With the opener of one of the most anticipated seasons in school history only a summer or so away, East Central head football coach Tim McCarty and his staff have spent this spring working on the little things.
McCarty, his coaching staff and 75 or so players entered camp late last month looking to fix whatever went wrong during the Tigers’ history-making 2010 campaign and get a look at a few junior college transfers who are expected to be difference makers when ECU begins play this fall in the new Great American Conference.
And with only a handful of practices remaining leading up to Saturday’s Orange and White “Game”, McCarty said the spring has gone exactly according to plan.
“Things are right on schedule,” McCarty noted after his squad completed its third four-day week of practice. “We’ve had a productive spring. We’ve got to look at all the things we wanted to look at, we’ve made all the adjustments we wanted to make, and we’re healthy.”
McCarty said he will spend the final few practices allotted him spring simply fine-tuning the things he and his staff have been emphasizing for the past three weeks.
“We’re just going to focus on fundamentals now,” he explained. “All the situations and competition we wanted to see is done. What we want to do now is to go back and reinforce some things.”
In keeping with that theme, McCarty said that, unlike last year, Saturday’s spring game probably won’t be a game at all.
“Right now we’re kind of undecided,” he said. “We’re not sure if we want to have an actual game format or a scrimmage.
“We’ll probably have more of a scrimmage because we don’t want to get guys beat up,” McCarty added. “We’ve had a tough, physical spring where guys competed hard, and we’re right where we want to be right now.”
Although it might appear to be a radical move, McCarty’s decision to tone down the annual spring finale follows the plan he laid out when camp opened. Coming off a 5-6 season and their school’s first-ever Lone Star Conference North Division title in the last of its 13 seasons in the league, the Tigers entered the spring a veteran, confident group focused on one target — getting better in 2011.
McCarty said the spring his team has had so far and the addition of a talented group of freshmen to the mix in August should enable the Tigers to accomplish that goal.
“This team still has a lot to do,” he said. “We had a plan this spring and we feel like we achieved that plan. We’ve got to develop some players when they get here in the fall to add to our depth. We didn’t work a lot on special teams this spring, so I’m a little unsettled there, but by and large i feel like we’re where we need to be.
“We feel like we’ve got this team in pretty good shape,” McCarty noted. “They need another summer in the weight room. By next spring I feel like we’ll have the depth we need as a championshp football team. We’ll have those kids here this fall, but their development will take place during the fall and next spring.”
The biggest competition when camp opened was at tailback, where last year’s leading rusher, Charles Opeseyitan, faced a challenge from highly regarded juco imports Titus Mobley and Chad Winbush and fellow incumbents Dominique Massengil and Justin Todd. McCarty said he used the past few weeks as a fact-finding mission that will continue into preseason camp in August.
“We’ll wait until preseason (to officially name a starter), but right now that’s a good problem to have,” McCarty explained. “Our new guys took enormous steps in the last week, and Justin Todd has been extremely steady.
“It’s Charlie’s job to keep or lose,” he added. “He’s a terrific young man and he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s secure with that, and he’s performed the way we expected him to perform.”
Unlike Opeseyitan, quarterback Tyler Vanderzee entered the spring secure in the knowledge that, barring injury, he will open the season as the starter. But McCarty said that hasn’t kept the 6-6 senior-to-be from making the most of his opportunity to take a step forward this month.
“I feel this last week he’s made a big jump,” McCarty said of Vanderzee, who threw for over 2,400 yards last fall after transferring from Mount San Antonio Junior College. “He really feels comfortable running the offense. I started to get a great sense of him commanding the huddle and the field, and he’s starting to display some confidence in some of his receivers.”
Cleotha “Jo-Jo” Euwins, who led all ECU wideouts in average yards per catch (19.2) and was second on the team in touchdown catches (4) as a sophomore, has had an outstanding camp, and McCarty also singled out quarterback Robert Thomas (a former star at Sulphur High School) and tight end Cody Nall — who had a promising freshman season cut short by an injury — as offensive players who made big moves forward this spring.
Defensively, McCarty said young cornerbacks Reuben Tiller and Deon Criss made the most of their opportunities over the past three weeks, and safeties Markell Walker (who had a breakout freshman season) and Norris Wrenn also had an outstanding spring.
McCarty and defensive coordinator Justin Deason entered camp looking for more consistent play from their linebacker corps, and the Tigers appear to have had found a gem in University of Oklahoma transfer — and former Davis High standout — Jericho Rogers. A redshirt freshman, Rogers joins a linebacker rotation that includes all-conference performers Tyler Magrew and Jameel Whitney, along with Amos Cherry and Kerel James.
McCarty said Cherry has made a strong case for playing time this spring.
“He’s become a much better football player,” McCarty said of Cherry, who will be a junior this fall. “He lost 15 or 16 pounds during the offseason. He’s in great shape, and he know how to play.
“I feel like we got better (at linebacker) this spring, and we feel like we’ve got some depth there,” he noted. “We legitimately have a two-deep in the secondary and at linebacker.”
Depth is something of a concern on the defensive line, but the talent is there. End Armonty Bryant returns off an All-American season as a sophomore in which he led the LSC in sacks, and Lonnell Rice had an outstanding junior season last fall after transferring from College of the Desert. The Tigers are deep at nose tackle, where Del City product Lamar Shields is probably the leader in a four-man dogfight for the starting spot.
In his two seasons since returning to ECU after a three-year stint as an assistant at Kansas State, McCarty has seen the Tigers evolve from a team that started 18 freshmen at one time or another during an 0-11 campaign in 2009 into a veteran club that will return 18 starters this fall and has more talent and depth at every position than any he’s had in four previous seasons (2004, 2005, 2009 and 2010) in Ada.
As a result, everybody associated with the program is expecting the Tigers to challenge for the first football championship title in the nine-team GAC.
“We’re real excited about this fall,” he said. “Our assistant coaches and players really formulated and executed a really good knowledge and effort-gaining spring. My assistants did a good job of sifting through talent and training these guys up.
“We’ve had a very good buy-in with our kids, and there’s a lot of focus right there,” McCarty added. “They understand that’s it’s hard to win. We tell them that when you do things right you give yourself a CHANCE to win, but there are no guarantees; when you do things wrong, there’s no chance to win.”