OGDEN — Weber State’s offense was OK in 2018.
Averaging 27.8 points per game, the Wildcats were middle of the pack in the Big Sky. Some games, like against Northern Colorado or North Dakota, the offense would be in high gear.
Against UND, in particular, a 35-30 win was only possible because the offense played so well, protecting against two special teams touchdowns the Wildcats allowed.
To open the playoffs, WSU’s offense recorded 41 of the team’s 48 points, including Jake Constantine throwing for four first-half touchdowns, to beat Southeast Missouri State.
In other games, though, things weren’t so great. A 26-13 win at Idaho State to clinch a share of the Big Sky title really only came because the defense was lights out against a potent ISU offense and because Rashid Shaheed returned a kick for a touchdown. Missed offensive opportunities against Maine were the difference in a quarterfinals ouster.
Could a better offense have led to a deeper playoff run? Or an unbeaten league performance? Perhaps. Jay Hill sees it another way, however.
“Frankly, last year the offense was so young, there were times — you’ve got to praise the offense for playing smart. We played good, team football last year. We were breaking in an extremely young offense, maybe one of the youngest in the country,” Hill said.
“If you look at it in that sense, it was a phenomenal job by those guys to put us in positions to win and make it so we could win. The name of the game is to win, not to put up 500 yards. It’s to win, and we did that, and we did it against some dang good teams.”
At quarterback, Constantine, a sophomore, wasn’t sure his knee would be ready to go in 2018. But senior Boise State transfer Rathen Ricedorff struggled with injuries in camp and, in Week 2, redshirt freshman Kaden Jenks was knocked out of a road game at Cal Poly with injury concerns.
And again, when Jenks lost his season in the seventh game with a gnarly broken ankle, Constantine had to be the guy.
Of Weber State’s top eight pass catchers (those who caught at least 10 balls throughout the season), six return. Three were freshmen (Devon Cooley, Josh Davis, Justin Malone) and three were sophomores (Shaheed, Isiah Jackson, David Ames).
Davis, of course, was a redshirt freshman who ran for 113.5 yards per game. Five offensive linemen who found playing time in a unit hit by injury were sophomores or younger, too.
Offensive coordinator Dave Schramm, entering his second year at Weber State, says experience is paramount in FCS football because the game is usually too fast for most freshmen. An old coaching axiom is that for every freshman you start, you lose a game — a further testament to Weber State’s 10-3 season, he says.
The overwhelming sentiment at Stewart Stadium is last year’s struggles will be this year’s successes.
“Now, it’s different,” Hill said. “These guys have all started. We should be able to open it up and put a little more on their plate. The name of the game is to win. If they’re out there doing what they’re supposed to do and we’re going up and down the field, we’ll open it up even more.”
Both Hill and Schramm acknowledge the need to better get the ball to playmakers in positions to succeed. There’s no doubt that a team with aspirations like Weber State’s needs an offense that scores more efficiently than the 2018 squad did.
Re-joining that effort is junior running back Kevin Smith, who rushed for 562 yards and six touchdowns in 2017 before losing 2018 to injury. It’s been hard for coaches and players not to smile this August when talking about pairing Smith with Davis in the backfield.
“The less hits those guys take in a game, the better,” Schramm said. “If we have two or three of them that are equally as productive, it’s hard for people to handle. We’re excited Kevin’s back healthy and Josh is back, and we have some other guys who have come in, too.”
Schramm says injuries to last year’s offensive line created increased depth this season despite losing Iosua Opeta, who is camping with the Philadelphia Eagles. Ty Whitworth, Tyler Downs, Ben Bos, Cole McGinnis and Xavier Stilson all return as experienced starters.
Also returning on the offensive line are sophomore Hyrum Tapusoa (nine games played in 2018) and junior Robert Geoffrion (five games), as well as senior Chris Faaumu, who played in one game last year while battling injuries but was a coveted junior college recruit before arriving at Weber State.
That should set the table for the improvement the offense covets.
At receiver, Shaheed (41 receptions, 442 yards) returns with Cooley, who grew into a larger role as the season progressed and caught 33 passes for 403 yards and two touchdowns. Malone (20 receptions) is healthy at tight end, and Jackson (14 catches) and Ames (12) provide playmaking and depth.
Schramm says as players step up, or as injuries affect the depth chart, Weber State is committed to being versatile and molding the offense to the 11 best available players.
“It’s definitely exciting. We have a young offense but a lot of experience,” Shaheed said. “We have a lot of playmakers, a lot of speed on the outside and speed on the inside. We have a lot of depth and that’s what excites me. We’re going to make a lot of plays this season.”
Shaheed’s game is all about speed, and he says he’s worked even harder to get faster — not just north and south speed, but getting in and out of breaks, and running better routes at full speed, so he can become a true receiving threat like he is at returning kicks.
“If I can do that, I’ll be pretty hard to stop,” he said.
Both Shaheed and Constantine said the offense has developed more trust in Schramm’s scheme and playcalling going into his second season. That’s created confidence, which Shaheed says will lead to success.
“The energy and the vibe is great on the field and in the meeting room,” Constantine said about the offense. “Everybody’s trusting what we’re doing and we’re bought in. We can be dangerous when we’re bought in.”
He, too, says he’s benefiting from personal improvement.
“To tell you the truth, I couldn’t really run last year,” Constantine said. “I’m feeling normal again and I can do things without thinking about it, without hesitation.”
He said he hopes to be a bit more of a threat in the zone-read option run game and ease pressure off the running backs occasionally. He says he’s more versatile and the offseason had similar benefits for all young, returning players.
“Everybody on the offense that has experience has improved,” Constantine said. “Everybody has been working their butt off and I’m excited to see what we can do.”