Western football on hunt for identity
Times Staff Writer
As 27 Western State Colorado University football players walked across the stage at graduation this past May, uncertain on what life has to offer, one thing was clear: The Western football program would look a lot different next season.
Now, that season is here. Western travels to Colorado Mesa University today, Aug. 31 to play their first game of the season. Kickoff is at 7 p.m in Ralph Stocker Stadium.
On Aug. 5, Western football kicked off fall camp by adding 60 new faces to the roster — in addition to the 55 returners. When a team’s incoming recruiting class is bigger than its existing roster, there is clearly a lot of learning that will have to occur in short order.
“The first three days of fall camp we split practices, so we could focus on the young guys and teach them what we believe in on offense as well as defense,” said head coach Jas Bains.
With the football program having only 21 practices under their belts thus far, they are still working to finalize the two-deep depth chart — and where each player fits. Since the National Collegiate Athletic Association has shortened how many times a team can practice prior to the season’s start — and how many days they can be in full pads — it has been hard for coaches to gauge each player’s strengths and weaknesses.
“We’ve only been in full pads five times, so not a lot of live reps,” said Bains. “It's been a challenge.”
A search for starters
Since four year starter Brett Arrivey graduated in May after leading the team to a 7-4 record last year, there has been a hole at the quarterback spot that Western has tried to fill during its preseason camp.
“We have a quarterback battle going on at the moment,” said Bains. “We are looking at three or four of those guys right now.”
That includes Garrett Boyd, Easton Bruere, Dylan Jacob, Spencer Shook and Connor Desch who are battling for the starting spot. As a result, the Mountaineers have geared practices toward allowing each of those players to prove their capabilities.
There will also be another new face in the backfield as Western will have to replace standout running back Austin Ekeler, who also graduated in May. Rico Tipton, Justice MacNeal-Young and Ty Leba are themselves battling for a starting spot in the backfield.
“Bryan Evans was having a great camp until he got hurt so we are excited to get him back,” Bains said of another prospective starter at running back.
With the offense having a new offensive coordinator this year in Robby Case, it will take time to find the perfect back to fit the team’s new system.
While Western’s offense offers more question marks than answers thus far, the defense returns numerous players in the front seven that could make a difference for the team this season.
“I think our defensive line is doing a great job. It’s probably the most depth we had since I have been here,” said Bains. “There are a good eight or nine guys that we feel pretty good about and that we think can help us on defense and can contribute and play a role for us.”
Strong defense the first offense
Returning this year at defense line are Brenden Hisao, Jonah Mitchell, Victor Alvarez and Will Lydle. Preston Troxel and Tanner Geiger will also be returning at defensive line after missing the 2016 season due to injury.
Don’t be surprised to see new faces at linebacker this week as coach Bains foresees some of the younger players getting reps at that position. At the same time, however, Western returns outside linebackers Justin Barham, Quincy Campbell and Desmond Marfizo.
“I think we will be a little faster this year at linebacker,” said Bains “We have some edge guys who are more athletic than we have had in the past and can run and are physical players.”
Inside linebackers Lane Farris, Joey Dill, Alex Weber true freshman Taj Hoard are all in the mix to earn a starting spot. Bains calls the defense’s front seven ”probably the strength on defense this year.”
Yet, in the secondary new faces are sure to appear, as Western graduated three from the safety position. Will Halligan is the sole returner from the secondary who played all 11 games last year.
“As a defense this camp we have been able to string together multiple good practices in a row,” said Halligan. “As long as we are all giving 100 percent out there I think we are going to be solid this year.”
At cornerback, David Velazquez started six games before becoming injured. Mitchell Jones returns after stepping in for Velazquez to play the last five games of the season. Cornerback Kyree Gerstle-Goodman is also someone to keep an eye on this season.
Velazquez, Jones, Gerstle-Goodman and Mason Bode have all shown strength during this year’s camp, according to coach Bains.
Western travels to play Adams State University Sept. 9 before hosting its first home game Sept. 16 against Chadron State College. Kick-off is at 1 p.m. at Mountaineer Bowl.
(Brandon Warr can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)