Previewing the Texans, from LSC Scoop and The Flash Today

Wide disparity as media ponder Tarleton's possible record this fall

Courtesy Tarleton Athletics

Editor’s note: The LSC Scoop collects news articles, editorials and more covering the Lone Star Conference, and has been working dilligently of late to provide previews of all LSC football teams along with Q&A’s with media who cover them. The Scoop and The Flash Today collaborated on the following preview of the Texans, with the the Scoop providing the team preview then conducting a Q&A with Keith concerning the team and the season ahead. We hope to continue to work together on such pieces in the future. Visit the LSC Scoop at Their 2017 Preview Central (CLICK TO LINK) is a great resource for preseason information on all the LSC football teams.


2016 Recap
The Texans were much better than 2015, though the 5-6 record does not fully reflect the improvement.  Five of the losses came to FCS or D2 post-season teams.  They lost just two D2 games by double digits, compared to five in 2015, and they improved their scoring margin by 12 points and yardage deficit by 28 yards per game.
The defense showed the most improvement, allowing 25.5 points and 438.7 yards per game, compared to 49 and 559.6 in 2015.  Cody Burtscher (117 tackles, 6 for loss, 4.5 sacks and 3 interceptions) was the LSC linebacker of the year (and 1st team All-LSC), while E. J. Speed (2nd), Chase Varnado (HM), Basil Jackson (HM), Dominique Martin (HM), and Tristen Ridge (HM) were also recognized by the LSC.  Speed and Varnado each had 13 TFL and combined for 14 sacks, while Ridge picked off 3 passes and had 9 passes broken up.
Offensively, the Texans actually took a step back.  It wasn’t the passing game, where the Texans threw for 262 yards per game, but the run game was almost non-existent, averaging just 96 yards per game and 3 yards per carry.  Zed Woerner completed 61.3% of his passes for 2,445 yards, 24 TDs and a 146.0 QB rating.  Joseph Sadler added 613 yards rushing and 210 receiving with a combined 8 TDs. Del’Michael High, Bubba Tandy and Jeff Thomas were a potent receiving trio, combining for 130 receptions for 1,990 yards and 20 TDs.  LSC honorees included High (1st), Tandy (2nd), and FB Brant Bailey (2nd).


