Bob Forrest Guest Sports Writer
The Ada News
Like everybody associated with the East Central University football program, defensive coordinator Justin Deason is justifiably proud of the Tigers’ 8-3 record in 2011. For Deason, though, last season was more about the “3” than the “8”.
“We had some letdowns last year,” Deason said Tuesday morning, after watching his veteran defensive unit dominate the fifth of ECU’s 15 spring practices Monday afternoon. “I think the goal going into spring ball with this defense was to be more consistent. We felt like we were as athletic as the teams we lost to last year, so everything we do in the weight room and in practice, we’re talking about consistency and having more mental toughness.
“We’re definitely hungry,” he added. “Everybody felt like we had a good year because we’ve done things we had never done before, but we felt we could have done better. We went 8-3 and everybody wants to say ‘good job’, but the reality is that the expectations are way higher than 8-3.”
Although Deason’s defense was the best, statistically, in the new Great American Conference last fall and was a major reason for ECU’s first eight-win season in 18 as a Division II program, the Tigers gave up cheap touchdowns early and late in an early-season loss at conference champion Ouachita Baptist and surrendered 35 points in just over a quarter in a 42-41 overtime loss at league runner-up Henderson State that ultimately cost them the first-ever GAC football title.
Deason said every practice this spring and fall is dedicated to eliminating the breakdowns that led to last year’s losses and emphasizing the good things that paved the way for eight victories.
“When I talk defense, I tell my guys we didn’t have the year we should have had — congratulations on 8-3, but don’t settle for that again,” he noted. “The thing I’m pleased about is that we can’t get them out of the coach’s office. That’s a reflection on (head) Coach (Tim) McCarty, but we still have a long way to go.
“The practices this spring have been very competitive,” Deason said. “We feel like guys have a pretty good understanding of their defensive roles, and we feel like guys are getting bigger and stronger in the weight room. We’ve got them convinced that we had a bad year last year because we didn’t play very good defense in the three games we lost.”
Deason welcomed nine full-time or part-time starters to camp this spring, and his only major hole is at cornerback, where two-time All-American Dontae Smith and Austin Daniels graduated after starting every game for two seasons. Former Ada High All-Stater Qumain Black, who saw a lot of action as a back-up safety and in ECU’s nickel package last season, is expected to separate himself from a six-man logjam and start at one corner. He will also take over on special teams for Smith, the GAC’s leading kickoff returner in 2011.
“We have six guys (Black, Shaun Hoagland, Bacarri Jackson, Reuben Tiller, Deon Criss and juco transfer D’Wan Gill) competing for those two spots,” Deason explained. “We really believe Qumain will probably get one of those positions. I don’t think we’ll ever fill Dontae Smith’s shoes but he wore a size 11 and Qumain wears a size 13. “Dontae was special in so many different ways. Qumain has to win the position, but he has some history. It’s pretty competitive at that position right now, so we’re excited.
“We return starters at safety (Norris Wrenn and Markell Walker), linebacker and the defensive line, and Qumain was a part-time starter, so we’l just have one new guy on the field,” he said. “We also have Jameel Whitney back at inside linebacker.”
Whitney, a starter as a freshman who missed the 2011 season with an injury, has been one of the defensive stars of camp this spring, and he figures to join Jason Catchings — the GAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 — and another senior, Tyler McGrew, to give ECU arguably the best trio of linebackers in the conference in 2012. Ken Berry and Jericho Rodgers provide depth at a position that should be one of the team’s major strengths.
Up front, the Tigers are also loaded, with Erik Howell — who is having a huge spring at nose tackle — flanked by senior-to-be Armonty Bryant — a first-team All-American as a sophomore and first-team all-GAC as a junior — and Alex King (who shared time with Lonnell Rice as a sophomore last fall) at defensive end.
“The surprise of spring ball has been Alex King,” Deason said. “He has really developed into a good player. He’s only played footbal for four years, and he’s definitely a rising premier player for us.
“We feel like it starts for us up front,” he said. “We will be deep on the front. We have a lot of guys who aren’t here yet, but we’ll be deep as we’ve been up front. We’ll probably play 30 guys on defense, and hopefully we’ll fly around to the ball. We want 22 starters on defense.”
Last spring and in preseason camp, Deason’s defense went against a veteran offense led by senior Tyler Vanderzee, who led the GAC in passing yardage and threw a school and conference-record 25 touchdown passes in 2011. Vanderzee, four of his offensive lineman and two of last year’s starting wideouts are gone, and although his defense has dominated through the first two weeks of the spring, Deason said he expects the ECU offense to be productive again this fall.
“I don’t worry about our offense too much,” he said. “We know that they’ll do a good job, so we’re just trying to get better.
“The offense has had some big plays against us in practice,” Deason added. “They do a good job of running the ball, so I think we’ll be good on that side of the ball. Our offense is so far along compared to where they were when Vanderzee first got here (in the spring of 2010), so we feel pretty good about our offense.”
Deason said sophomore quarterback Cody Miller provides a new set of challenges that his defense didn’t see against Vanderzee in practice.
“Cody is a younger quarterback but he has superior arm strength, so you have to cover wider zones — he stretches you out,” Deason explained. “The running game is going to be solid. They test us every day. Coach McCarty has done a real good job of being physical in practice. The GAC is a much more physical conference than the (Lone Star Conference, which ECU left after the 2010-2011 school year).”
Since Deason took over the ECU defense in 2009, the Tigers haven’t had a player register 100 tackles in a season; instead, he has worked on cultivating depth at every position and emphasizing with his defense the team concept that McCarty has stressed on both sides of the ball. That will be even more critical this fall, with Deason trying to get experience for the players backing up the seven seniors he will lose to graduation after this season.
“We’re never going to have a 100-tackle guy because we’re going to have three or four packages on defense, and everybody knows it,” Deason explained. “Most of our players will see the field in one of those packages. I feel line our 2s and 3s can start for half the teams we play. We just have to make sure we get those guys out there.”
Deason said he and the rest of the ECU coaches and players are looking forward to the Tigers’ high-profile season opener at traditional Division II power Northwest Missouri State on Thursday, Aug. 30.
“We’re excited,” he said. “Coach McCarty chose to play them — it wasn’t a deal where we HAD to play them. We could have played an easy opener, but we’re going to get some votes to be in the top 25, and they’re probably going open up (ranked) No. 5. It’s a chance to see how good we are. It’s a chance to test ourselves early.”
Deason and offensive guru Rashad Jackson were the youngest set of coordinators in all of Division II when they joined McCarty’s staff just over three years tago, and, along with the team (which finishd 0-11 in their first season), they had some growing pains. But hey both enter the 2012 season on the fast track to bigger things in the future, and Deason said he is much better at what he does than he was in 2009.
“When I came in here, I was 28 years old and the youngest defensive coordinator in Division II,” he said. “I have more understanding of what Coach McCarty is trying to accomplish, and he has molded me into a lot better person and a lot better coach than I was.
“I’ve done nothing but learn and try to improve,” Deason added. “Where I’ve grown the most is understanding (McCarty’s) philosphy and trying to develop men. He treats kids the right way, and he’s taught us how to treat kids the right way. I think it shows. Coach McCarty does a good job of creating a family atmosphere and getting coaches out into high school and college. When we recruit in the state of Oklahoma there’s an ECU guy at almost every high school. That has a lot to do with him and the school.”