By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (AUGUST 22, 2017) — Todd Whitten continues to make a living reeling in big fish from a small pond of Texas junior colleges.
Whitten, head football coach at Tarleton State, has found the Southwest Junior College Football Conference fertile recruiting ground with numerous transfers playing a key role in him becoming the winningest head coach in the senior college era at Tarleton.
He refers to it as the “Texas Junior College League,” and understandably so. Of the seven current members of SJCFC, six are in Texas – Navarro College in Corsicana, Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Kilgore College and Tyler Junior College in East Texas, Blinn College in Brenham and Cisco College. The other member and most recent addition to the league is New Mexico Military Institute. Ranger College, Texarkana College and others no longer have football.
The majority of the players Whitten recruits from the league come from that pocket of four East Texas junior colleges that together have accounted for seven of the league’s 17 national championships. Tyler Junior College won a co-championship in 1960, Kilgore was champ in 1966 and 1978, Navarro reigned supreme in 1989 and 2010, and Trinity Valley was king in 1994 and 1997.
There are currently 13 Texans – of those with numbers on the official online roster at TarletonSports.com, not including those who are listed as “SQ” for squad – who transferred from SJCFC programs, including nine in the 2017 recruiting class with most recent being added just this week and beginning to practice with the team on Tuesday. Ten of the 11 hail from the east Texas foursome and at least 10 of the 13 are expected to make significant contributions right away.
Blinn College, which has a player listed as “SQ” on the Tarleton roster, is the only Texas member of the SJCFC without a Tarleton player with an assigned roster number. Blinn won JUCO national titles in 1995, 1996, 2006 and 2009.
There are two listed from Cisco – the only Texas JUCO participating in football that has not won a national title – and both saw action defensively last season with at least one, linebacker Michael Knoblach, as preseason winds down and transitions over the coming weekend to regular game-week mode.
Tarleton, just 5-6 last season but with overhauls through recruiting at basically every position , opens at Delta State, 4-6 last year, in Cleveland, Mississippi, on Saturday, Sept. 2. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.
Both new Tarleton running backs – Xavier Turner from Navarro and Adam Berryman from TVCC – are also Texas high school products who excite Whitten as he enters the second season of his third stint as head coach at Tarleton. He also guided he Texans in 1996 and from 1999 through 2004.
“They are similar guys, both about 5-8, guys who are really compact with good vision and balance. They’re hard to bring down,” said Whitten. “They did really well in junior college situations where they shared time. That is really common now in the junior college leagues, because most of them have two three backs. They keep them all fresh and they get them all on film so they can be recruited, and that’s how it should be at that level. It’s a winning situation for everybody that way.
“Because of those rotations and those deeper backfields, you see these guys just had about 700 yards rushing, but they were both like 7-yard a carry guys,” Whitten said. “They have a chance to be really good backs in our league.”
He should know. Beginning in 2001 when he guided Tarleton to its first co-championship in the Lone Star Conference and first NCAA playoff win, each of Whiten’s good teams at Tarleton have involved a heavy dose of a SJCFC transfer out of the backfield.
Olan Coleman, Chavis McCollister and DT Hopkins were all part of that 2001 team and Coleman was the feature back in 2002. He also won a pair of Division II championships in the 100 meter dash at Tarleton and was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2016. McCollister and Hopkins each rushed for touchdowns in a 28-24 upset of No. 3 Chadron State in 2001, one of only two playoff victories by Tarleton since joining the NCAA in 1995.
Written followed that bevy of backs with arguably the best player in Texan football history in Blinn transfer Derrick Rosss. He rushed for 3,072 yards in his two seasons at Tarleton, placing him third behind two four-year letter winners on the school’s all-time rushing list. He posted the top two single-season rushing totals in Tarleton history with 1,560 yards in 2004 and 1,512 in 2005. He also owns the top two single-game totals in school history – 269 yards against Western New Mexico on September 10, 2005 and 260 against New Mexico Highlands on August 26, 2004. He has three of the top five rushing games at Tarleton, also amassing 212 yards on October 15, 2005.
“I have done very well in Division II with running backs out of that league, and that’s buy design. Those guys are battle-tested and it’s really easy to evaluate them because that’s a really, really competitive league, and one with a lot of speed,” Whitten said. “It’s easy watch a guy play in a game, let’s say between Navarro and Trinity Valley, and turn the projector of and say ‘number 22’ is a guy who can come here and make a big impact,whereas when you’re looking at a high school guy maybe in Class 3A somewhere and you don’t really know about the level of competition you’re watching him against.”
And it isn’t just running backs. Of the 12 SJCFC transfers currently listed with numbers on the Tarleton roster, three are receivers and there are two each playing running back, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker with one defensive back.
Savin Rollison was a NJCAA Division I All-America selection at Tyler last year and has had an impressive preseason camp. Deon Sheppard from Navarro and Jovan Pruitt, who signed with Arkansas coming out of high school before going to Trinity Valley and ending up at Tarleton are expected to start at guard when Tarleton visits Delta State. And those are just new players the offense. Del’Michael High came out of Navarro last year and is the leading returning receiver in the LSC.
Defensively, Tyrell Thompson and California JUCO transfer David Fangupo bring big expectations on the defensive line, especially with Thompson, out of Trinity Valley, having been rated the No. 12 JUCO defensive lineman in the nation. Basil Jackson made 84 tackles last year for Tarleton after playing at Trinity Valley and is back as a senior. Knoblach has had a very strong camp Whitten has said, after getting his feet wet in limited action last season. He came to Tarleton after just one year at Cisco College.
“There are good players all over the field there and that’s largely because we’re in such a great state for high school football. There are just tons of good players who go overlooked, or great athletes who thinks they are going to a big school in Division I and then have to take another route for whatever reason,” said Whitten.
“(The SJCFC is) a very good, very competitive league because there isn’t an overabundance of them, so there is plenty of talent to spread between them,” Whitten said. “There are six, which is borderline for too many, I would think. But in Mississippi there are 12 and there are maybe more than that in Kansas.”
No matter what makes the Texas JUCOS such fertile recruiting grounds for Whitten, expect him to try to connote keeping that pipeline working for years to come.
“We definitely aren’t going to stop looking for players there, because it’s a great place to find them,” Whitten said. “They’re more tested than high school kids on the field, they have had couple years to mature physically and away from the field mentally and a lot of time there are guys who at one point were being sought after by good Division I programs. That’s usually a good sign they’re pretty good football players.”
Here’s the list of current Texan actives who transferred from SJCFC schools with stars beside the new players and year indicating the year they left JUCO for Tarleton:
6 Chris Gordon, Jr. DB, Cisco College/2016 (1 year)
9 Basil Jackson, Sr. LB, Trinity Valley Community College/2015
*11 Adam Berryman , Jr. RB, Trinity Valley/2017
13 Del’ Michael High, Sr. WR, Navarro College/2016
*16 Jacob Kaspar, So. WR, Navaro College/2017
*18 Savon Rollison, Jr. WR, Tyler Junior College/2017
*24 Xavier Turner, Jr. RB, Navarro College/2017
43 Michael Knoblach, Jr. LB, Cisco College/2015 (1 year)
*70 Cody Hayes, So. OL, Texas Tech/Navarro/2017 (1 year of eligibility/3 total)
*72 Deon Sheppard, Jr. OL, Navarro College/2017
*75 Jovan Pruitt, Jr. OL, Trinity Valley Community College/2017
*95 Tyrell Thompson, Jr. DL, Trinity Valley Community College/217
*97 Fredarian Tompkins, Jr. DL, Kilgore College/2017