When Tim McCarty opened the fourth spring of his second tour as East Central’s head football coach on April 2, he didn’t see some of the key players who had helped lead the Tigers to their historic 8-3 record in 2011.
On offense, finding replacements for quarterback Tyler Vanderzee — who was 13-6 in his last 19 games as a starter and set school records for pasing yardage in a game (504) and touchdown passes in a season (25) as a senior — and rebuilding an offensive line that graduated four starters were priorities, along with replacing starting wideouts Zack Patteson and Chris Espinoza. Defensively, ECU graduated the cornerback tandem of Dontae Smith — a two-time All-American and one of the nation’s top kick returners last fall — and Austin Daniels, who had started 22 straight games; otherwise, though, the Tigers returned intact (and with a couple of key additions) the unit that had been the best on that side of the ball in the new Great American Conference last fall.
Heading into the final three of the spring’s 15 practices today leading up to Saturday’s (2 p.m.) Orange and White Game at Norris Field, McCarty hasn’t found all the answers to the questions his team faced when camp opened. But he believes those answers are coming.
“Late last week, I started seeing a couple of things out of those guys up front and realized there has been some headway made — not as much as I’d like, but I’m not sure if I’m ever satisfied,” said McCarty, who serves as his own offensive line coach and has watched his veteran defense push around his inexperienced offense for most of the spring. “I’ve seen some good things out of Travis Henig (a redshirt freshman who is in line to replace Carlos Savala, a two-time all-conference performer at left tackle) and (junior right tackle) Talon Starkey. When you start to see some of those things happen, you know you’re right there and you have a chance.”
Although McCarty expects to add depth with the addition of four high school players and three junior college transfers in August, he entered today’s practice unsure if he will have enough offensive linemen to play an actual game Saturday. Redshirt freshman guard Anthony Mayberry is questionable, and McCarty will have only nine healthy bodies up front if Mayberry can’t go Saturday.
“Obviously, option one is to be able to split the team; on the flip side of that, we’ve got some bumps and bruises and some guys who can’t go,” McCarty said. “If we can’t do that, we’ll just have a traditional scrimmage.”
McCarty changed things around for the final week of camp this year. Instead of practicing Monday, Wednesday and Saturday as they had in past years, the Tigers will practice today and Friday in advance of Saturday’s spring finale.
“I’m always trying to find the best deal, and I just didn’t want to go every other day the last week,” McCarty explained. “I didn’t want to practice Monday, then Wednesday be in shorts and then Saturday we scrimmage. My hope is that they’re a little more drilled down and focused for Saturday.”
Sophomore Cody Miller has taken almost all of the reps with the first-team offense this spring, and last season’s back-up to Vanderzee has done nothing to lose his spot atop the depth chart. Miller has the size and arm to be a top-flight college quarterback, and, barring injury, his physical attributes should ensure that he stays ahead of redshirt freshman Spencer Bond from Madill — an outstanding athlete who has made huge strides as a passer this spring — and transfer Austin Chrisler.
“I’ve actually started to see some solid steps forward at quarterback, not only out of Cody but out of Spencer and Austin,” McCarty said. “We’ve tried to work on very specific stuff with them, and we were not going to move forward until they had that part accomplished. I think we’re pretty close there.
“You want the quarterback to know what he’s supposed to do in this offense, and as a coach you want to know what a quarterback can do with the offense,” he added. “I think we have those questions answered, which should enable us to move forward in August. (Offensive coordinator) Rashad Jackson and (quarterbacks coach) Josh Phillips have done a great job of being patient but yet teaching them exactly what we want them to do. Some people might say we moved too slow with our quarterbacks, but we weren’t going to move forward and leave those guys behind.”
George Robbins, who set a school and conference record with 12 touchdown receptions in 2011, and junior-to-be LaQuan Harper have been among the offensive stars of the spring and are entrenched at two of the starting wideout spots. Redshirt freshman Mariano Dillard from Tulsa Webster showed a lot of promise before being sidelined with a quad injury, and Denzel Dewberry and Mike Williams — both candidates to replace Patteson in the slot — have also had their moments. In addition, tight ends Cody Nall and Colter Huff have also had a good camp.
“I’ve been pleased with our receivers,” McCarty said. “LaQuan Harper has had a great spring, and George Robbins has gotten a lot better and is showing a lot more confidence. Mariano Dillard has been dinged up, but he was also having a good spring.
“The tale of the tape offensively is that I’ve seen the key guys inside the offense get better,” he added. “George led the GAC in touchdown passes, and I’ve watched him get better.”
Another veteran who has taken his game to the next level this spring is senior-to-be Chad Winbush, who is part of a tailback rotation that was deep when camp opened but has been thinned by nagging hamstring injuries to redshirt sophomore Domonique Massengil and another senior-to-be, Titus Mobley, who led the team in rushing last season. Winbush has been almost impossible to tackle one-on-one, and with the inexperience at quarterback, he and the rest of the running backs figure to have an expanded role in the offense this fall.
“I’ve seen some toughness out of the running back position this spring,” McCarty noted. “We’ve shuttled some things around on the O-line to get some better performance out of some of those positions, and I’ve seen some growth. Being able to put a defense out there that should cause some people fits has forced our offense to grow up in a hurry.
“I was very pleased with our speed and how physical we’ve been this spring,” he said. “We want to be an inside running team, and I’ve gotten to see some of that. We’ve still got a lot to clean up before we start our 2012 season, but I think we’ve been productive.”
Fourth-year coordinator Justin Deason’s defense got a huge shot in the arm with the return of redshirt sophomore Jameel Whitney — a starter as a freshman who missed last season with an injury — to join a linebacker corps that has been one of the true bright spots of the spring. Whitney and fellow linebackers Tyler McGrew, Jason Catchings and Amos Cherry haven’t taken any prisoners since camp began, and they figure to be the heart of a defense that, because of the inexperience on the other side of the ball, could be asked to carry a big part of the load early in the 2012 season.
After Saturday’s spring finale, the Tigers will go into offseason conditioning mode until early August, when they return to begin preparations for their high-profile season opener Aug. 30 at traditional Division II power Northwest Missouri State.