ADA — For most of the 2009 football season, the East Central University offense was not only the least productive in the Lone Star Conference but one of the worst in the HISTORY of the conference and, in fact, one of the most anemic in all of Division II.
The Tigers, caught in the vacuum between the spread offense of former coach Kurt Nichols and the more conventional system of returning coach Tim McCarty, couldn’t run the ball and they couldn’t throw the ball. To make things even more difficult, a young defense and one of the nation’s toughest D-II schedules put them in one bad situation after another.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the first 0-11 record in school and conference history: the Tigers grew up, and by season’s end the team — despite finding some gut-wrenching ways to lose in the second half — had shown dramatic improvement on both sides of the ball.
So, as spring camp opened two weeks ago, the ECU coaches began trying to build a positive mindset and a winning attitude in a team they hoped would have a selective memory where the 2009 campaign was concerned.
“You definitely can see the progress we made last season carry over to the first two weeks of spring ball,” said second-year offensive coordinator Rashad Jackson, who joins defensive head man Justin Deason to give ECU the youngest set of coordinators in all of Division II. “The retention of the offense has been really good. The guys have been making a concerted effort NOT to take a step back.”
Jackson was an assistant on McCarty’s staff in 2004 and 2005, before McCarty left Ada to become an assistant at Kansas State for three seasons. They both returned last spring to try to revive a program that has seen just three winning seasons since claiming the NAIA national championship in 1993, and hasn’t won more than three games since McCarty’s 2004 squad finished a surprising 6-4.
“I wouldn’t say it was tougher than I thought — I knew what was going to be involved as far as the work,” Jackson said of his first season as a coordinator. “I’d had an opportunity to work with Coach McCarty, and he was able to instill a lot of things in me. He works with the offensive line, so what better person to turn to when I have a question. I’ve been able to pick his brain and add some stuff to the offense as we’ve gone through spring ball.
“I enjoyed the season,” he added. “Obviously it didn’t turn out the way we wanted, but I saw a lot of improvement in the offense. That’s something I would have liked to have seen earlier, but the guys didn’t throw in the towel — they played hard all season, and that’s something you like to see as a coach. Our main goal is to carry that momentum through spring ball and pick up where we left off.”
In addition to the experience his offense gained on the field while taking its lumps in 2009, Jackson had a number of new reasons for optimism as the spring began. McCarty’s second recruiting class addressed needs at quarterback and running back and along the offensive line, which should make ECU a much deeper and talented team when the incoming freshmen arrive on campus in August.
“Coach McCarty has done a great job of identifying areas where we need to get stronger,” Jackson noted. “Something we worked hard on with this recruiting class is to bring in a number of running backs, so that if we have an injury, we’ll have other guys we can turn to. We’re confident this group of running backs can do the job.
John Gaines came to town last spring with a reputation as a potential game breaker in the backfield and he was one of the stars of camp, but he carried the ball only a handful of times during the season after suffering a nagging injury. He is back and healthy, and, with four of the eight tailbacks who are expected to be on the roster this fall being freshmen who aren’t in camp, Gaines has had another chance to impress the coaching staff.
“He’s healthy, and he’s been doing a great job,” Jackson said of Gaines. “He didn’t see a lot of action last fall after his injury, but I think now he’s back to where he was last spring.”
Also in camp is juco-transfer Shomari Grant, a star in high school in Florida who spent two seasons at Compton Community College. Gaines and Grant figure to be the greybeards in a tailback rotation that should get a huge boost in August from four talented freshmen recruits.
“We weren’t able to do a ton of things last year because we didn’t have a lot of depth at a lot of positions,” Jackson said. “I think now we’re starting to answer some questions in a lot of areas.”
Although ECU entered last fall with two-time LSC North Offensive Player of the Year Marcus Johnson under center, quarterback was something of a revolving door in 2009. Three different players, including assistant coach Lucas Peters, called signals for the Tigers last season, and only one member of that trio — senior Josh Phillips — is among the five quarterbacks in camp this spring.
Heading the list of newcomers is 6-6 juco-transfer Tyler Vanderzee, who was tapped by McCarty to be his starter before spring practice began. Vanderzee has lived up to the hype in camp so far, displaying an accurate arm and an ability to see the field and make all the throws necessary.
“Tyler is very accurate, and Josh has a strong arm and is in a system that he knows,” Jackson said. “I’m challenging all of my guys as far as their production.
“Tyler makes a lot of different throws, he’s able to stay in the pocket because of his height, and he’s done a great job since he’s been here,” he added. “He’s still trying to understand the offense. That’s going to be the big thing as far as his transition is understanding what we’re trying to do. Each day he’s getting better, because he’s understanding the system.”
The two biggest additions to the ECU offense (literally) are a pair of 6-6, 310-pound tackles — Carlos Savala and Rodney Picou — who were both Division I recruits out of high school and, along with another newcomer, Desmond Ferris (6-3, 290), figure to bring both size and attitude to the offensive front this fall.
“We had a couple of young guys on the line last year, and bringing in these guys has brought a lot more competition and has given us a lot more depth at that position,” Jackson explained. “Bringing in two guys with size and experience gives us a lot more options. Since we started the spring, we’ve seen an increase in production.”
One area where ECU almost stood pat recruiting-wise was at wide receiver. The team’s young wideouts developed steadily as 2009 progressed, and they were a major reason the Tigers were a lot more competitive at the end of the season than they were at the beginning. Joe Joe Euwins and LaQuan Harper were both starters and Angelo Shipp also saw a lot of action as freshmen, and all three are back to form the nucleus of a receiving corps that has the potential to be one of the most exciting in the LSC this fall.
“We felt that these guys are going to be really good players for us,” Jackson said. “You would hope that one or two of those guys would really break loose. As coaches, you try to project things, and we thought this group of receivers really started to make big plays around Week 4 or 5 of the season.
“With this spring, we’ve gotten a feel that these guys can continue to develop,” he added. “In the next three years, you just know these guys are going to start turning it on.”
Despite the struggles of his offense for a big part of his first season as coordinator, Jackson believes the pieces are in place for his group to take a giant step forward in 2010.
“I don’t know right now as far as compared to anyone else in the conference, but my guys can be as good as they want to be,” he said. “Part of what we’ve been going through this spring is to put the pieces we’ve brought into the program in a position to be in the right place in this offense. I’ve told them all spring to do what they can control and everything else will take care of itself. I can see us doing a lot of good things in this offense.”
Jackson said Deason’s defense — one of the most improved in the LSC over the second half of the season and also expected to be better with the addition of some promising recruits — has played a big role this spring in getting the offense ready for the upcoming season.
“We really throw a lot of things out there, myself as an offensive coordinator and Justin as a defensive coordinator, to try to challenge our guys on both sides of the ball,” he said. “I think a lot of that will show in the fall as far as competing and holding guys accountable for what they’re doing on the practice field. This spring will answer a lot of questions about this team. We’re making ourselves a lot better as a team because of the competition.”
Jackson said he and the rest of the coaching staff have a couple of major goals for the Tigers to achieve before they play the annual Orange and White Game at Norris Field on on Saturday, April 24,
“From an offensive standpoint, to be able to put this spring to rest, we need our players to just understand what we’re expecting from them — to understand our identity as an offense,” he explained. “We want them to understand and feel good about the playbook. If we feel they’ve accomplished that, we can put the spring to rest and focus on (fall) camp and getting ready for the season.
“I’ve been very pleased with that part of it through the first two weeks of the spring,” Jackson added. “I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know what to expect, and I think the guys have done a great job of doing what we expected of them.”