Lions close spring ball with scrimmage

Running back Ja'Kori Bell turns the corner for a big gain to come up just short of a touchdown in Sunday's Missouri Southern spring football game at Fred G. Hughes Stadium. Globe | Steve Wood

The defense gritted out a strong effort, and the offense caught on late in the Missouri Southern spring football scrimmage Sunday afternoon at Fred G. Hughes Stadium.

“We weren’t as crisp as I would have liked,” Denver Johnson said after overseeing his third spring as the MSSU head coach. “We were just not as sharp and as crisp as I would liked to have been, particularly offensively.”

Southern quarterbacks Dante Vandeven and TJ Fleeton split the majority of the time running the offense. Both signal-callers struggled to move the ball in the early going, as the defense allowed little space.

“I’m pretty pleased with our defense,” Johnson said. “It’s a little hard to judge — our offense is so far behind. I’m not sure when they get up against an offense that’s clicking real good; that’ll be the real test. But at least now they’re looking good.”

Vandeven, a mobile junior transfer from Southeast Missouri, fired a 19-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Eric Dedrick Jr. for the first score. Fleeton, a senior, eventually orchestrated two touchdown drives, connecting with Dalton James from a yard out and punching in a two-yard keeper for the third and final scores of the scrimmage, which lasted 90 minutes.

Junior Brayden Scott, who ended the 2016 season as the starting quarterback, took in the scrimmage in uniform from the sideline.

“We’re looking at some of the other guys, and we’re giving Brayden a chance to focus on his academics,” Johnson simply said. 

Johnson said he liked what he saw from Vandeven and Fleeton.

“When they were both out there with the one’s, I thought they did some really good things,” Johnson said. “I think TJ has improved, I really do. It’s hard to judge, based on who they’re out there with, if they’re out there with the 1s or 2s, and sometimes the 3s. ... Vandeven is obviously a threat with the ball in his hands. He can pull it down and run it. He’s a legitimate threat with the ball.”

Sophomore running back Ja’Kori Bell showed some flare with a few big gains on the ground and even a 25-yard catch-and-run from Fleeton that set up James’ short touchdown grab. Shortly after, senior running back Josh Hadley contributed two catches out of the backfield and a crowd-pleasing juke that sent a defender to the turf for a 15-yard gain.

Redshirt freshman Austin Hencey brought the crowd to its feet by setting up the final score with a 31-yard catch-and-run. Fleeton found the 5-foot-6, 135-pound receiver on a crossing pattern alone in the middle of the field. Hencey was tackled just inside the 5-yard line.

The kicking game had their fair share of struggles, as all four field goal attempts were missed and two snaps were mishandled.

“We have a lot of work to go on our kicking game,” Johnson said of the three kickers — Joplin’s Brock Renken, Neosho’s Caleb Johnson and newcomer Hunter Reed. “And to be fair, we haven’t put a lot of time into it. I think we’ll be fine there in the fall, but maybe it was a little unfair to throw it out there today.”

At the end of the day, Johnson said he was looking for consistency in his players.

“We got to get our players playing with more consistency,” he said. “We had a chance to make some plays, but we consistently have breakdowns in our receiving core. When we get our receivers straightened out, our quarterbacks will start to get better.

“But we did some good things defensively. I thought we ran around well, and we did a few good things offensively as well.”