Spring Football Report: Downs, Criswell, Grimes, Rucker & More
CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina has held 11 football practices since March 23 and this Saturday is the spring game at Kenan Stadium.
THI has been on hand for all three practices open to the media and on each zoom interview session following every practice, so here are some notes and quotes of interest from what some of the Tar Heels have had to say:
*Josh Downs has received high praise from UNC Coach Mack Brown this spring, as well as some teammates, as he will be counted on to help the Heels make up for losing the 109 receptions for 1,783 yards and 14 touchdowns Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome provided last season.
“I feel like I want to be more explosive than I was last year.” Downs said. “So, I've definitely worked on getting more explosive. I've been in the film room a lot and learned about the offense more. I’ve got about a year of the offense under my belt, just learning and being behind Dazz and getting better at that.
“And just top of the route technique, get off, just trying to become a full better player, trying to be a better blocker because I know I’ve got to block nickels and safeties and linebackers in the slot.”
*Eugene Asante played only 163 snaps on defense, but 63 were in the Orange Bowl versus Texas A&M. So 38.7 of his game reps on defense came against the Aggies, the No. 5 team in the nation. It wasn’t Asante’s first start, however. He started versus Virginia Tech when the staff looked at him in the nickel spot. Asante played 28 snaps that day and didn’t have nearly the responsibility he did versus the Aggies.
The performance in the Orange Bowl has quite a residual effect for the native of Chantilly, VA, which is about 25 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
“I certainly think I changed the way I approach practice, lead in the room, and the way I approach every day,” Asante said.
*Tony Grimes should be finishing out his senior year in high school but instead he’s technically a sophomore in spring football practice. He played 317 snaps last season, but 232 came over the final four games, which included 67 versus Notre Dame and 63 against Texas A&M, two of the top five teams in the nation. He finished with 14 tackles, one of which was a sack in the Orange Bowl, an interception, three PBUs and a QB hurry.
“When Tony got here, you could tell he was a 17, 18-year-old kid who looks like he’s still supposed to be in high school,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “You could tell. He was out there, and he was slow in his steps, slow in his reads. But as the season went on, you just saw the progression.”
*Another Tar Heel whose name keeps coming up is sophomore Kaimon Rucker, who has been with the hybrids all spring and has displayed a range in his ability to cover but also play the four-I technique. Rucker finishes last season with 21 tackles, including three for a loss of yardage. He played 193 snaps and graded out at 72.7, according to PFF, which was third on the team for anyone with 100 or more defensive snaps.
“I feel like one of my biggest strengths, and I'm gonna continue to work on, is just setting the edge as an outside linebacker and also being as versatile as I can,” Rucker said. “Lining up from a 4I all the way to a nine.
“And I feel like, as I continue to do that, I feel I'm gonna get better alongside some other things like pass rushing. And I'm developing my skills also inside with the guards and the inside shoulders of the tackles.”
*The competition for Sam Howell’s primary backup at quarterback is mainly between sophomore Jacolby Criswell and true freshman Drake Maye. Criswell is a year ahead of Maye and played in five games last season getting 44 snaps. He completed three of four passes for 16 yards and an interception, so he knows the offense and can use the feet-to-the-fire stuff to work in his favor.
That said, Criswell knows whatever the coaches decide will likely depend on how he, Maye, and Jefferson Boaz do once fall camp commences.
“I’m just competing day by day,” Criswell said. “I’m not rushing anything. I know I'm a smart guy and, (Phil) Longo, he's helping the both of us. I come in about every single day, learn something new. If not, go back over something that I already know, just to see if there's anything that I'm missing.
“But overall, I'm just taking it day by day and just being who I am because I know what type of football player I am.”
*Carolina is in excellent shape at cornerback with essentially three starters battling for two spots. In actuality, the rotation of Grimes, Kyler McMichael, and Storm Duck means all three will play a lot and keep each other fresh. Each player is considered a high-end talent with probable NFL futures, at least Duck and Grimes are for certain.
Duck, who played in just two games last fall before suffering a season-ending injury, embraces the idea of competing with McMichael and Grimes, and they have his respect, too.
“Kyler and Tony are two great players,” he said. “They come out every day and battle and compete. We come out every day and try to make each other better and those two, they come out and bring it every day, even if it’s individual drills, one-on-ones, scale team. Those two are really good players, and we just like to battle and compete.”