Five practices into the third spring camp of his second tour as East Central’s head football coach, Tim McCarty hasn’t really been surprised by anything he has seen from his suddenly veteran squad. And, he said, that’s a good thing.
McCarty and his staff spent the offseason identifying what the Tigers did well and not so well during their 5-6 campaign last fall. At the top of their to-do list heading into the spring were upgrading all phases of the offense and tweaking a defense that was the most successful in the Lone Star Conference and one of the most proficient in the nation at forcing turnovers into 2010.
“I would say we’re right on schedule,” McCarty said after Monday’s spirited two-hour practice, which put the Tigers one-fourth of the way through their 20 allotted spring workouts. “We needed to work on having some confidence to make throws, and I’ve seen that. I’ve also seen some improvement in the running game.
“I’m pleased with our coverage in the secondary and with our ability to make plays,” he added. “I’ve seen a lot of contested catches, which tells me our quarterbacks (Tyler Vanderzee and Robert Thomas) believe they can stick the ball in there and our receivers and defensive backs are both in position to make plays. We’re seeing ability versus ability there, and I like that, because I want our receivers to be more aggressive.”
McCarty and offensive coordinator Rashad Jackson won’t really know how good their passing game can be until a blue-chip group of seven freshman and junior college recruits joins the receiving corps for preseason camp in August. By the end of the spring, though, the ECU offensive coaches should know just what to expect from their running game.
All seven tailbacks who should be on the roster this fall were on the field Monday, and McCarty has been pleased with what he’s seen from that group over the first five days of camp.
Incumbent starter Charles Opeseyitan and junior college recruits Titus Mobley and Chad Winbush will join sophomores-to-be Dominique Massengil and Justin Todd and redshirt freshman Miles Jackson to give ECU arguably its deepest and most talented group of tailbacks ever. They will also be operating behind an offenseive line that returns four starters, including 2010 North Lineman of the Year Carlos Savala.
“I feel really confident about our running backs,” McCarty said. “We’re deep and talented there, and those things are both good to have.”
Opeseyitan has shed 30 pounds since the start of the 2010 season and reported to camp at 210. He is the poster child for strength and conditioning coach Zach Womack’s strenuous offseason program, and, despite the addition of Mobley and Winbush, Opeseyitan doesn’t appear ready to give up his starting spot in the backfield. He was vocal during practice and showed off his improved speed and quickness with a couple of nice runs during team drills.
“Charlie O. is a great team player,” McCarty said. “He’s made a great commitment — No. 1, he’s lost about 30 pounds, and that allows him to be more versatile. He’s a great runner, he’s good in protection, and he’s aware of what’s going on around him.
“Titus Mobley has a lot of skills,” he noted. “Chad Winbush has a lot of speed, and he knows how to hit the hole and accelerate. I’ve been pleased with those two, especially having to come in and learn the offense.”
One guy who figures to be a lot more comfortable in McCarty’s system in 2011 is the 6-6 Vanderzee, who threw for over 2,400 yards as a junior college transfer last fall and who put up some big numbers down the stretch to help ECU (which joins the new Great American Conference this fall) to its first-ever Lone Star Conference North title. Vanderzee was sharp in practice Monday, hitting a variety of throws, most of them into good coverage.
“I’ve seen him get back to his style of throwing the ball — standing tall in the pocket, delivering the ball and having the confidence to make a throw,” McCarty said of his senior signal-caller.
ECU allowed fewer yards in intra-divisional games (just over 300 per game) than any defense in the LSC North last fall while leading the 13-team league in interceptions, turnovers and sacks. But McCarty and defensive coordinator Justin Deason — who will welcome back 10 starters on defense and, for the first time since McCarty returned to the program in 2009, won’t rely heavily on freshmen — are planning on the defense spending less time on the field this fall.
“We’re still looking at moving some guys around on that side of the ball,” McCarty said. “We made some terrific plays on defense last year, but we want to get off the field faster and take advantage of field position.
“We’ve got to learn to play tendencies and to play each situation by itself,” he added. “If it’s second-and-12, we can’t let teams off the hook. By and large, last year we were a team that played well in the red zone and we were very good in creating turnovers, but between those 20s we would make a mistake that would cost us and give them another play or two. We’ve got to tidy up some of those areas.”
McCarty said having so many veterans in camp (the Tigers will graduate only four seniors who saw any significant playing time in 2010) and the presence of several former players who are working as graduate assistants has created a spirit of camaraderie this spring. “There has been some bonding — everybody knows their teammate,” McCarty said. “Last year we had three or four offensive linemen who had never played together and three new backs in the secondary. There has to be a trust built — a confidence in your teammate that he knows how to do his job. We’re starting to see that out there.”
ECU will remain on a Monday-through-Thursday schedule this week and next. Spring practice will end with the annual Orange and White Game on Saturday, April 23, and all practices are open to the public.