Old habits apparently die hard where the coaches in the Lone Star Conference’s North Division are concerned.
The same coaches who picked East Central in August to finish last in this year’s North football race came back three months later to snub some of the players who led the Tigers to the school’s first-ever division title.
Although ECU’s nine first or second-team selections on the All-North Division offense and defense released last week were seven more than the Tigers received following last year’s 0-11 campaign, the list wasn’t nearly as long as it should have been.
And the first question that comes to mind is “WHY?”
During a seven-game stretch between Week 4 and Week 10 of the 2010 season, the ECU defense was easily the best in the seven-team North and one of the most efficient in the entire 14-team LSC. Between a 47-7 loss to Abilene Christian in Week 3 (which extended a school-record 16-game losing streak dating back to the 2008 season) and a 52-21 meltdown at West Texas A&M Saturday that snapped a four-game winning streak, ECU won five of seven games, all against North opponents.
The only hiccups during the streak were a 31-28 defeat at UCO in which a potential game-tying 30-yard field goal in the final seconds sailed just inches left and a Week 6 Homecoming loss to Incarnate Word that was the Tigers’ last before they headed off to West Texas.
In a 23-0 victory over Southwestern in Week 4 and throughout the four-game winning streak that carried ECU to the North title, second-year coordinator Justin Deason’s young defense was a constant.
In Week 7, the Tigers held Eastern New Mexico — which entered the game ranked No. 9 in all of Division II in passing yardage — to 51 yards and no points in the fourth quarter of a 22-19 victory, and the next week ECU scored its third and fourth defensive touchdowns of the season — on a 100-yard interception return by freshman safety Markell Walker and a game-winning 36-yard pick-six for the game-winner by cornerback Dontae Smith in a 20-19 win at Southeastern.
Northeastern invaded Norris Field in Week 9 leading ECU by a game in the North standings and was manhandled, 48-21, in a no-contest highlighted by two more defensive touchdowns — a fumble return by sophomore defensive end Armonty Bryant (caused by one of his three sacks in the game) and Smith’s 74-yard return of his sixth interception of the season.
The Tigers squandered a 24-7 third-quarter lead before pulling out a last-second 36-33 victory at Texas A&M-Commerce to earn a share of the North title with Northeastern, but two of the Lions’ last three touchdowns were the result of turnovers by the offense.
Between the victory over Southeastern and the thriller in Commerce, Deason’s defense surrendered an average of only 324 yards per game to North opponents. In contrast, Eastern New Mexico — which landed five players on the first-team defene — gave up 380 yards per game, and Northeastern — which had four first-team defensive players — allowed 362 per contest in North play
Six times between Week 2 and 9, three different Tigers — Bryant (three times, including once for special teams after blocking two kicks against Commerce), Smith (twice) and strong safety Norris Wren (after the victory over ENMU) — were named North Defensive Player of the Week.
Those figures leave us with a couple of possible conclusions: (1) Deason is an absolute genius who designed a scheme that would have ensured success from any 11 players he put on the field, or, (2) the Tigers had a lot of very good players who carried out Deason’s game plan on a weekly basis but went overlooked for their individual efforts by the North coaches.
When the votes for the top players in the division for 2010 were counted early last week, only Bryant — the LSC sack leader with 13.5 — and Smith — who tied with Tillman Stevens of Eastern New Mexico for the league lead in interceptions with six — got their just due.
While Eastern New Mexico had 11 first-team selections and 16 first or second-team choices overall and Northeastern had four first-teamers on each side of the ball, ECU landed only Bryant and Smith on either first-team unit and trailed ENMU, NSU and cellar-dwelling UCO (which had 12) in first and second-team selections.
Perhaps the weirdest twist to the voting was the case of junior left tackle Carlos Savala, who was voted North Offensive Lineman of the Year but was the only POY on either side of the ball who didn’t get enough votes from the coaches to be named to the first-team offense.
