ADA — East Central University defensive coordinator Justin Deason has seen the best and worst of times as an assistant coach.
While on the staff at West Texas State, he was part of a team that won its first 12 games and a Lone Star Conference title; in 2010, his first season as a coordinator ended with the Tigers finishing 0-11.
But with the annual Orange and White Game (at 2 p.m. Saturday) less than a week away, Deason believes the worst is over for the ECU football program.
“I know I’m probably the only coach in the conference to be on an undefeated team and an 0-11 team,” Deason said last week. “I definitely know what it takes to have a winning team, and I know where we’re headed.”
The Tigers appeared to be headed nowhere early in the 2009 season. They struggled both to score and to stop opposing offenses while playing one of the toughest schedules in all of Division II through six games.
Head coach Tim McCarty continued to preach patience, though, and the improvement he predicted would come did come by season’s end. Despite completing just the second winless season in school history, the youthful Tigers were much better in November than they were in August, and Deason said he has seen a lot of that momentum carry over into the spring.
“I think it’s going about like we thought it would go,” Deason noted. “The guys who are in the defense still haven’t been in the defense for a whole calendar year, so they still don’t know it as well as they should.
“Of course, we’re making progress, but everybody (in the conference) is,” he added. “The good thing is that every day the kids go out there wanting to get better, and we’re gradually working toward our goals.”
Deason warned, however, that making predictions in the wake of the kind of season no team wants to experience can be a dicey proposition.
“We started four true freshmen (Norris Wren, Tyler McGrew, Airieus Ervin and Amos Cherry) who were four of our top five tacklers, and the other, J.P. Oliver (who is back for his senior season after leading the team with 101 tackles in 2009), was a transfer. We also had other freshmen who didn’t start but played a ton. A lot of those guys are still 18 years old.
“I think we’ve improved, but I think everybody expected us to,” he said. “We were humbled last year, but we were young. We’re just kind of growing up. We’re humble and we’re hungry. You wouldn’t believe how hard our defensive staff and our players have been working.”
As young as the Tigers were last season, they figure to continue to have some growing pains in 2010. Deason and offensive coordinator Rashad Jackson will welcome a talented group of freshmen — part of a 37-player recruiting class — in August, and Deason predicted that more first-year players will work their way on to the field this fall.
“We will have a lot of freshmen play for us again,” Deason said. “We’re still in the transition phase. We started off with 130 guys on this team, and we’re at 75 right now. We’re still picking and choosing the guys that we want on our team.
“We had a good recruiting class — I’m excited about the guys we recruited,” he added. “They’re character guys and they can play football, too.” Deason said that, while humility was forced on the 2009 Tigers, character is something that can’t be taught.
“To have a winning program at East Central, it’s going to take recruiting guys with character — guys who want to work on football year-round,” he explained. “We’re going to have to recruit local guys who like Ada and want to grow with us, and, of course, they’re going to have to have talent. It’s going to be tough, but it’s not impossible.
“There’s no doubt that we’re going to improve, but I’m a realist, and everybody in the conference is improving,” Deason noted. “The question is, ‘What are we going to do to set ourselves apart?’ To do that, we need retainability — we need to keep those freshmen from last year and the new freshmen around here for four years.”
Deason, who was hired when longtime ECU defensive guru Todd Fugett resigned suddenly last March, said one advantage he has had this spring compared to last year is an offseason to prepare.
“I didn’t get here until just before camp started last year,” Deason recalled. “The coaches didn’t even know the defense when we started. We’re still getting through the playbook and learning and growing right now.”
ECU lost just two seniors — linemen Darnell Barnes and Xerxes Griffin — on defense, and Deason said just a handful of upperclassmen figure to see much playing time on that side of the ball again this season. He said with experience at a mininum, the coaching staff has emphasized something over the past three weeks that it can control.
“Our No. 1 focus this spring was that we wanted to worry about the internal more than the external — we want to teach players how to fight, how to win, how to never give up,” Deason explained. “Everything we set up was competitive, to challenge them. Everything we’ve done this spring is about having confidence.
“There’s not going to be any magic formula,” he said. “There’s not one guy on our defense who is a star, but at the end of the day you see a bunch of blue-collar, hard-working, lunch-pail guys. We’re going to be a little older this year, and we have a lot to prove.”
And the Tigers’ inexperience doesn’t stop with the players. Deason and Jackson are part of the youngest coaching staff in Division II, and with that in mind, they decided to pick the brains of some former ECU coaches as they prepared for their second spring as coordinators.
“We went to the University of Tulsa to watch practice and visit with (head coach) Todd Graham and (defensive coordinator) Keith Patterson — two East Central guys,” Deason said. “You’re talking about two of the top defensive coaches in Division I.
“Hank Walbrick (who coached the 1993 Tigers to the NAIA national championship) stopped by Tuesday, and we’ve also talked a lot to Todd Fugett (the Tigers’ defensive coordinator for 15 seasons) and (former ECU assistant) Jeff Watters,” he added. “It wasn’t anyting we really planned — a lot of it just happened. Coach McCarty is a guy who loves to learn, and it’s something he encourages us to do. We ask our players to learn and work hard, and we hold ourselves to the same standard.”
Deason said drawing on ECU’s heritage of success from the past could be a key to ensuring a bright future for a program that has had just four winning seasons and hasn’t won more than six games in a season since Walbrick’s club earned the school’s only national title in any sport almost 17 years ago.
“I love it here,” Deason said. “We’re getting to develop kids, we’re getting to be around a bunch of great former coaches, and we’re doing things the right way. The LSC has changed a lot, and we’re doing things a lot different than most places.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “I think we know where we’re headed, and we know we’re heading in the right direction.”