OGDEN — The last time Weber State played a football game in Stewart Stadium, the temperature was in the 20s.
Friday, the Wildcats opened 2019 fall camp with the thermometer climbing into the upper 90s, but spirits were high as WSU began preparations to compete at the top of the Big Sky again.
“I thought today was awesome,” head coach Jay Hill said. “It’s a young team, it’s a fun team. They flew around, they were energetic. They made a lot of mistakes but I think that when you’re making mistakes early, you can hang your head and pout and whine about it, or you can fly around and get to the next one.
“I really liked the mentality of the team today. That was exciting.”
Players went through several usual sets of drills typical for a Weber State practice, though the first day had more pauses during position-group work for coaches and upperclassmen to mentor newcomers as they refined each drill.
A few moments in one-on-one pass-catching drills raised the cockles of the players. Jake Constantine seamlessly connected with Rashid Shaheed over the top for a touchdown of about 45 yards or so, eliciting some ooohs and aaahs from the offensive sideline. The defensive sideline similarly perked up when a defender would meet the ball and drop it to the turf.
“It’s definitely exciting. You’re grinding for about three months just straight weight room and running. It’s definitely way more fun on the field, that’s what you work all summer for,” Constantine said. “I thought the excitement was the best I’ve ever seen it, so I’m really excited to see what we can do.”
The duality of camp was apparent late in practice during 11 on 11 sessions when quarterbacks Kylan Weisser and McKay Meidlinger lofted balls to Dewayne Dixon and Martrel Holmes, respectively, for big gains. The Holmes connection came against triple coverage, so offensive players were appropriately juiced up by the action while the defense, coaches especially, wondered why defenders didn’t make a play.
Overall, senior defensive end Jonah Williams may have said it best after saying he felt a bit sore after practice. A good sore?
“Oh yeah. I get tired of doing the same drills and stuff, so being able to compete against an offense, even though it’s our own team, it feels good to compete again,” Williams said.
Constantine said the mental toll of being unable to perform his best physically, with a rehabbing knee injury, weighed him down last season. He still wore a brace on his left knee into 2019 spring camp, but Friday it was gone.
“That’s what makes me so excited for this year is to see what I can do when I’m healthy and see what this team can do,” he said, also lauding his receiver group as one of the best in the Big Sky and cracking a big smile when he talked about Kevin Smith returning to run the ball with Josh Davis.
As far as the heat goes, Hill said watering down the artificial turf and implementing enough breaks, complete with water and ice towels, helped players stay cool and out of danger.
“As a coach, you don’t want to make too big of a deal out of it, but you’ve got to be really conscientious of player safety and I thought the trainers did a great job of that, and the players handled it well today,” he said.
Weber State is deep offensively at running back, offensive line and receiver, as well as at defensive line. Hill said the team can lean on those groups as camp opens to get everyone up to speed.
“We’re dynamic on both sides of the ball. We’ve got some inexperience but we’ve got some real talent,” Hill said. “I think the future’s real bright if we can build on today and keep getting better.”
Among roster changes, three returning contributors expected to be in rotations were not in camp: seniors-to-be Mo Cannon (offensive line) and Trey Hoskins (safety), and sophomore-to-be receiver AJ Allen. Hill said it wouldn’t be fair to comment on their absence except to say the players would not be with the team this season.
HEARTBREAK IN PORTLAND
As WSU players took the field Friday, tragedy developed in Oregon as Portland State athlete Deante Strickland was shot to death in northeast Portland. The Oregonian reports no arrests have been made but witnesses told Strickland’s uncle that Deante’s last words were, “My sister shot me” and “I don’t want to die.”
Strickland, 22, was a senior for the Vikings basketball squad last season but was going to play running back for PSU football this fall before his eligibility clock expired. Basketball coach Barret Peery recruited Strickland back to his hometown after the guard played at Casper Community College. The diminutive guard buried a 3-pointer that beat Weber State in Ogden back in January.
“We are all deeply saddened and grieving about this tragic news,” Peery said in a statement from the school. “We are better for having had Deante in our lives. His smile, passion and energy for life was second to none. He lit up a room and made the people around him better in every way.”