When asked which player was the most pleasant surprise of the spring, Mark Richt thought of his freshmen first.
He didn’t have to think long.
“It’s Rousseau,” he said. “It’s probably Greg.”
Four sacks in his first scrimmage. Three in his second. Seemingly, not a difficult choice.
Rousseau, a true freshman defensive end, looks ready for the bright lights of the fall. The backup offensive tackles he regularly beats do not. After Saturday’s spring game, Richt moderated the hype by noting that winning a matchup with one-on-one speed is one of the least complicated parts of the game. And if he had to game-plan around Rousseau and talented cohorts Joe Jackson and Jonathan Garvin, he would likely use tight ends and running backs to chip-block and slow them down.
But that’s no slight on Rousseau, who has the build of a small forward (6-foot-6, 230 pounds) and the speed of a safety, which he played for his small high school, Hialeah-Champagnat (along with wide receiver, linebacker and end). A former three-star recruit, he was seen by some analysts as a project. He has made a habit of disrupting UM’s line, using his long limbs to race around the edge and grab whomever has the ball.
Once he refines his game, he could be special. Richt feels that time is coming sooner than he anticipated.
“Not that I didn’t think one day he would become a pretty good ballplayer, but he has really taken to coaching, he’s gained 20 to 25 pounds since he’s been here, since January,” Richt told WQAM. “He is quick, he is agile. He’s coachable. He’s the nicest kid in America. I think of all the guys who rolled in, he’s the one who has showed me the most.”
Three years ago, Jackson was in Rousseau’s shoes. He was a tight end/defensive end for a small local school (Miami-Gulliver Prep), who enrolled early at Miami and made coaches rethink their projections.
“The kid is going to be unbelievable,” said Jackson, who has grown into a chiseled, 6-5, 258-pound junior. “His first step off the ball, even when he’s not even trying, is explosive. The quarterback doesn’t have a lot to do with it, but the offensive line is going to have to deal with his first step off the ball. He’s coming along really well. He’s made a big impact so far.”
Richt named one more spring surprise during Monday’s WQAM appearance: true freshman wideout Brian Hightower.
Hightower (6-3, 195) has excellent body control and a big-play knack. His one-handed lefty grab during Army All-American practices made headlines, and he caught four balls for 50 yards in that January showcase game. Saturday against his Miami teammates, he led all receivers with 100 yards and two touchdowns on four catches.
In the first half, Hightower beat classmate D.J. Ivey, laid out and caught a 52-yard deep ball from redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry, a toss Richt said was “probably the best throw of spring ball.” He also hauled in a 9-yard touchdown pass on a fade from Perry. In the second half, with true freshman Jarren Williams at the helm, Hightower caught a 25-yard ball and snatched a 14-yard touchdown after outflanking senior cornerback Jhavonte Dean.
On the latter play, Hightower set up behind Dean and made an over-the-shoulder catch as he spun away from the defender. Richt has been impressed with Hightower when not targeted, too.
“You saw him make plays as a receiver,” Richt said. “But he’s potentially a great blocker, and he already pretty — he probably was the best blocking receiver of the spring, if I had to vote for that.”