By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (March 20, 2017) — Monday was the first day of spring. Fitting, then, that it was also the first day of Tarleton State spring football practice.
The Texans were 5-6 in their first season under head coach Todd Whitten last fall, and return the nucleus of that team including two quarterbacks with starting experience, one with the opportunity to set a list of school records.
The biggest change for the Texans has been the departure of offensive coordinator Mason Miller to become offensive line coach at Nevada. Whitten has since named Jonathan Beasley and Bryson Oliver co-offensive coordinators. Beasley, the newly minted passing game coordinator, has spent five seasons as an offensive coach at Tarleton and currently assists with quarterbacks and running backs. Oliver joined the Texan staff last year as offensiv e line coach, and has tagged on the title of run game coordinator.
Marc Martinez has completed the cycle from incoming freshman to two-time all-conference linebacker, two-year graduate assistant and now his new role as a full-time assistant. He is coaching linebackers under the direction of second-year defensive coordinator Marcus Patton.
Witten says the schedule will change around Easter break, but until then the Texans will practice from 8-10 p.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 10 a.m. until noon on Saturdays. The first padded practice is this Saturday.
“People have asked why we are going so late in the evenings, but its really simple,” explained Whitten, who holds open practices and encourages fans to attend any time. “This way we avoid any conflicts with classes or labs, because those are very important, and we also get out there when we can have the whole facility to ourselves, so we can get the maximum work done on our time and those other teams (track and field also practices at Memorial Stadium) can get their maximum work in, too.”
Zed Woerner was a 61 percent passer last season for 2,445 yards and 24 touchdowns but also 11 interceptions, leading the Texans to 358 yards and 27 points per game. Derek Kiser also saw action in three games for the Texans. Woerner will be a senior and Kiser a sophomore in 2017.
Del’Michael High transferred from Navarro College and immediately led the Texans in receiving as a junior, hauling in 55 receptions for 790 yards and 10 touchdowns. Jeff Thomas, a Division I transfer from Sam Houston State, also made an immediate impact, but suffered a knee injury in the midst of a breakout performance at Eastern New Mexico and missed the final four games of the season. In seven games, Thomas finished with 33 catches, 505 yards and three scores.
A pair of 2016 true freshmen will be expected to have breakout performances as sophomores. Taylor Massey, from Cisco, played in 10 games and caught 13 passes for 213 yards while also returning 22 kickoffs for 424 yards. Tight end Brant Bailey from Eastland played every game and had 15 receptions for 170 yards and a TD.
There will be wide open competition at running back, where no returner rushing for more than 200 yards in 2016. Jabari Anderson, who will be a junior this fall, rushed for 193 yards on 59 attempts and scored twice. Skyler Wetzel saw limited action in seven games as a true freshman, rushing for 68 yards and 26 carries.
Tarleton struggled mightily along the offensive line last season, but those pains could become the 2017 team’s gains. A bevy of players earned experience, and several big bodies were added when mid-term transfers made their way to Stephenville. Matt Gruner, Doudly Aujour and Tate Stavenhagen are all seniors after playing a lot last season, Noah Perez will be a redshirt sophomore after starting every game at center until suffering an injury and Sam Weldon will be a sophomore after coming on strong late in his true freshman campaign.
In its first year under Patton, the Tarleton defense yielded 439 yards – 161 rushing – and 26 points per game, vast improvements over the 560 yards – 296 rushing – and 49 points opponents averaged in 2015.
Gone is undisputed defensive leader and All-American Cody Burtscher, but linebacker Basil Jackson is back after producing 84 tackles and two interceptions, and EJ Speed and Chase Varnado will anchor the defensive line. Speed had 68 tackles, six sacks and five forced fumbles, while Varnado, a Stephenville product, added 62 and eight. Birdel Hodge came on strong over the last half of the season, finishing with 28 tackles, 3.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Tarleton produced 33 turnovers – 16 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries and sacked opposing quarterbacks 36 times in Patton’s first season in charge of the defense. The Texans had just nine takeaways – four picks, five fumble recoveries – and 18 sacks in 2015.