2017 Outlook – Offense
The QB situation is in good hands with Zed Woerner back, as well as Derek Kiser and Alex Craig, both of whom have on-field experience.  Returning to the team is Matt Bishop, a 2012 signee out of Aledo.  Ben Holmes comes in from Nassau CC, where he threw for almost 3,000 yards and 29 TDs in 18 games.  Both Bishop and Holmes are listed as SQ.
Ditto wide receiver, where High and Thomas return and are joined by JUCO All-Americans Savon Rollison and De’Jai Whitaker.  Rollison had 77 catches for 1,396 yards and 16 TDs at Tyler JC, while Whitaker had 60 for 1,331 and 15 TDs at Cerritos JC in 2015.
With Sadler finishing his eligibility last year brought in Adam Berryman (Trinity Valley CC) and Xavier Turner (Navarro JC).  They combined to rush for more than 1,500 yards last year.  Also listed on the roster as squadmen are D’Anthony Hopkins (Blinn JC) and Justice Anyanwu (El Camino CC).  Hopkins was highly recruited out of HS, and rushed for 1,114 yards and 18 TDs last year, while Anyanwu added 479 yards at El Camino.  At this time it is unsure if either will be active this season, or will redshirt.
Up front, returnees include Dylan Whitacre (started all 11 games)  Noah Perez (7 starts, before injured), Justin Reasons and Doudly Aujour.  Coach Whitten also added several transfers – Jovan Pruitt (TVCC),  Shawn Best (Arizona Western), Deon Sheppard (Navarro), Israel Lorenzo (East L.A.), Wesley Hooks (Ark Tech), and Chase Woods (Lamar U.).  Pruitt originally signed with Arkansas out of HS.  Pousima Galoia (Ventura JC) is anther addition, but he is listed as a squadman.
*** Record Watch ***  Woerner comes into 2017 with 6,269 yards and is 1,934 yards behind Steve Kelly for tops on the TSU list.  He already has the passing TD record with 59, so every additional one is gravy.
2017 Outlook – Defense
There are some holes to fill, with Burtscher, Ridge, and Martin using up their eligibility last year, but plenty of talent returns.  Up front, that includes Chase Varnado (62 tackles, 13 TFL, 8 sacks, 10 QBH), David Solomon (39 tackles), Tavaris Owens (44 tackles) and Chris Radford (15 tackles, 8 QBH as a true Fr.).  Newcomers include David Fangupo (Cerritos JC), Fredarian Tompkins (Kilgore JC), Tyrell Thompson (TVCC), Mohamed Inoussa (Glendale CC) while Collin Carrell and Kamron Yarbrough switch from the OL to the DL.  Thompson was the #12 DT in the nation and a 3 star prospect by Scout.
Linebacker will be a strength once again.  E. J. Speed, Basil Jackson, Ronnell Wilson, and Azizullah Fifita, combined for 246 tackles, 26 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 15 QBH, 3 interceptions, and 6 passes broken up.  They will be joined by Will Johnson (Arizona Western), Michael Knobloch (Cisco JC), and Marquis Lomax (Santa Monica CC), who redshirted last year,
Devin Hafford (54 tackles as a true freshman), Elliott Hart (29 tackles), John Bellfield (25 tackles), Cord Norris (20 tackles as a true freshman), Chris Gordon (25 tackles), and Jordan Smith (13 tackles) bring back the most experience.  But as everywhere else on the team, there is an influx of transfers.  Daniel Ezeagwu (Iowa Western CC), Thomas Warren (Pima CC), Jackson Burrell (Colorado Mesa), and Johnnie Hankins (Independence CC).  Ezeagwu played at Maryland prior to Iowa Western CC, and Warren spent his freshman year at New Mexico.  Andre Plata played for the Texans in 2012 and 2013 as WR, but is moving to the secondary on his return to the team.  Listed on the roster as SQ are Aaron Brown (Navarro) and Mookie Carlile, a Stephenville native who played at UTEP.
2017 Outlook – Special Teams
Sergio Sroka returns as the kicker.  He went 11-16 on FGs, twice hitting 44 yard attempts.  He also averaged 59.5 yards on kickoffs, with 11 touchbacks.  Ron Reid will have to be replaced at punter, but freshman J. R. Fullen averaged 44 yards at Eastland HS.  Taylor Massey averaged 19.3 yards per kick return last year, but no other returnee had more than 2 returns and no one returns with any punt returns.
2017 Outlook – Non-Conference Schedule
In most years, Delta State would be considered a premier non-conference opponent.  The 2000 national champion and 2010 runner-up, struggled to a 4-6 record last year, losing their last three games.  The offense was good, averaging 36.9 points and 449.7 yards per game.  Touchdown machine Chris Robinson returns at running back, after picking up 976 yards and 19 TDs on the ground and 551 yards and 5 TDs receiving.  Collin Willis, who threw for 304 yards and 1 TD in 2 games, is the lone experienced QB.  The defense was pourous, allowing 39.3 points and 420.3 yards per game.  Linebackers Chandler Ector and Landry Tullo lead the returnees.
Week two sees Oklahoma Panhandle State come to Stephenville.  And why not?  Tarleton has defeated the Aggies three times in the past two seasons averaging almost 60 points per game in the process.  The scrappy Aggies did not enjoy many wins in the lone year in the LSC, but they did play hard.  They were outscored 22.8-42.2 and outgained 401.3-494.3. The passing game was the strength of the offense, averaging 292.6 yards per game, but Shane Truelove was a senior last year.  In fact, there will be a lot of new faces this year.  D.J. Scott looks to take over at QB, after seeing limited action in 2016 as a freshman and Cedric Agyeman is the only returning RB.  The current roster does not list any returning WR and no OL at all, so this is a fluid situation.  It’s hard to picture OPSU being very competitive in this game.
The Texans were able to get a late season matchup with Western Oregon.  Here’s the outlook for WOU from the previously posted WNMU preview.

