Burton sees big plays ahead for Viks
PSU defense leads the way as offseason work shows dividends in spring game
After a two-hour scrimmage on a beautiful May Saturday at Jesuit High, Portland State's spring football practices had come to an end. The defense had defeated the offense 44-24, using the scrambled scoring system. But, what was more important to third-year coach Nigel Burton was the Vikings' ability to make big plays.
"The thing I love to see is playmaking," Burton said. "I love to see receivers making big plays and catches and running backs making great moves, quarterbacks making throws and defensive guys making big hits and picks. And that's what we saw. We saw a lot of big plays."
The big-play highlights of the scrimmage came mostly courtesy of the defense, which forced five turnovers and returned an interception for a touchdown.
The offense had its moments, too, such as when junior-college transfer quarterback Collin Ramirez threw a 70-yard touchdown to receiver Nevin Lewis.
After the scrimmage, Burton wore the serene smile of a man who had accomplished everything he set out to do.
"By far the best spring ball we've had here," said Burton, beginning his third season at the PSU helm. "One of the best I've ever seen just in terms of where we left off in the fall, the amount of guys who needed to come in and take on big roles for us, and the way they stepped up."
Burton said the successful spring began with the returning players putting in hours of work over the winter.
"The biggest thing is we made a great transition from last fall to this spring because of the winter work we did," he said. "We would have Saturdays where we'd have 80 guys out on the field working."
After losing star senior Connor Kavanaugh, a battle for the starting quarterback position raged on the Park Blocks throughout the spring.
Burton said the Vikings are going into the summer with the position still open. He reiterated that the quarterbacks -- Ramirez, Nick Green and Justin Milhollin -- are making his job pleasantly difficult by staking their to claim the position.
None of the three quarterbacks did anything to truly distinguish himself during the spring game. But Ramirez would appear to be the favorite to win the job. The 6-2, 205-pound junior transferred to Portland State from Butte College, where he completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 2,218 yards and 30 TDs, breaking the JC school's record set by Aaron Rodgers, now the star of the Green Bay Packers.
"I've learned a lot by being here," Ramirez said. "From where I was in scrimmage one to the spring game, I improved a lot."
Several times during the spring scrimmage, Ramirez's passes fell incomplete when he threw the ball one way and the receiver broke the opposite way. Ramirez said that he has learned the Vikings' playbook but will need to spend the summer improving his knowledge of it.
"I know the playbook; I just need to know it better," he said. "I need to know where every other guy on the field is. I've just got to fine-tune everything."
Even without a starting quarterback in place, Burton said he could not have been happier with how the offensive unit looked this spring.
The PSU offense "has been outstanding," Burton says. "Right now, we've just got to make sure that our offensive line, depth-wise, continues to improve."
On defense, the Vikings still need to strengthen the line, but the linebackers and secondary appear to be much stouter than they have been in the past.
"Our back seven has really done a nice job," Burton said. "D-line-wise, we've still got a ways to go because of our youth, but we'll infuse some more talent in the group (with incoming freshmen), and I expect them to respond."
The back seven will be led by senior linebackers Joel Sisler and Ian Sluss -- both of whom had interceptions in the spring scrimmage, Sluss running his pick back for a TD.
The defensive line continues to be a work in progress, but Sisler said the overall defense is as strong as he has seen it at PSU.
"We are steps above where we used to be, especially in spring ball," Sisler said. "We had to grow on the defense since we had new guys coming in. We had to be more cohesive, and we took those steps."
Now that spring has ended, the Vikings' players must come together this summer, without the coaches, and take the same steps to improve that they did during winter workouts.
"I know that this team is going to put in a lot of work," Sisler said. " We're only as good as our weakest player, and we want our weakest player to be one of the best players on the team so the level doesn't drop off if someone gets hurt or if the (second-string) comes in. We want everyone to know his role and to not have to worry about anybody messing up."
Burton is known for ending practices by gathering his players around him and delivering unbelievably long speeches. But, after the Portland State spring scrimmage, he kept his words to the team very brief.
Even with his speech to the team taking only a fraction of the time it normally does, Burton made sure it was clear what he expected when training camp begins in August.
"I expect to see a better team than you see now," he said.