East Central football coach Tim McCarty didn’t ask much of Tyler Vanderzee last year. He simply wanted the 6-6 transfer from Mount San Antonio Junior College to revive an offense that, for most of the 2009 campaign, had been among the worst in all of Division II and to become the face of a program that had had just three winning seasons since 1993 and had lost 13 straight games going back to 2008.
McCarty named Vanderzee his starting quarterback before the first day of the Tigers’ 2010 spring camp, and he stuck with him through three straight season-opening losses and a Week 4 victory over Southwestern dominated by an ECU defense that would rebound from a slow start to become the most opportunistic in the Lone Star Conference and the most efficient in the LSC North over the next six weeks.
By season’s end, Vanderzee had justified his coach’s confidence. He turned in a marvelous performance in a tough 31-28 loss at UCO in Week 5, then he led the Tigers to victories in their next four division games and ECU’s first-ever North title in its final season as a member of the LSC.
Vanderzee’s signature moment in his first season as a D-II quarterback came in Week 10, when he passed for a school-record 435 yards and directed a late drive to a last-second Matt Berrey field goal that gave ECU — a popular pick to finish last in the North in preseason — a division-clinching, 36-33 victory at Texas A&M-Commerce.
After all he accomplished last season and with no serious threat to his starting job on the roster, Vanderzee — who threw for over 2,400 yards as a junior — could have come into his second spring camp as a Tiger resting on his laurels and simply expecting his senior season to be an even bigger success. Instead, he joined the coaching staff in turning a critical eye to his performance and that of the entire offense in 2010.
“Individually, I didn’t think I had a great season,” Vanderzee said Friday. “There were a lot of things I could have done better.
“It took awhile for me to get comfortable with the offense,” he added. “I think about halfway through I got comfortable and starting playing a little bit better. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was getting better. I was finally doing some of the things I wanted to do.”
McCarty, who was named LSC North Coach of the Year following his team’s Cinderella 2010 campaign, welcomed back 19 starters off last year’s squad and a couple of high-profile additions to his backfield — juco tailbacks Chad Winbush and Titus Mobley — when camp opened two weeks ago in preparation for ECU’s first season in the brand new Great American Conference.
The Tigers have an All-American anchoring their defensive line in junior end Armonty Bryant, a first-team all-conference cornerback in Dontae Smith, four returning seniors on the offensive line (including 2010 North Lineman of the Year Carlos Savala), their leading rusher from last season (Charles Opeseyitan) and a two-time all-conference wideout in Zach Patteson. In the fall, another outstanding group of high school freshmen will be added to the 75 or so players in camp this spring to give McCarty arguably the deepest and most talented roster in school history.
But with all the expectations for his team on both sides of the ball, Vanderzee is still the guy who figures to most be under the microscope before and during a season that promises to be the most highly anticipated for ECU football since the 1993 Tigers claimed the NAIA national championship. And he seems to relish the challenge.
“Last year I didn’t know anybody — I had to get to know everybody on the team, especially the wide receivers,” he recalled. “This year we have chemistry built up and I can work on what I have to do instead of worrying about learning everybody’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Vanderzee said he is also looking forward to the move to the new conference, which will be made up fellow former LSC members Southeastern and Southwestern and six Arkansas schools.
“We’re excited about it — we think we have a good chance to win the conference and make a playoff run,” he said. “We have the talent to be a good team. It’s just a matter of putting in the work and WANTING to be a good team.”
“Want-to” is one thing that doesn’t seem to be lacking around McCarty’s program this spring. It permeates ever fiber of the team, and, for the first time in years, the Tigers have talent to match their optimism. “Wait ‘til next year” means something, because “next year” could finally be here.
“Every senior wants to go out a winner and have a really good season,” Vanderzee noted. “We know we have the talent to have a really good season. We want to go out there and make ECU a winner again.”
For the first time in McCarty’s five seasons as head coach (2004, 2005, 2009 and 2010), he will have playmakers in abundance on both sides of the ball. Vanderzee said the Tigers’ expected big-play offense should play to his strengths.
“We definitely think with the guys we have from last year and the new guys we’re getting, we’ll be able to stretch the field,” he said. “That should open up things for the offense.”
Savala was one of three additions to the offensive line last year, and Vanderzee said he saw that unit emerge as the driving force behind the evolution of the ECU offense over the second half of the season.
“I think they were the ones that got their act together first and got us going,” he recalled. “They helped open up the passing game by making a lot of runs open up. Three of the linemen were new, and they were learning throughout the season.”
Before a blowout, season-ending loss at West Texas A&M, the Tigers had been living on the edge for weeks. They won nail-biters over Eastern New Mesico (22-19) and Southeastern (20-19) to climb into the division race, and after manhandling eventual North co-champion Northeastern in Week 9 to grab a share of the lead, they went down to the wire in the win at Commerce.
Vanderzee said the constant pressure accelerated a young team’s growth and should pay dividends this season.
“Coming from where they came from a couple of seasons ago, we just needed to learn how to win, and we did that,” he said. It gave us a lot of confidence coming into this season that we know how to win games. We want to get better so we don’t have all those close games, but we know we can win those games and that should make us a better team.”
McCarty also made a move to improve his quarterback’s comfort level when he invited Josh Phillips — Vanderzee’s back-up last season — to return as a graduate assistant.
“He’s made it a great situation,” McCarty said of Phillips, who started seven games for the Tigers in 2009. “Even last fall, he had shared with us that all he really wants to do is coach football.
“He’s in his element right now — he really wants to do what he’s doing,” he added. “There’s no doubt he’s going to make a great hand for somebody someday. Josh has a good mind and he’s very good at fundamentals. He’s a no-nonsense guy.”
Vanderzee said having his former understudy as his coach hasn’t been a difficult transition.
“I like it a lot,” he said. “Last offseason he was kind of a quarterback coach for me. He’s a good coach and he understands what it was like to play quarterback at the college level. I feel like his knowledge of defenses and our offense — just his knowledge of the game — is what I can gain from him the most. He’s always keeping an eye on me and making sure I’m doing things the way I need to be doing them.”
Phillips is one of seven recently graduated ECU players who have joined the staff this spring. The others are Charlie Burks (defensive backs), Michael Ogonleye (linebackers), Darnell Barnes (defensive line), Xerxes Griffin (defensive line), Kevin Avey (linebackers) and Ramon Brown (running backs).
ECU has two more full weeks of practice leading up to the annual Orange and White Game on Saturday, April 23. Vanderzee said his biggest job between now and the end of camp is to learn the finer points of calling more audibles and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
“Basically, I’m working on understanding defenses and what they can bring from certain looks — just taking control of the offense more,” he explained. “For the most part (last year), I just ran the play (the coaches) gave me. Toward the end of the season, I started making more audibles as I started to understand the system.
“I like (being allowed to audible),” Vanderzee added. “It’s something I had to learn and get used to, but I like having that freedom. Coaches don’t always know what a defense will show us.”
Whatever the defense shows Vanderzee this fall, he figures to be ready for it. And that’s all his coach has ever asked him to do.