OGDEN — After watching the NFL and FBS college football play through their entire 2020 seasons, it’s time for FCS football.
With eyes on another deep playoff run, highly ranked Weber State football enters game week for the spring season — an 11-game regular season scheduled in fall 2020, postponed to the spring by the coronavirus pandemic, later adjusted to an unprecedented six-game campaign running from February to April, with playoffs in April and May.
The Wildcats open with a trip to Holt Arena to face Idaho State on Saturday, Feb. 27.
“We’re excited. The players are excited,” WSU head coach Jay Hill said. “I know the coaches are chomping at the bit to get to scheme somebody else and get to do what we love to do.”
The Big Sky and eventually the FCS subdivision postponed the 2020 season in August and the NCAA moved the sport’s championship to May 2021.
The FBS season saw some conferences opt out, then opt back in, and Alabama defeated Ohio State 52-24 to win the national championship on Jan. 11. The NFL pushed forward from the start, several games were played with diminished rosters but all games were completed, and Tampa Bay beat Kansas City in the Super Bowl 31-9 on Feb. 7.
FCS players, including those at Weber State who reached the national semifinals in 2019, could only watch while doing classwork, trying to stay in peak physical condition and attempting to avoid infection by the coronavirus while awaiting their turn.
“I think the players, the frustration hit a peak probably four or five months ago and now to get them this close to a game, that’s been a big weight off their shoulders,” Hill said. “Hopefully everything goes smoothly from now until kickoff.”
There’s little debate that Weber State enters the spring season with the top combination of experience and talent in the Big Sky.
Hill likes what he sees in the trenches.
“This is the most experienced we’ve been in the offensive and defensive lines. That should be a big benefit to us,” he said. “I think we have a couple real difference-makers in those groups.”
That includes Ben Bos, Hyrum Tapusoa, Ty Whitworth and Noah Atagi on the offensive line; Jared Schiess, Jayden Palauni and Sione Lapuaho at defensive tackle; and George Tarlas and McKade Mitton at defensive end. Raoul Johnson has been in the program at defensive end for two years, and Okiki Olorunfunmi joins the group as a junior college transfer from one year ago.
The list of offensive skill players is made up of list of two- and three-year starters or contributors: Josh Davis, Kevin Smith, Rashid Shaheed, Devon Cooley, David Ames, Ty MacPherson and Justin Malone. Receiver and USC/UNLV transfer Randal Grimes may be cleared to play sometime during the spring season as well, plus there’s plenty of depth at running back.
“That side of the ball looks much, much better than we’ve been the last two years,” Hill said.
Hill is high on his group of defensive backs, led by returners Marque Collins, Eddie Heckard, Preston Smith, Maxwell Anderson, Ja’Kobe Harris, Brody Burke and Kamden Garrett, who all started or played rotational roles last season. Cornerback Dave Jones and safety Aaron Sessions also return with some game experience.
Added to the secondary are Desmond Williams and Jemaurri Bailey, who have been with the team since 2019 but did not play that season due to injury (Williams) and transfer (Bailey). LJ Anderson and Josh Olave were signed as transfers to play immediately this spring, plus former Woods Cross two-way standout Braxton Gunther, who started his career at Utah State, was recently added to the roster as a senior safety.
At linebacker, physical stoppers Conner Mortensen and Noah Vaea return as starters. Rotational players who return include BJ Taufalele, Peni Mobley, Sherwin Lavaka and Winston Reid.
WSU is stacking returning experience with additions that bolster the roster, hopefully preparing against what could be as many as 26 games in the calendar year.
The main question is at quarterback.
Two-year starter Jake Constantine entered the transfer portal what feels like ages ago and his usual backup Kaden Jenks, who won a few games as a starter, is no longer on the team in what Hill characterized as a medical retirement.
In a camp battle that included sophomores Teryn Berry and Kylan Weisser, Hill said this week that junior Randall Johnson and freshman Bronson Barron are the two finalists vying for the starting spot.
Johnson led the California junior college circuit of 60-plus schools in total touchdowns as as sophomore at Reedley College in 2018, then redshirted at FBS program Middle Tennessee in 2019. Barron was a first-team Utah All-State quarterback for American Fork High School in 2017 and returned from a mission nearly one year ago.
Another spot with a question mark: placekicker.
At punter, Mackenzie Morgan, a transfer from NC State, has been in the program for a year to take over for fellow Australian Doug Lloyd. But at kicker, Trey Tuttle was entering his senior season one game from becoming the program’s all-time scoring leader, and all but sure to become WSU’s all-time leader in made field goals — with a chance to break that FCS record.
But Tuttle has left the team. The position now goes to either sophomore Riley Erickson or freshman Kyle Thompson.
“They’re both talented enough to do it, and if they go out there and play to their ability, I don’t think we’ll skip a beat there,” Hill said when spring camp opened. “They both can hit the ball the right way and have looked good throughout fall practices.”
