Coyote defense shows out at South Dakota's spring game

Apr. 20—VERMILLION — Caleb McKenzie paid no mind to the whistles as he made his victory trot towards the end zone.

Having just notched his second interception of the South Dakota football spring game — thus forcing the play dead — the sophomore defensive back was determined to get his money's worth regardless, and took his time getting down the field before somersaulting across the goal line.

It was a celebratory day for the red-clad Coyote defense, which got after the white-wearing offense and its myriad of personnel groupings on Saturday afternoon inside the DakotaDome for the concluding event of the program's spring schedule.

Though no score was kept in the offense vs. defense scrimmage, it was clear which side held the upper hand, as the red team forced four interceptions, a turnover on downs, a missed field goal, and kept the offense out of the endzone until the 11th drive of the scrimmage.

"I was really pleased with the way our defense performed," head coach Bob Nielson said. " ... On that side of the ball, there's some new faces, and to see those guys step up and play at a high level was what we wanted to accomplish today."

When first team defensive line players Mosai Newsom, Nick Gaes and Mi'Quise Grace were in, and were backed by Grand View (Iowa) transfer linebacker Gary Bryant III, linebacker Nate Ewell and nickelback Teven McKevley, the defense was particularly dominant. That group cobbled up the offenses' rushing attack — much like it did to opposing offenses last season — and forced short possessions.

When the offense was moving the football, the drives still often ended short due to turnovers. Along with McKenzie's two picks, Roman Tillmon and Josiah Ganues also notched interceptions.

"That's the most fun because I'm telling you, all spring ball we dropped picks, " McKelvey said. "Today, to see them actually catch it and then finish with it, that was the best part of spring ball."

None of the interceptions came from returning starter Aidan Bouman, who participated in just two of the day's 14 total possessions, notching a highlight 25-yard pass to Jack Martens.

But the other quarterbacks, Lem Wash, Jarrett Synek, Todd Drummond and Beau Bush all got ample snaps behind the center. The quartet had some good moments, like when Synek launched a 50-yard bomb to Datwan Blackwood, and some bad, such as an interception from Bush to Tillmon, where the targeted receiver wasn't particularly close. According to Nielson, the offenses' inconsistent performance was a byproduct of giving so many different players reps.

"The format is such that it's going to be a little bit herky jerky, and we know that," Nielson said. "What you're looking for is the ability to have guys step in and execute."

To challenge his inexperienced quarterbacks, Nielson added in a wrinkle to the spring game which few programs do: Every quarterback but Bouman was wearing a white jersey, and was eligible to be hit by the defense. Nielson wanted to make the practice "as real as possible for them."

What ensued were a handful of physical plays typically reserved for the fall. On one down, Grace got around the edge and buried Synek for a sack. On perhaps the most exciting sequence of the day, Bush scrambled for a first down, was hungry for more, and laid down a popping shot on the incoming defender.

"They're giving it their all, you saw the one when Beau Bush just lowered the shoulder on that third down," Bouman said. "Those guys love football, it was fun to see them ball out today. Obviously some mistakes here and there but that was everybody. It's never going to be perfectly clean. But we're just going to learn from them. Really proud of those guys."

A handful of the team's leaders did not get any action. Travis Theis and Carter Bell, USD's leading rusher and receiver from a season ago, respectively, were dressed but didn't play. Defensively, cornerback Shahid Barros, who suffered an injury during last year's FCS playoff game against Sacramento State, is still out. Nielson said it depends on his summer progress, but the team hopes to have him playing "fairly early in the season."

But for those who did play, the scrimmage was a way to wrap up the spring. And for the defense, it was a chance to get a final win before entering the summer. The first game of the 2024 season will be Thursday, Aug. 29 against Northern State in the DakotaDome.

"We didn't play as well (offensively) as maybe we have throughout the course of the spring," Nielson said. "We got to keep working on throwing the football. I think our running game is coming along nicely. We have to keep that balance ... As we head into fall camp, we know exactly where we're at."