Now we turn to Brad Keith.  In 2004, Brad received the Kirk Hill award, given by the LSC to the sportswriter of the year.  He has covered Tarleton athletics for as long as we can remember and knows the Texans as well as anyone.

Brad, it’s and understatement to say there’s been some changes at Tarleton this offseason.  What do you think will be the challenges for the Texans this fall.

Brad Keith – Challenges for the Texans: That’s easy – chemistry. I know that sounds cliche, but in his second year back in Stephenville, head coach Todd Whitten made the most of his first full year to recruit. His staff has overseen major overhauls at every position except quarterback and receiver.

There are all new running backs, a new offensive line except for Justin Reasons and Doudly Aujour, a new defensive line except for end Chase Varnado and new faces in the secondary everywhere except for one corner spot that appears anchored for this season and two more by Devin Hafford, who steadily improved while winning the starting job as a true freshman and was quite impressive down the stretch.
That’s a lot of new faces in new places, so the development of chemistry must happen within position groups as well as team-wide. It’s something head coach Todd Whitten says he is paying particular attention to early on.
Another challenge directly from Whitten to his offense is to be more physical. I classify this as a absolute must for the Texans to be successful.
Whitten said it best himself: “Our run game at times last year was non-existent,” he said. Trouble running the ball becomes a compounded issue when defensive coordinators smell blood in the air and have their units pin back the ears nd go get the quarterback. Hence the 38 times Tarleton QB’s – mostly Woerner – were sacked in 2016. Whitten actually said Thursday it isn’t even fair to evaluate Woerner based on last season, and that he “deserves a medal” for what he endured.
I would have listed physicality ahead of chemistry as the primary challenge if didn’t feel the issue was addressed so thoroughly through recruiting. There was obviously an emphasis on finding not just talented offensive linemen and skill guys, but very physical ones, like Jovan Pruitt, a guard who once signed with Arkansas, and Shawn Best, a 6-8, 340-pound giant of a tackle.
Running backs Adam Berryman and Xavier Turner, both compact, powerful runners out of the Southwest Junior College Football Conference, have shown a physical style Whitten has been pleased with in spring ball and the fist week of preseason camp. The combination of physical linemen and backs have provided not only a spark on the offensive side, but a whole new identity.


What do see as the team’s strengths?
Brad -Team Strengths: Perhaps the biggest are the receiving core and the front seven on defense. Concerning the receivers, Whitten if they aren’t the best in the conference they have to be right there close. He later said the team very possibly has the most talent Talreton has ever had along the defensive line.

It’s easy to see why he feels so strongly about both. Del’Michael High is the leading returning receiver in the LSC, and Jeff Thomas was also putting up good numbers before suffering a season-ending knee injury that cost him the last four-and-a-half games of the season. He’s back, and the combination of the two can really stretch a defense, especially now that fast, dangerous Savon Rollison, another JUCO pickup, is in the slot. The list can just keep going here, including guys like tight end Brant Bailey, Baxter Kirven and Taylor Massey, just to name a few.
On first impression, I have to agree with Whitten concerning the defensive line. The collective talent of the group is something that you just won’t ordinarily find at the Division II level. In fact, I would venture to assume the majority of FCS teams would feel blessed to have the four starters Tarleton will put out there on September 2 at Delta State.
Trinity Valley transfer Tyrell Thompson, 6-4, 300, is one of the newcomers Whitten seemed most excited about a long preseason interview Thursday. More than one FBS suitor tried to land him amidst eligibility issues, as he has true NFL potential. In high school ran a 4.69 in the 40, reported on his Tarleton online bio to be a Copperas Cove record for linemen. He is praised as the No. 12 JUCO DT in the nation by .
It isn’t a reach to say 6-2, 380-pound Cerritos College (Calif.) transfer David Fangupo, who is popular on YouTube thanks to a video of him playing, yes, running back, in high school back home in Hawaii, doesn’t also have a pro future ahead. He’s shown breaking off numerous long scoring runs before ultimately moving to DT in college. Quantavius Cheatham redshirted last year after transferring from MIAA member Fort Valley State. Cheatham, at, 6-3, 305 certainly passes the eye test and Whitten seems impressed.
There’s a good senior leader in defensive end Chase Varnado, who everyone by now knows is just a very solid football player and has been since before helping Stephenville High School to a state title in 2012.

