WATSON – As memorable of a ride as it was to the Class 5A state quarterfinals last fall, Live Oak looked to turn the page this spring, which culminated Saturday with a spring game against East Ascension on Saturday.
The Eagles came out with the mentality of a program that can compete at the top level of Louisiana football and a new offense to pair with it.
While the Live Oak coaches intend to retain a lot of the triple -option tendencies of the flexbone that has been the program’s signature the last three years, there will do so out of a more traditional I-formation that gives the Eagles a stronger downfield rushing presence and gives rising senior quarterback Sal Palermo more opportunities to throw the ball.
Palermo missed a considerable amount of spring ball due to baseball obligations. That has cut into his time to grow as a passer along with the new look offense, but Palermo looked sharp throwing the ball Saturday.
Spring games can sometimes be vanilla as far as what coaches are willing to reveal, but in the closing stages of the exhibition Saturday, Live Oak found was in perfect position to run Palermo and the more passing-friendly offense through the paces.
Tied 7-7 with a little over a minute and a half left in the game and the ball on the Spartans’ 30-yard-line, the Eagles seemed to be in their element: Closing out the game on a long, time-consuming drive where they had the final chance to take a victory. But East Ascension recovered a Live Oak fumble and returned the loose ball 69 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
The Eagles got the ball back with a minute left to play down 14-7. Coach Brett Beard could have just run out the clock and ended the scrimmage, but instead he gave the keys to Palermo and ran a 2-minute offense.
Palermo started out the drive a white-hot 4-for-4 for 50 yards, but the drive and the game ended with four straight incompletions.
“I’m a guy who likes to throw it,” Palermo said. “You’ve got to do what you got to do to win. This year we return a lot of playmakers and we have some skill guys on the outside. We’ll be able to build a pass game off our run game and a run game off our pass game and that will help us keep teams off balance.”
Added Beard, “We’re going to do some things that fit his skill set. He was going to be behind because of baseball but we were going to throw him into the fire and see what he can do. He’s only going to get better once he gets comfortable and back into his rhythm and into football mode. He’s been there before. He’s a warrior. He knows how to win. He’s going to lead this program.”
Live Oak’s 2-minute offense has not been fully practiced in detail before the Eagles rolled it out.
“We asked them to do thing they are not ready for,” Beard said. “You’re not ready for a 2-minute drill with an all new offensive line. But I thought they did a pretty good job. We got to see a 2-minute drill when we really had not worked a lot of 2-minute. It’s OK if you’re not ready for it but we’re going to throw it at you anyway and see how you respond. Anybody can run to line fast, get ready to play and get the call. That’s all we wanted to see.
Added Palermo, “The 2-minute offense was something that we put in literally (Friday) in a walkthrough, and we didn’t even run any plays. We just talked about it. For just going of that little practice I think we did a pretty good job. Last year we were about a 90% run team.”
Palermo finished the game going 9-for-19 for 100 yards in both the scripted and live portions. The Eagles put up 233 yards total in both portions of the game, with 147 rushing yards on 31 rushes.
Live Oak had four drives of 40 yards or more in both segments. That was especially encouraging to Beard because, along with the new-look offense, the Eagles will be starting five fresh faces across the offensive line. Their showing Saturday showed that that revamped crew can carry the offensive load and protect Palermo.
“If you can play with (East Ascension’s) defensive line, you can play with anybody,” Beard said. “These guys are as good as anybody in the state.”
Added rising senior offensive lineman Gage Thibodeaux “I think we did pretty good for our first day. We’re going to get it right and we’re going to dominate this year. In the first (set of scripted plays) we struggled a little bit because it was the first time everybody was out there. But in the second one where we knew what we were doing, we gave them a hard time. We could have been better, and we have a lot to work on.”
As effectively as Live Oak moved the ball, East Ascension found success against the Eagles, outgaining them in the both phases with 143 rushing and 108 through the air. While Live Oak showed a tendency to chip off yards in bite size chunks, East Ascension showcased a propensity for big plays. In their second set of scripted plays (where both teams were guaranteed 12 plays in a drive), the Spartans broke off four plays of 20 yards or more, two passes and two runs.
“Going into it, we knew we needed to see what our back end would do together in a live situation,” Beard said.
Beard was far encouraged with his team’s showing. Nobody wins or loses a spring game, but the barometer can certainly get pointed in the right direction with it.
“I really am really excited for what I saw,” Beard said. “I thought we played our football, I thought we bounced around, I thought we played with energy. Everything you ask of these guys to play the brand of football that has to be played for Live Oak to be successful, I saw from these guys.”