The red contact jersey is on, so technically Darell Garretson is safe.
Well, safe from contact. Not from coaches shouting commands his way, not from hands in his face, not from defensive backs lurking to try to pick him off.
When a pass rusher runs up to him, Garretson can feel the heat. But he’s getting more and more used to dealing with fire.
“Oh yeah, this defense is going to bring pressure,” he said. “Sometimes you sit there and think, ‘OK, that would’ve been a sack. You’ve got to get the ball out a little faster.’ You get a feel for it.”
After a freshman season of being thrown into the real thing, the now-sophomore is truly getting a feel for the game.
Taking starter’s reps as Chuckie Keeton continues to recover from last fall’s knee injury, Garretson has had chances not only to shine, but to learn. His grasp of the playbook is tightening this spring, and his rhythm and footwork as a passer is sharpening up.
It’s needed steps for Garretson, who had flashes of brilliance last season but also struggled to close out the year. He started off with three straight starts of a quarterback rating of 132 or higher, but threw four picks in his last three games as his ratings dipped to 102 or lower in three of his final four.
He finished with respectable numbers for a true freshman: 1,446 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven picks while completing 60.3 percent of his passes. His strongest stat is 6-1 - his record as a starter.
The Aggies want to keep building on that freshman season as they try to uplift his game from an emergency starter to someone who looks the part.
“I think he’s picked up where he left off after the bowl game,” coach Matt Wells said. “I think he’s starting to get a better feel and command of what we’re trying to do. That comes with maturity and with time in the system. He’ll need to continue making big strides in the spring because he’s going to get a lot of reps.”
Garretson finds himself in somewhat odd position: He’s playing the role of returning starter this spring, but when Keeton is healthy, he’ll likely step aside for the Aggies’ senior star who was a preseason Heisman candidate last fall.
His maturity about the situation may speak as loudly as any of his developments in the passing game. He doesn’t worry about it: He’s focused on himself.
“I’m just coming out, practicing, doing what the coaches ask me to do,” he said. “Once I’m done with that, we’ll see what happens. But I’m just doing what the coaches ask me do to, taking the reps and getting where I want to be.”
As Utah State’s scrimmage Friday showed, there’s still some ebb-and-flow to Garretson’s game. He threw for 104 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown to Kennedy Williams and he ran one in himself. He also threw two picks, including one that was returned for a 34-yard touchdown by Nick Vigil.
But Wells knows Garretson will be out Tuesday morning, ready to compete. And hopefully, gradually, those youthful errors will fade with time.
“I think he understands where he’s at,” Wells said. “I think it’s all about individual improvement for him.”
Utah State football has first spring scrimmage
Standouts from the roughly 100-play scrimmage:
Sophomore LB Nick Vigil • 34-yard touchdown on interception return, sack
Freshman WR Braelon Roberts • 3 catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns
Junior LB Jarom Baldomero • 6 tackles, two break-ups, interception