By BILL PETERSON
Continuity is the theme, and the hope, for this year’s Texas State football endeavor, which begins practice this week in defense of the Southland Conference championship.
The Bobcats bring back their entire coaching staff, eight starters from an offense that wore opponents out last season and six starters from a defense that began with the shakes and rounded into a respectable unit by the end of November, when they made their second playoff appearance in four years with a 31-13 loss at national runner-up Montana.
Unlike the 2006 team that followed Texas State’s 2005 national semifinalists, this year’s group has the experience to repeat. The Southland Conference coaches believe that’s a possibility, picking the Bobcats to win another title, though by a wildly split ballot on which five teams received first-place votes.
Unlike last year, the Bobcats won’t sneak up on anyone. Last year, the league coaches picked Texas State to finish sixth.
“We’ve got a target on our backs this year,” senior quarterback Bradley George said.
But until they answer it for good, there’s always one question that lingers about the Bobcats: Are they hungry enough? Head Coach Brad Wright frequently remarked last year that his players need to end the program’s “culture of losing” by learning how to take plaudits for what they’re worth, which isn’t enough to win the next game. Now that the Bobcats are riding high after winning six of their last eight regular season games to finish 8-5 in 2008, how will they bounce back after an offseason of congratulations?
“That’s the hardest part for any team trying to step up,” Wright said. “You can get lost in the back slapping. The thing about this game is that you can get slapped into reality pretty quick if you’re not as good as you think you are.”
Said defensive coordinator Fred Bleil, “It’s going to depend on our seniors. Are we going to take what we did last year, or are we going to reach for more? This group of seniors will determine that.”
Lack of continuity is, perhaps, the main reason for Texas State’s irksome history in the last 25 years. Whenever the Bobcats give their fans reason to cheer, the Bobcats have been known to take it away just as quickly. The Bobcats haven’t produced back-to-back winning seasons since 1990 and 1991, the Dennis Franchione years. Those are, indeed, the only back-to-back winning seasons since Texas State left Division II for Division I in 1984.
After Franchione left, the Bobcats changed head coaches five times 15 years. Some, like Franchione and David Bailiff, succeeded in San Marcos and moved to the next level. Others, like Jim Bob Helduser and Manny Matsakis, lost in San Marcos and were replaced.
Thus, the fans wind up too often cheering for the uniforms, because the university can hardly be said to have maintained a program at all. That’s changing, though, and it’s bound to make a difference.
Wright is a Texas State alumnus who likes to call the place “my university.” Almost without exception, Wright has taken part in every Texas State football success for the last 30 years.
During Wright’s playing days in San Marcos, Texas State (then Southwest Texas State) produced winning records every year, capping his career with the Lone Star Conference championship in 1980. He hung around as a graduate assistant under Jim Wacker in 1981, when the Bobcats won their first of two straight Division II national championships. He returned as assistant head coach under Bailiff in 2004 and the Bobcats since then are 33-27 with two Southland Conference titles and two playoff appearances.
Wright is the fourth Texas State football coach this decade. However, he won the job by promotion from assistant head coach when Bailiff left for Rice after the 2006 season, so the difference was one of transition as opposed to abrupt change.
And now, Wright was very happy to announce last Saturday morning, he has his entire coaching staff back from last year, intact, as the Bobcats begin practice. Wright couldn’t say for sure when Texas State last maintained the same football coaching staff for two straight years, but he couldn’t remember it happening since John O’Hara replaced Wacker at the helm in 1983.
Among the key holdovers on the coaching staff are Bleil and his defensive coaches, who marched the defense through a challenging first year in a multiple-front alignment last season. As the year went along, though, the Bobcats improved defensively.
In their first six games last year against Division I opponents, the Bobcats allowed 494.5 yards per game and forced a total of 11 turnovers. In their last six games against Division I opponents, they were basically a full football field better, allowing 414.5 yards per game and forcing a total of 13 turnovers.
“Last year, we were learning the defense as the year went on,” Wright said. “This year, we know it.”
Among those knowing it are eight players who took starts last year, including four in the secondary. The Bobcats are most confident about their linebacking corps, which brings back two productive starters in Joe Bell and Marcus Clark. The defensive line is a little bit of a question, because the only full-time starter returning is bandit end Travis Houston. However, Houston was the most prolific of the defensive linemen last year, totaling 59 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
Where the Bobcats don’t return defensive starters, they at least return experience. Adley Eshraghipour took two starts at defensive tackle and Garrett Hood played in 12 games at nose guard. A battle could shape up at one defensive end between Leon Woolsey and Ron Jackson, a transfer from Arizona.
Joining Bell and Clark at linebacker is sophomore Brian Iwuji. The defensive backfield will start with Will Thompson and Derek Lopez at the corners, San Marcos High School grad T.P. Miller at strong safety and Kenneth Hampton at strong safety.
In addition to experience on defense, the coaches believe they have upgraded their defensive speed, which was cause for frequent concern last year. Often burned by the big play in 2007, the Bobcats allowed only four touchdowns of more than 30 yards in the last nine games of 2008. When they didn’t let the big play go, they ranked 17th in red zone defense last year among Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams, allowing scores 71 percent of the time.
“The first half of the season last year, we gave up a lot of big plays,” Bleil said. “You saw us get better during the season. Knowing the defense better, we should play faster, and I think we will be a little bit faster.”
Said Wright, “The bigger your foundation is, the bigger house you can build on it. When you have the foundation we have for our defense now, you can grow on it.”
Offensively, it’s almost needless to say, the Bobcats are loaded. George enters his senior season almost certain to end it with the school’s major career passing records. His favorite target for the last three years, Cameron Luke, is gone now, but George said his group of receivers this fall is faster and deeper than any he’s had at Texas State. Among the returning receivers are Da’Marcus Griggs, Darren Dillard, Mishak Rivas and Darius Bolden, all of whom made big plays last year.
Running back Karrington Bush is only a junior, but he has lugged the ball so much and for so many yards that it seems he’s been around forever. Bush has carried for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, turning in a consistent average of 7.7 yards per carry. San Marcos High School grad Alvin Canady will take an expanded role at tailback in his senior year. Trey Hampton could lead the way at fullback, though the staff also is high on Josh Wray, the freshman from Boerne.
Making it all possible is an experienced offensive line, which returns four starters and averages 300 pounds from tackle to tackle. All-Southland Conference right guard D.J. Hall is paired with two-year starter Calvin Gore at right tackle. Alex Luna is a two-year starter at left tackle, while Winston Ruelas started six games last year at left guard. As fall drills begin, center is a battle between sophomore Steven Kenney and junior transfer Jason Hannan, who played for two years at Oklahoma after being considered one of the country’s top prospects.
Put the weapons together with the protection and it could add up to a sweet senior season for George, who rallied to pass for 2,660 yards last year after early struggles benched him for about three games. Behind George, the Bobcats finished eighth nationally among FCS teams with 487.5 yards per game last year, and seventh in scoring with 36.38 points per game.
“I think we can be just as good or better this year,” George said. “I think we’re going to open it up a little bit more. But we can go a lot of ways. We can line up and smash it, or we can go five-wide. We’re not one-dimensional.”
Coming to fall drills with skill, continuity and a target on their backs, the Bobcats are a team to watch in the FCS this season. The preseason magazines are ranking them as high as sixth nationally, courtesy of Lindy’s. But it’s all going to be decided on the field, starting with the opener on Sept. 5 against Angelo State at Bobcat Stadium (6 p.m.).
“We’re more than hungry,” Luna said. “It’s a team with a chance to achieve great things. We want another (league championship) ring. We definitely consider ourselves a contender.”