Whoever gets the reins to the offense will run a new system. Matt Hammer, who was previously WSU’s offensive coordinator before coaching high school locally, was hired as linebackers coach for the 2019 season and moved into the offensive coordinator spot one year ago.
When Johnson committed to WSU in June 2020, he said Hammer told him the plan is to spread the ball around, run the quarterback some, use RPOs and still own a power run game.
“I feel like we’ve picked it up pretty quick,” said Shaheed, the senior receiver who spent most of the 2019 season injured to various degrees. “We spent a lot of time while we had off-weeks studying, getting with the coaches and getting the offense down. It’s showed so far. A lot of the time, we feel confident in what we’re doing and it’s been a lot of fun getting back out with the guys and competing against the defense.”
NEW COACHES, ODD TIMING
Four coaches have left the team since the end of the 2019 season: offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dave Schramm, who coached at Utah State in 2020, defensive line coach Kite Afeaki, running backs coach Quinton Ganther and cornerbacks coach Shaun Harper.
Afeaki and Ganther had been on Hill’s staff since he became head coach ahead of the 2014 season. Afeaki left coaching to pursue a business opportunity while Urban Meyer hired Ganther to be an offensive quality control coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Hammer stepped into Schramm’s OC/QB role in February 2020. Hill hired Matty Ah You to replace Hammer at linebackers coach the next month.
The timing for the rest is unusual, mostly caused by the pandemic and the disparity in seasons between FBS and FCS football. On the calendar, coaching changes usually occur in January and February — but for an FCS team like Weber State, that’s now in the immediate lead-up to a season.
But Hill said his recent hires “have been pretty simple and pretty flawless, in my opinion, to this point.”
Afeaki left WSU in August after it was clear the season would not be played in the fall. Hill hired Robert Conley — a former Utah offensive lineman and offensive coach in college and high school — to replace him. That was made official in January. But Conley will now coach running backs after Ganther’s late departure just weeks ago.
“Having Robert Conley in place with the coaching staff for a couple weeks before that happened was huge. Him learning how we do things, the process, how we practice, tempos, how we name things, he was already running,” Hill said. “So that made that transition easier. The other thing that makes that easy is we have a veteran, very talented running back crew that he’s taking over. Those guys could dang-near coach themselves at this point.”
That led to the hire of former Utah State linebacker and defensive line coach Bojay Filimoeatu to coach the defensive line.
“Bojay Filimoeatu is one of the better defensive line coaches in the country. We’re lucky to get him,” Hill said. “Had it not been for some crazy stuff that happened last year at Utah State ... Bojay’s big-time. We’re lucky to have him.”
Former NFL cornerback Andre Dyson then returned to WSU to coach that position, following a path similar to Hammer’s of coaching at Weber State, taking over a local high school team as head coach, then returning to WSU. Dyson played with Hill in Utah’s secondary in the late ‘90s.
“Dyson’s played in this defense, he’s heard a lot of this terminology and he’s coached in this scheme, or a very similar scheme, when he was here for three years under coach (Ron) McBride,” Hill said. “The guys listen to him, he does a great job studying film and knowing routes and splits, all the things we need our corners to know. He’s going to do a great job with those guys in teaching technique and getting them excited about what they can become as corners.”
The Big Sky is playing a six-game regular season from Feb. 27 to April 10. Eight teams are participating, while five have opted out (Montana, Montana State, Northern Colorado, Portland State and Sacramento State). Nationwide, just less than 100 teams are participating in the spring season with about three dozen having opted out.
The Big Sky has built-in, leaguewide bye weeks on March 20 and April 17 — planned for make-up games in the event of postponements due to COVID-19 protocols. It also pits close rivals against each other twice to limit travel and expenses.
The FCS Playoffs field is reduced from 24 teams to 16, with 10 automatic bids to conference champions and six at-large bids. Conferences decide how to assign their automatic bids. Teams must play at least four games to be considered for at-large selection.
The top four teams will be seeded. The bracket will be revealed on April 18, with the first round on April 24 and the championship game on May 15.
Weber State’s spring schedule is as follows below. Home games will air on KJZZ TV in Utah and stream on Pluto TV channel 1054. All games will air radio calls on 103.1 FM and at 1031thewave.com. Road games will be livestreamed on Pluto TV channels assigned to the home teams.
At the time of this writing, WSU had not yet announced plans and policies in regards to fan attendance for home games at Stewart Stadium.
Feb. 27: at Idaho State, 4 p.m.
March 6: at Cal Poly, 1 p.m.
March 13: vs. UC Davis, 1 p.m.
March 27: vs. Northern Arizona, 1 p.m.
April 3: at Southern Utah, 2 p.m.
April 10: vs. Idaho State, 1 p.m.