Two other interesting names at end are David Solomon, who played tackle last year, and Mohamad Inoussa from Stockholm Sweden, who at 6-5, 270 has positive upside.

There are so many newcomers to choose from.  Can you pick out some who will have an immediate impact?
Brad – Most impactful transfers When a roster is retooled the way Tarleton’s has been this could get to be a long list. I’ll stick to the primary ones in running backs Adam Berryman and Xavier Turner running behind another JUCO transfer in 6-8, 340 pound Shawn Best and…When I asked Whitten, what is the most noticeable difference Average Joe sees from the bleachers his first time to see the Texans on Sept. 9 (first home game) against Oklahoma Panhandle State, he said run game, and then further elaborated that as overall physicality on the offensive side of the ball. Those four guys are the biggest reasons for that. Rollison in the slot, too, with his production stemming off that of the run game and the success of High and Thomas outside.

Tyrell Thompson and Quantavius Cheathum bring a lot to the the table defensively, and linebacker Will Johnson is part of a very deep group at that position after earning three stars from coming out of JUCO and before that signing with Nebraska out of high school.
Keep an eye also on athletic safety Johnnie Hankins from Miami via JUCO, and 6-3 corner Jackson Burrell, who graduated from Mesa and came to Tarleton to spend his last semester of eligibility with Texan defensive coordinator Marcus Patton, who was previously in the same role at Mesa.


Okay, what does all of this mean for Tarleton?  What is your prediction for the season? (Drumroll…..)
Brad – Prediction: I’ll be honest. All summer, I was told about this and that and how Tarleton will be so good, and I cautiously reminded prople Texas A&M-Commerce, Texas A&M-Kingsville, Midwestern State and others all felt the same about their teams, and Commerce has won three straight LSC titles for crying out loud. Then I got to looking around at the players and sniffing around the internet some, as well as talking to some guys who I assure you know their stuff in Division II football. Coach Whitten has done an impressive job, and his staff, too, in recruiting some great talent to Stephenville. Will they gel? We’ll see.
They could be the real, real deal, and go 10-1 (I just hate even saying the word undefeated until a season is over).
If they don’t gel, if it’s just individual talent scattered around worried about themselves, somebody still has to stop a full arsenal of weaponry, so 7-4. I just can’t see this group with Whitten in charge doing worse.
Thanks Brad.  It should be a great season.  


That’s a great segue for our predictions…

Best Case Scenario
10-1  If the offensive line gels and the running game improves, the offense should be potent.  The non-conference games are winnable, and Texans should do better in LSC play.  Remember, they led MSU until the last minute, TAMK 17-0 at the half and didn’t give up the lead until 2:36 to go, and pulled to within 6 of WT with five minutes to play on the road.
Worst Case Scenario
5-6  What if the offensive line does not gel? or the defense regresses some? or both?  The top two thirds of the LSC is improved and will prove to be tough slog for all of the teams, and you never know when Delta State is going to pop back up with a top 10 team.
8-3   It’s been a while since we’ve seen so many transfers.  A few years ago it was the norm, but now it is pretty rare.  All said, we wouldn’t be surprised if 12-15 new transfers aren’t starters this fall.
The last two LSC teams to show the same statistical turnaround in the first year with a new head coach were Texas A&M-Commerce in 2013 and Texas A&M-Kingsville in 2015.  In both cases, the improvement carried over to the following year and resulted in bowl game appearances.  With the influx of so many immediate impact-type players, there’s no reason to believe the Texans won’t show a similar track.  However, the top LSC teams didn’t sit idly by – they’ll be better also, so it’s unlikely TSU will get the benefit of all the breaks – most of the breaks maybe, but not all and it might take time for the team to gel.


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