The Big Sky Conference held its annual football kickoff in Spokane, Washington, over the weekend, which resulted in the release of preseason polls and all-conference teams, and culminated in a day of media interviews Monday.
Weber State was picked to finish third by both media and coaches in the 2019 preseason polls while a conference-high seven WSU players were named to the preseason all-conference team.
Two of those preseason honorees — junior receiver Rashid Shaheed and senior defensive end Jonah Williams — spoke with various media Monday, including on a live stream produced by the conference.
Each spoke about their roles in WSU winning consecutive league titles and know it will take even more to take another step forward.
"Our defensive scheme is very disciplined. We don’t have a ton of flexibility. Each guy has their gap and we own that gap. That’s what we credit to keeping the rush down," Williams said. "I don’t just get to do my own thing, I own my gap and I know where my backers are going to be, I know where all the (defensive backs) are going to be ... we just have to respect that process and that's what makes us good on defense."
Shaheed acknowledged the need for the offense to keep stride with the defense for the team to improve.
"Having more explosive plays on offense. That’s going to be all 11 of our guys, we’re going to have to come together as a unit and just make plays ... and play together," Shaheed said.
Jay Hill, entering his sixth season as head coach, has high hopes for Weber State's run game with the return of junior Kevin Smith to pair with reigning national freshman of the year Josh Davis. Smith rushed for 562 yards and six touchdowns, with a long of 75 yards, as a sophomore in 2017 before injury kept him sidelined last season.
"Two years ago, when we were playing James Madison in the quarterfinal game, (Smith) might’ve been the best player on the field. So to add him back in the backfield with Josh, to have him back healthy is going to be huge," Hill said. "That’s not to say anything about the other guys, but those two could be the best in the league."
Hill recognized the growth of quarterback Jake Constantine, who played 2018 less-than-healthy on an accelerated rehab schedule for a previous ACL tear, as he enters his junior season.
"After the NAU game last year, about midseason, all the way up through the SEMO game in the second round of the playoffs, he played outstanding," Hill said. "He was completing about 72% of his passes ... That’s what we’ve got to have out of him, the consistency he was playing with in that stretch when we were really playing great."
The Wildcats are 14-2 in conference games in the past two seasons — historically unmatched at WSU as both seasons delivered shared conference championships — but Hill is far from satisfied.
"We have to take another step forward. In each of the last two years, we’ve dropped games, in my opinion, we should not have dropped. You don’t see North Dakota State do that very often. If we’re going to catch those guys, if we’re going to catch the James Madisons and the North Dakota States, we need to take that next step," Hill said.
"It’s about getting your personnel better, it’s about coaching better, it’s about a belief that we can be one of those teams. It’s all a process and I think we’re right there. But we’ve got to take that step."
Eastern Washington, reigning Big Sky co-champion and 2018 national runner-up, was voted No. 1 in both the preseason coaches and media polls released Monday by the conference.
The Eagles earned 10 of a possible 13 first-place coaches votes and 25 of 43 first-place votes from media members.
UC Davis was No. 2 in both polls, followed by Weber State at No. 3. WSU received four first-place votes in the media poll.
Montana (one first-place vote in each poll) followed at No. 4 in the coaches poll and No. 5 in the media poll, swapping with rival Montana State, who was voted No. 4 by the media and No. 5 by coaches.
Northern Arizona, Idaho State, Idaho, Cal Poly and Portland State followed at No. 6-10 in both polls. Sacramento State (No. 11 coaches, No. 12 media), Southern Utah (12 and 11), and Northern Colorado (No. 13 in both) rounded out the bottom of the polls.
UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier and Montana linebacker Dante Olson were named preseason MVPs in all-conference team voting conducted by media throughout the conference.
Weber State led all teams with seven selections — one-fourth of the total positions honored.
Offensive lineman Ty Whitworth and running back Josh Davis were selected on offense, with defensive ends Adam Rodriguez and Jonah Williams being joined by linebacker Auston Tesch on defense.
On special teams, Rashid Shaheed was picked as the league's top return specialist and Trey Tuttle as place kicker.
Weber State begins the 2019 season on Aug. 31 at San Diego State.