By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (October 22, 2016) — Just six weeks ago, Zed Woerner was fighting for his starting position and Tarleton State was on its way to an 0-2 start.
How quickly things can change in the world of college football.
On Saturday, Woerner will be at the epicenter of a showcase of two of the top passers in the Lone Star Conference if not all of NCAA Division II football.
The junior quarterback is fresh off his fourth consecutive game with at least three touchdown passes, completing 69 percent for 1,248 yards and 14 TD strikes in that stretch.
More importantly, his steady, if not superb, play behind center has guided Tarleton State back into the upper echelon of the LSC after a dismal 3-7 season in 2015 left the Texans searching for answers.
They found them by bringing back head coach Todd Whitten, the winningest coach in the program’s senior college era, in Marcus Patton, a defensive coordinator who stresses knowledge and takeaways, and in Woerner, who has proven to be just the iron-tough leader Tarleton needs on the field.
How tough is the Marble Falls product and son of his high school head coach?
He stood in the pocket and delivered three TDs despite being sacked five times and hurried on 11 more occasions last Saturday, leading Tarleton to a 26-16 road win at Eastern New Mexico and to a second-place tie in the LSC standings.
Tarleton (4-3, 4-1), a winner of three straight, is now gearing up for its homecoming game Saturday against the other program in the discussion for most improved team in the conference. Kickoff against Texas A&M-Kingsville (4-3, 2-3) is set for 6 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
But to understand what is on the line as Woerner and company enter the toughest phase of their back-loaded schedule, one must first understand from where they have come since last season, since A&M-Kingsville beat the Texans, 43-25, in the consolation bracket semifinals of the now defunct LSC playoffs that lasted just two years.
That loss meant a last-place playoff against Oklahoma Panhandle State. Sure, Tarleton came from behind to win, 48-47, but all of 1,246 cared to attend, according to the official box score. That may be a gracious estimate. Media at that game would find it hard to believe there were 1,000 in attendance.
Head coach Cary Fowler resigned the following Monday, and Whitten was hired in December. He was also head coach at Tarleton in 1996 and again from 2000-04, and is a four-time LSC Coach of the Year. He was named West Region Coach of the Year in 2001.
“Coach Whitten came in and everything changed. He didn’t want to look back at last year, he wanted it to be a fresh start,” said Woerner. “He only looks forward, and that’s what we needed, because we were in bad shape.”
The play of Woerner is a big reason why the present – and future – look so bright.
Woerner burst onto the scene as a freshman when Collin Strahan was injured, taking over and completing 67.8 percent of his passes for 1,167 yards and six touchdowns. Even last season, with the team struggling mightily, Woerner was a 62.5 percent passer for 2,165 yards and 20 touchdowns, tying three past Texans for fifth most in a single season in school history.
Woerner enters the homecoming bout with A&M-Kingsville having thrown 19 touchdown passes this season. He needs 10 more over the final four games to match the mark of 29 set in 2003 by current Glen Rose High School head coach Cliff Watkins.
At 64.2 percent for his career, Woerner is currently the all-time leader in completion percentage at Tarleton. He is connecting on 64.3 percent of his passes this season, and if that holds it will be the second best single-season percentage in school history behind Jake Fenske’s 66.2 percent in 2012.
With four games remaining this season and, in theory, 11 next season, Woerner can become Tarleton’s all-time leader in passing yards with an average of 211.1 per game. He topped 5,000 yards at ENMU, and currently has 5,037 for his career. Steve Kelly is the career passing leader at Tarleton with 8,203 yards from 1999-2001.
Typical of an athlete raised in small town Texas, and as the son of a head football coach, the last person Woerner praises for such success is Zed Woerner.
“I have weapons all around me, I just have to get them the ball,” he says. “You look at these receivers, you have Bubba Tandy, everyone knows how good Bubba is, and then you have Jeff Thomas on one side and Del’Michael High on the other. Then you got Brant Bailey (freshman tight end), and he’s a great player, and you got Joseph Sadler coming out of the backfield. As a defense, I feel like it’s pick your poison. Who are you going to stop, because you can’t cover all of them the way you want, and that makes my job easier.”
His receivers are indeed a big reason for his success. There’s the experience and talent of Tandy in the slot, as well as Thomas and High on the outside. It was a jump ball show at ENMU, as time and again, Woerner threw what appeared to be 50-50 type jump balls, only with Thomas and High in mismatches against smaller, less athletic cornerbacks, they weren’t 50-50 at all.
The junior receivers combined to haul in 17 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns. Thomas had 9-144 including a leaping catch in the end zone during which his helmet popped off. High caught two jump balls for touchdowns and finished at 8-125. High has reeled in seven TD catches over the last four games, half of the total scoring passes thrown by Woerner during that stretch.
Woerner and the receivers have been doing their damage behind a banged up and inexperienced offensive line, and with a run game that has been streaky at best.
Twelve different offensive linemen have taken the field in seven games, and while Sadler has three 100-yard outings, the Texans have also had paltry showings on the ground, like two yards at West Texas A&M – in their lone LSC loss – and just 18 at ENMU.
Yet Woerner, being Woerner, praises the linemen, too.
“I know those guys are beat up, but they’re still battling, just putting in hard work and doing a great job,” said Woerner. “They have given me enough time to throw the ball and that’s all I can ask for.”
The humility is not for show. It’s who Woerner is. He’s grown up around the game, having played for his father, Cord Woerner, at Marble Falls High School, and has spent a lifetime witnessing the value of teamwork and realizing that no individual can be greater than the unit.
“When you grow up the son of a coach and you’re always around the game, you learn at a young age what it takes to be successful. You see the chemistry of some teams and that it’s better than others,” he said. “And you learn a lot about how the game is supposed to be played.”
Division II and a town like Stephenville are a perfect backdrop for Woerner, who has no motive to be in the limelight. Every chance he gets, Woerner slips away from football and the growing, bustling Tarleton campus for some duck hunting with former Texan kicker Blake Barnes, a Stephenville native.
“Anything outdoors. I’ll hunt and fish for anything they’ll let me,” said Woerner. “Around here, the best luck we’ve had has been with duck. We bag our limit pretty much every time.”
But when he isn’t shooting down birds flying over Erath County, he’s shooting down secondary coverages opposite the Tarleton offense.
“Hunting is a lot like passing. You gotta find your target, make sure you have a clean lane to fire through and you gotta lead it just right.”
Sounds like he has both down pat. And the numbers to back it up.
Woerner, a kinesiology major, hopes that before he leaves Tarleton for dental school, he can add a championship – perhaps two – to the growing numbers on his resume.
“We’ve put ourselves in position to talk about that now, and I don’t think anybody thought that would happen this year,” said Woerner. “When you look at what Coach Whitten has done in his first year, how he’s revitalized this program and has us finding ways to win, and how far we’ve come in such a short time, how could you vote for anyone else for coach of the year (in the conference)?
“I know we have some tough games ahead, but all we’re doing is focusing on the next one, and that’s Kingsville, and they have a great football team,” said Woerner. “I have mainly watched their defense, of course, not their offense, but they have a great defense with a lot of talent.”
People are starting to realize Tarleton has talent, too. And that includes its quarterback.
“I just want to win. That’s all I care about,” Woerner said. “The numbers and all that, they’re great, you guys write about all that. My job is to help us win football games.”