While the prospective students experienced the scrimmage, they couldn’t possibly understand the match’s context.
In its last match five months ago, Harvard fell handedly to Yale, 24-3 in the wet mud-field that was the Yale Bowl. Though playing Saturday in better weather, the tension was still there, the air thick with anticipation for this year’s season and heavy with the recent loss.
Though Spring Games at other schools feature the first team offense battling the second team defense and vise versa, the Crimson does differently. Hardly an even game, both offenses don crimson while the defenses wear white, making the only possible way for the defense to score a turnover for a touchdown.
In this year’s rendition, the Crimson squad blanked the White, 40-0, in the two-quarter scrimmage.
Though some players didn’t play, and lineups and strategies will change before action officially gets underway in the fall, the Spring Game offered an early look at a Harvard squad in transition. A small sample to satiate the appetite anticipating fans until September 15.
BATTLE FOR THE BACKFIELD
During last year’s preseason, it was absolutely certain that senior quarterback Joe Viviano was the clear starter in the position for the team, until it wasn’t.
The veteran and 2016 starter took first snaps in the Crimson’s opening loss to a URI team it had never been beaten by, snapping a 13-game win streak in the opening month. When Harvard lined up again the following week against Brown, it wasn’t Viviano, but rather freshman Jake Smith under center.
The start represented the first time that Crimson coach Tim Murphy had trusted a freshman to take first snaps under center since the coach handed the offensive reigns to Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick 16 years prior. The rookie stepped up to the plate, delivering on only his second collegiate drive. Just over three minutes in, Smith marched the squad down the field for Harvard’s first offensive touchdown of the season.
And so, a year’s worth of quarterback drama ensued. No one could ever guess which of the two gunslingers would take the field first nor how long they would stay. In play that epitomized the season’s quarterback competition, Smith started against Yale and was replaced by Viviano in the final stanza.
As the team returns to the field, it seems another battle for the starting spot is all lined up. In Saturday’s scrimmage, it was Smith who stepped on as the first offense quarterback, followed by junior Tom Stewart—the quarterback Smith passed for the starting spot after the URI game—for the second offense.
“Jake [Smith] ended up being the number one guy for a good part of the  season,” said Murphy of his quarterback decision. “There wasn’t a lot of difference between Jake, Joe or Tommy, but that’s the way it is sometimes.”
Stewart was sure to convey a difference on Saturday. The junior converted on seven of his 11 passing attempts for 118 yards and added two touchdowns to his state sheet. When he was forced to escape the pocket, Stewart found positive yardage, netting 54 yards on his feet.
Smith hit his only touchdown of the evening on his first drive, finding freshman tight end Adam West. The freshman hit four of 11 attempts for 56 yards.
However, Stewart’s been away from the field for a while. In the junior’s last start—a 27-17 loss to Holy Cross in 2016—he racked up a touchdown, an interception, and three fumbles.
“It’s a really good competition and the bottom line is, we’re deeper and better at the quarterback position and that obviously bodes well for our football team,” Murphy said. “It continues to be a competition, but really I feel good about both guys. They have a long way to go, but I feel good about both guys.”
SORRY FOR CHARLIE ROCKING
If you give a mouse a cookie he’ll ask for a glass of milk, but if you give Booker the ball he’ll get you a first down—no questions asked.
Booker seems on track to continue to replicate and build on his powerful, steady presence that he brought to the field in the 2017 season. When all things failed, the one thing Harvard could consistently count on was Booker getting a few yards.
To open the game, the Crimson went first to the air, with Smith threading a pass behind the receiver across the middle, the ball dropping to the turf. On the second play, Murphy went to his bread-and-butter, handing Booker the ball and pointing him right. Number 21 broke the give for 55 yards. The offense scored on the next play.
Despite being in a three-way rotation with sophomore Lavance Northington and freshman Aaron Shampklin for the duration of the 2017 season, Booker still earned First-team All-Ivy honors coupled with the division’s third highest net yardage. Under the lights on Saturday, Booker ran six times and tabbed 93 yards.
“It takes so much off my back to be able to have running backs like them,” Smith said. “I really don’t have to do anything when those guys are behind me. I just hand them the ball and they take it for 40 yards. Really that’s all I could ask for.”
While neither Northington nor Shampklin played in the Spring Game, Booker rotated with freshmen BJ Watson and Devin Darrington. Both Maryland natives, the former averaged 8.3 yards per carry on nine attempts for 75 yards. Darrington barreled into the defensive line 13 times for 59 yards. Both freshmen added touchdowns to the Crimson point total.
“Those guys are hardworking, they challenge me everyday,” Booker said. “It’s great competition and it’s just great to see guys like that because they’re just going to take it over when it’s their time.”
SENIOR SKIP DAY
Looking to the skill positions on the roster, there looks to be an oversampling of young players in starting slots for Harvard. With Smith vying again for the quarterback spot, two freshman backs, freshman West excelling at tight end, four freshman corners getting healthy playing time, and only one senior listed at the linebacker, the skill players are a young group.
“I really truly believe we’ll be a better defense next year than we were a year ago,” Murphy said. “I think part of that is we’re going to have a veteran defensive front that hopefully can be two deep….I think the key will be how quickly the linebacking corps will come along because we’ve been banged up at the position. And also the secondary, we have a relatively young secondary.”
Losing the seniors may hurt the most for the linebackers. Though the group lost many to injury throughout the 2017 season, the corps entirely consisted of seniors, seniors from Texas. To succeed, the defense must fill the holes left by the graduation of players like 2017-captain Luke Hutton and Chase Guillory. The youth showed on Saturday night as the offenses dropped 40 points. Last season, the first defense held the first offense scoreless across the match.
“We didn’t play great,” sophomore linebacker Joey Goodman said. “We’re really low on the defense right now. We have some injuries, some guys getting hurt, some guys coming back in the fall, so it was tough for us. We were just rotating through a lot. Obviously we were getting tired, but we didn’t play good enough on our end. We’ve just got to get better.”
In the trenches, however, age and experience are plentiful. Suiting up for the grudge match were six junior offensive lineman and four on the defensive front.
AIN’T NO REST FOR THE WEARY
The Spring Game represents not the beginning of preparation for the new season, but the end of winter workouts, a multi-month grind beginning on January 22 and culminating in the friendly intrasquad competition.
“We’re waking up early basically every day from the day we get here for the second semester,” Booker said. “[The Spring Game] is a good time to finally just get back on the field. You get pretty antsy just working out all the time, and you want to see what you’re producing. So it’s a great time to finally see what you’ve produced.”
Now, the team will have a small break to breathe, study for exams, and see their families before summer workouts begin anew in June.
“These kids have been up at six o’clock in the morning for basically the last three months, training hard in the weight room for the last month, out here at o’dark thirty practicing and working hard,” Murphy said. “They’ve given us great energy…. They’ll get a little bit of a rest from the coaches and get a chance to relax a little, decompress a little. Then come June 1, we’re back with summer training, getting ready for the season.”
—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @THC_CadePalmer.