs (last fall). I wasn’t even aware of the statistics until after the game (CMU had 510 yards of total offense to Commerce’s 337), but from the first of the game I felt we were outplaying Commerce and we had a chance to win the game. Literally, if we had taken care of the ball (three interceptions, two lost fumbles) we would have won that football game.”
Next fall starts at home with Western State, and the Mavericks will face that same opening gauntlet of teams as last season. That gauntlet will cap off Sept. 30 with what should be an intense game at CSU-Pueblo, which is still upset over the final two plays of last season’s game, a 20-19 CMU win on a goal-line stand.
“The RMAC has changed dramatically, and we have some great teams,” Martin said. “That’s exciting for our players. They know it’s a day-to-day process, but our expectation is to continue to raise the bar and raise the standard of what we attain.”