Confused by this inconsistency, ECU coach Tim McCarty (who was such a standout for Coach of the Year that even his peers realized it and voted him the honor) queried the LSC office via e-mail about Savala’s situation.
“How does Carlos Savala make Offensive Lineman of the Year but not make either first or second-team offense?” McCarty asked. “Wow, that is CRAZY!!”
The LSC’s Melanie Robotham fired back a matter-of-fact, six-word reply: “That’s how the votes came out.”
Savala’s apparent snub on the first team wasn’t the only flaw in the system. Smith, who was clearly the best cover corner in the North and one of the LSC’s best playmakers on either side of the ball this season, finished behind Stevens in the voting for Defensive Back of the Year, based (I suppose) on Stevens’ league-high tackle total. The ENMU safety was in on a staggering 122 stops during the season, which could simply mean there were a lot of opposing players running free in the secondary against a defense that gave up 1,890 yards on the ground and over 409 yards per game overall this season.
Wrenn, an all-conference choice as a freshman, didn’t have statistics this fall to match those he posted last year, due largely to the Tigers’ dramatic increase in playmakers on defense between the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Despite having to carry less of a load, Wrenn (who ranked second on the team with 64 tackles) was the undisputed leader of the ECU defense, and each of his three interceptions seemed to be a game-changer. Wrenn wound up on the second team defense.
Another guy I thought was a no-brainer for first-team honors was Walker, who along with Jameel Whitney (a second-team selection at linebacker), started as a freshman and seemed to simply make plays every week. In addition to leading the Tigers in tackles with 69 (including 24 in his final two games), Walker had a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 20-19 victory at Southeastern in Week 8 and returned a punt for a touchdown in the 23-0 shutout of Southwestern in Week 4.
Instead of being recognized as an impact player in his first collegiate season, Walker instead earned only honorable mention on defense and special teams.
Skewing the process a bit was the almost-too-good-to-be-believed tackle numbers posted by several Eastern New Mexico players. Stevens, Curtis Jackson and Nathan Uland were 1-2-3 in the entire LSC in tackes and combined with teammate Perron Sellers (who was 14th) for more than 400 stops to account for over half the plays opposing offenses ran against the Greyhounds this season. All four were named to the North first-team defense by a group of coaches who refused to look past (or take a longer look at) the numbers.
While the North coaches appeared to have missed the boat on defense, I saw only one glaring oversight on their part where the ECU offense was concerned. No matter what the voting said, junior wideout Zack Patteson WAS one of the five best receivers in the North this season.
A second-team all-conference choice in 2009, Patterson caught a team-high 50 passes for 809 yards and three touchdowns, and he was one of the few constants in an ECU receiving corps that was plagued by dropped passes all season.
Patteson was third only to Northeastern’s Trey McVey (voted Receiver of the Year) and ENMU’s Jessie Poku in receiving yards and led all North receivers in yards-per-catch at 16.2.
While McVey and Greyhound teammates Poku and Darian Dale (65-704-5) were legitimate first-team choices, two others — Kenzee Jackson of Texas A&M-Commerce and Daniel Morrell of UCO — didn’t come close to Patteson’s numbers.
Jackson caught just 49 passes for a measly 451 yards and one touchdown, and Morrell (40-578-5) wasn’t even the leader in receptions (he ranked third), yardage or touchdowns catches on his own TEAM.
McCarty obviously wasn’t happy with the apparent indifference paid to his division champions by the other North coaches, but with 20 of the 22 starters who took the field for the season finale at West Texas A&M Saturday eligible to return, he didn’t have to look far to find a silver lining as the Tiger coaches and players move to a new conference next season.
“This program is on its way up,” he noted. “I’m very proud of the guys on this team and how they kept slugging it out. They won our first-ever conference championship, and we’re going to move forward from here.
“We think we have some pretty good players,” McCarty added, “and the good news is that most of them will be wearing orange and white next year.”