CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern conducted its first scrimmage of spring practice Wednesday afternoon at Buccaneer Field. The two-hour session lent head coach Mark Tucker and his staff better insight into where CSU stands nine days into spring ball.
The Bucs' defense controlled play, yielding just three points, behind its stout line and experienced corps of linebackers. Quarterbacks Shane Bucenell and London Johnson each handled the offense well, though, and freshman running back Ellijah Henry produced several impressive open field runs while gaining valuable repetitions.
"We've developed and built a lot of competition," assessed Tucker afterward. "Our hope as coaches is that will bleed into curing a lot of problems. People compete themselves, individually, and then the collective gets better."
With just five practices under their belt and a new defensive staff installing different schemes, the Bucs made sure to structure the scrimmage wisely. Tucker and company made a list of formations and situations they wanted to get on film yesterday. They will work in more wrinkles as CSU builds toward its second scrimmage next Wednesday.
"We tried to be very basic and simplistic in our first scrimmage," Tucker said. "We competed with everything we had in our install but this was called less like a game and more like a straight script. I'm always gonna be irritated when the ball doesn't get into the end zone but we defended well, we were pressured and we've got good teaching film. It wasn't us just creasing them and it wasn't us just getting knocked back so there was some good give and take."
CSU's offense struggled to move the ball early. Anthony Ellis and Noah Oliver combined on a sack on one of the scrimmage's initial series, and Oliver in particular was active throughout. Nick Sands had a sack later on, and several different linebackers made stops for losses or minimal gains. The unit is transitioning from a base 3-4 look to a 4-3 under first-year defensive coordinator Zane Vance. Having a bevy of playmakers that have played a lot of football is easing the transition.
"Defensively, we are what we are up front," Tucker said. "When we're healthy and we're right, we're pretty darn good."
The absence of rising junior cornerback Shadarius Hopkins, due to a hamstring injury, meant the Blue Swarm also got plenty of experience for its young secondary. The unit is seeking to replace three four-year starters who graduated. Brandon Rowland, who earned extensive time on last year's Big South championship club, has impressed Tucker and safeties coach Mike Adams.
Impressing on the offensive side was Henry, an early enrollee who was a three-time all-conference performer at Charlotte's Rocky River High School. Henry and Noah Shuler received all of the repetitions with Chanin Hamilton and Ronnie Harris nursing minor injuries. Henry had multiple first down runs, including a long scamper to set up a Tyler Tekac field goal.
"It's a young group to begin with," said Tucker of the running backs. "We feel very, very good about Ronnie and Chanin but we're obviously going to have to play more backs and the rest of 'em are freshmen. Ellijah is the one freshman who's already here and he can run. There's a reason why we recruited him. As his body matures, we're anxious to see what he can do."
Bucenell earned the starting quarterback job with an excellent 2016 season and is showing terrific command of CSU's system this spring. Although the Bucs scuffled at times Wednesday, Tucker was pleased to see Bucenell, Johnson and Robert Mitchell limit their mistakes.
"Shane's really on top of things and I like what London did some," Tucker said. "We'll go back and look at the film. Nobody made any glaring mistakes in terms of checks and getting us in and out of plays. Our plan is to put more on the quarterbacks than we have in the past so we'll see. We're a work in progress."
CSU will practice in shells Friday, before returning to full contact Saturday and Monday. The Bucs are scheduled to hold their second of three scrimmages next Wednesday, April 5, at 3:30 p.m.