By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILE (August 28, 2019) — Todd Whitten admits in 2016 the Tarleton State run game was “at times nonexistent.”
Entering his second season back in Stephenville – for his third go round as head coach of the Texans – Whitten further stated that quarterback Zed Woerner “deserves a medal or something for the way he hung in there.”
Yes, the Texans struggled up front last season, and the more they showed their inability to drive opposing defenses back in the run game, the more their opponents pinned their ears back and came after Woerner in the passing game.
It’s not as if the total numbers in the run game were anemic, but they certainly wren’t impressive either. Tarleton rushed for 96.4 yards per contest and just 3.0 per carry last season. The Texans gained 1,467 yards, but tackles behind the line accounted for a loss of 407. They soared 10 touchdowns on the ground, and their quarterbacks – predominantly Woerner – were sacked 38 times.
Comparisons between the 2004 season, the last of Whitten’s second stint as head coach at Tarleton, and 20016 are like night and day. Of course, that Texan team also had Derrick Ross, now the all-time leading rusher in the Arena Football League and star of the National Arena League inaugural champion Jacksonville sharks, but he also had a some help up front, rushing for 1,560 yards himself on a team that netted 2,190. Ross scored 22 of the team’s 28 rushing scores.
“If you look back at my career, I prefer a physical offensive line and a sturdy running back who can really be workhorse and let him be that guy; give him the ball 20 or so times a game so the big guys up front can do what they do and he can do his thing behind them.”
If you haven’t figured out by now what the primary target area for improvement has a been since Tarleton dropped its third straight game to end the 2016 season, then you don’t know football. And you sure don’t know Whitten.
Having a full year to recruit the 2017 class of new Texans as opposed to a little more than a month before signing day then some patchwork throughout the spring and summer before he start of the 2016 season, Tarleton has done more than just infuse a couple run blockers. The recruiting effort has given the offense a whole new mentality entering the 2017 season, which begins at 2 p.m. next Saturday against Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi.
Or perhaps it’s an old mentality that is just new to the current generation of Tarleton faithful. Either way, it’s a much different approach than in recent seasons, an investment into becoming physical again that Whitten believes will produce big returns.
“They’re all kind of different, and they’re all older. A lot of them played junior college, and they’ve created a lot of competition for spots p front,” said Whitten of the newcomers who will play along side either Justin Reasons or Noah Perez, each returners competing to start at center. “Certainly, the number one thing, is we’re going to have more depth. We can afford to have a little bad luck where we really couldn’t last year, and you saw what happened.”
Doudley Arjour is another senior with a chance to be a starter, but he would have to beat out Cody Hayes for the left tackle spot. Hayes was a late arrival last Monday, but comes in with quite the clout, having been a ESPN and 247sports 3-star prospect out of Fort Worth Eastern Hills High School then spending two years – but not playing – at Texas Tech. He transferred to Navarro College in 2016 and was named first-team all-conference in the Southwest Junior College Football Conference while being named a 3-star prospect by 247sports.
Hayes, listed at 6-5, 300, was originally planning to go from Navarro to North Texas, and when that plan didn’t work out he reportedly selected Tarleton over three-time reigning Lone Star Conference champ Texas A&M-Commerce. He is actually smaller than Arjour, a Haitian immigrant who stands 6-7 and weighs 330. Depending on who starts at left tackle and at center, expect the starting five for the Texans to average between 6-5, 313 and 6-6, 325.
Beside Hayes or Arjour at left guard is Deon Sheppard, who played alongside Hayes last season at Navarro, something that could potentially hasten the development of chemistry up front and in the run game, especially with Navarro transfer Adam Berryman expected to split the load at running back with Trinity Valley Community College transfer Xavier Turner.
“He’s one of the best pullers I’ve ever had here at Tarleton,” said Whitten. “He has really good, quick feet, and has a good knack for getting fit up on linebackers at the next level.”
Sheppard and Hayes helped anchor a Navarro line that paved the way for 45.8 points and 564.2 yards per game last season.
