Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing Q&A series leading into the start of preseason practices at area high schools and Tarleton State. This piece features Tarleton head coach Todd Whitten, whose Texans are due on campus Monday and begin practice at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (August 5, 2017) — Todd Whitten hopes his second season back at Tarleton State ends with Lone Star Conference rivals referencing the Texans with the old saying, “What a difference a year makes.”
Whitten, who is in the midst of his third go-round as head coach at Tarleton, has 55 wins at the school, the most of any coach in its 56 years as a senior college.
His club was 5-6 last season, after going 3-7 before his arrival. What improvements will the Texans make this year? Let Whitten tell you himself:
Q) How big is it just being the second year in your system on the field and in your program as a whole, as opposed to being in the first year and so much of it being new to the team?
A) Well that’s that’s a great point. It’s huge. There is a level of familiarity there that was not there last year. Everyone, for the most part, is on the same page now, and that should make everything go much smoother. There wasn’t much smooth at all about last year.
Q) If I’m Average Joe sitting in the stands at the home opener on September 9, what is the most noticeable difference I see between this team and the one from last year.
A) Our running game and physicality, I think, will be the biggest differences. There were times last year when our run game was almost non-existent. We have a great deal more size on the offensive line this year, and hopefully, we’ll be healthier up front than we were last year when injuries had us scrambling and even moving players from defense to offense.
We have two running backs who both looked good in the spring in (Adam) Berryman and Xavier Turner. They were both good junior college running backs, Berryman at Trinity Valley (Community College) and Turner at Navarro (College). I have always enjoyed coaching good backs out of that Texas junior college league. We had Chavis McCollister, Olan Coleman, Derrick Ross, it’s a pretty long list the guys we’ve had who came through that league. But to sum it up, just physicality on the offensive side of the ball I think will be the biggest difference you will see.
Q) Quarterback Zed Woerner has the opportunity to break a slew of school passing records in his senior season, and he has great receivers out there. Do you believe those guys are the best receiving core in the conference, and what makes them so special?
A) We certainly have a good one. We have two quality kids who are also great players in Jeff Thomas and Del’Michael High. I think Del’Michael is the leading returning receiver in the conference and Jeff was having a good season, too, until his (knee) injury. He’s rehabbed that and is good to go now, and it will be good for us to have those two on the field together again. Those two perform consistently whether it’s on the field, in the weight room or in the classroom. We always know we can count on them, and I’ll say if they aren’t the best they have to be right there close.
Q) Your defense is also entering its second year since being rebooted, so to speak, by coordinator Marcus Patton. How impressed were you by the improvement they showed last year, and how do they continue that trend this fall?
A) Two years ago the defense allowed about 50 points a game, and last year we allowed about 25, so they cut that in half. That’s a very big improvement. And I felt like they were more effective overall down the stretch near the end of the season than they were in the first several games. That to me says they were still getting comfortable and improving, which is exciting leading into this year. What impresses me most about Coach Patton is how the full capability out of his players without asking them to do too much. Looking back, I think our defense overachieved. That’s a great compliment to our players and all our coaches on that side of the ball.
Q) That defense created 30 turnovers last season after only nine takeaways in 2015. Among his laundry list of impressive stats, EJ Speed leads the nation in forced fumbles. How big were the takeaways?
A) That’s huge, and of course, it was a big reason we allowed so many fewer points. We as coaches talked about how imperative it was to get better in that area because so many games are decided by turnovers, and we did a good job of creating them last year. Hopefully, we can do that again.
Q) It seems like the top tier of the LSC is always so strong. How good do you have to actually be, truly, to be very good at all in this league?
A) Well, you have to have talent and put a good product on the field, and you have to be solid in every aspect of the game. And then, once you get there, you have become consistent and do it every week because there is never an easy weekend in the LSC.
Q) How important are intangibles like chemistry and how do you work on those as a team?
A) That’s the big key right there, because we have a chance to be good, but it all hinges on how soon we can effectively become a true team. We need very few individuals and a bunch of guys working together and pulling in the same direction.
Q) There seemed to be a significant culture change over the course of last season. How much focus is placed on something like that?
A) For me as head coach, the culture of our program is my No. 1 priority. We have guys coming from all over the state and all over the country. They come from all walks of life, and that can be difficult if you let it be. I’ve made it a point to spend a lot of time visiting with players individually, and I know our players enjoy our program and they enjoy coming to practice each day. That’s so important, because when everyone is enjoying what they’re doing and the work that they put into it, then it’s much easier to become an effective unit.
Q) Now that you’ve had most your staff in place for a year or more, how do you feel about those guys and the job they are doing?
A) We have a really good coaching staff, and it’s not just because they’re all good guys, though they are. It’s not just because they all work hard, which they certainly do. But you can work hard and still not be able to get through to your players. I know from visiting with our players that they enjoy our coaches and they feel like our coaches relate to them very well. Our players want to learn from our coaches and go to work for them, and that to me tells the story.
Q) Alright, one more. With the team coming together and practices about to get started, what is your favorite part of this time of year?
A) I think it’s just getting back to football. That’s what brings us together is football. It’s why the kids have been lifting weights and running. It’s what the coaches have spent a lot of long hours preparing for. It’s enjoyable to see how much the kids have grown each year, not just physically, but in their maturity and as players as they through the program. Then at the same time, it’s also enjoyable to see the excitement on the faces of the new kids who are coming in and just getting started. It’s just great to get back to doing what you came here and worked so hard for.