Then there’s the center position, where Noah Perez, despite standing 6-2, 270, would actually appear quite small amongst the tree-sized giants around him. Perez is one of four local players in the Tarleton program, of which two figure to make an impact this season. The starter in his first game as a redshirt freshman last year, Perez ended up missing the final four games due to injury. An all-region and all-district lineman on the 2012 3A Division I state championship team at Stephenville High School, Noah is the brother of past Tarleton all-conference linen Nic Perez.
Reasons, for, well, reasons, beyond his control, has had to play literally every spot up front. Injuries to teammates forced the center/guard to move around while earning his second straight LSC Commissioner’s Honor Roll distinction. A Division I transfer from Stephen F. Austin, Reasons was on the Southland Conference Commissioner’s Roll as a freshman before coming to Tarleton and serving as a backup as a sophomore and, of course, a starter last season.
Noah is doing well and Reasons is doing well. They’re having a nice battle in there,” said Whitten. “The good thing about Reasons is he knows all five positions and he can play just about any of them.”
The right side outweighs the left in pounds, and may in expectations, too.
Right guard Jovan Pruitt signed with Arkansas as a highly-sought prospect coming out of Dallas Bishop Dunne High School, but ended up taking the well-traveled junior college route, putting him squarely in one of Whtten’s favorite hunting grounds – the “Texas Junior College League” as he calls it.
At 6-6, 360, Pruitt was a SJCFC first-team all-conference selection after helping TVCC and new Texan RB Turner to 49.6 points and 260.4 rushing yards per game. They also passed for 299.2 per game, chalking up an average of 559.6 in total offense.
“Jo Pruitt is a big, big physical guy who has the potential to be a dominant guard at any level,” said Whitten, who would know after also serving as head coach at Sam Houston State, offensive coordinator at Lamar and receivers coach at UT-El Paso among other stops in his career. “He is one of the most physical guys I’ve ever been around since I’ve been coaching.”
The tallest of them all is at right tackle, where Shawn Best earned the starting job in the spring. The lone starter to come from outside Texas, Best hails from New Bern, North Carolina, where he was an all-state tackle for a 4A state championship team in 2012 and earned a spot in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas All-Star Game.
Best began his collegiate career at North Carolina A&T, where he was a part of a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship and a 2015 NCAT Celebration Bowl victory. He transferred to Arizona Western College as a sophomore and won the Western States Football League (judo) title.
“He’s a really good tackle with great wing span and long arms,” said Whitten. “He can move his feet pretty well and is just a great pass blocker.”
The Flash Today caught up with Best at the team’s media day.
“We have to be dominant up front, more physically dominant than any team we could possibly face, whether it be in the regular seasons or if we’re fortunate enough to make it to the post season,” Best said.
All-conference defensive end Chase Varnado, once a MaxPreps All-american for 2012 3A Division I state champ Stephenville, was standing by and has had his share of challenges attacking Best in practice.
“I was talking with Shawn the other day about how the only thing making the D-line better is going against guys like him in practice,” Varnado explained. It makes you compete even harder and get better on both sides of the ball.”
So where does Best rank among the offensive linemen Varnado has competed against in the LSC the past three seasons?
“He’s definitely up there. I don’’t want to boost his head too big, but we’re definitely making each other better.”
Best agrees, as he has also been challenged by highly-praised new defensive linemen Tyrell Thompson and David Fangupo, among others.
“When you have good leaders and dominant players on the defensive line, it definitely make you better,” said Best. “Iron sharpens iron, and even if it’s just one percent better each day, our focus is to keep working until we get where we need to be.”
Whitten certainly felt entering training camp that he and his coaching staff had answered his challenge to become more physical offensively, with the beginnings of that already showing up in spring ball. But come Saturday is when they have to show that physicality for real.
“Everyone likes to think they’ve done a good job recruiting and have got the right guys in the right places, but you don’t ever really know for sure until you go out there and play someone else for real,” Whitten said. “I think we have the potential to have a really good ball club, and I think the offensive line and the physical play we’ve been working to get established will be a big part of that.”