No. 124: Texas-San Antonio
By Paul Myerberg // Apr 10, 2012
No arguments here, minus one: Texas-San Antonio is building from the ground up – literally, with bricks, mortar, steel – yet chose, as its inaugural head coach, an individual who took the built-in foundation at Miami (Fla.) and reduced it to rubble. In the program’s defense, the Roadrunners needed not merely a head coach but also an ambassador, and for any of his coaching faults, Larry Coker does provide the university with a noteworthy face for the program. But the time for press conferences and banquets is over, starting… now. I hope Texas-San Antonio saved a few shovels from all those groundbreaking ceremonies: the Roadrunners are going to need to dig themselves out of more than a few holes in 2012.
San Antonio, Tex.
21 (11 offense, 10 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Aug. 30
at South Alabama
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
at Georgia St.
- Sept. 22
N.W. Okla. St.
- Sept. 29
at New Mexico St.
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
San Jose St.
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
at Louisiana Tech
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
Not applicable. This is a Countdown first. Though not a last, with Massachusetts, South Alabama and Texas State to follow.
In a nutshell Welcome to football. It’ll get easier, I swear. But the schedule will only grow harder, so don’t get used to the cream-filled slate from last season — you’ll get a Southern Utah and U.C. Davis every once in a while, but not every Saturday, as was the case last fall. Texas-San Antonio’s football program, as fresh as a daisy, went through your typical growing pains in 2011: four wins, six losses, zero games against F.B.S. competition. What was strange — or disappointing, if you dig schadenfreude — was the lack of Keystone Kops-like stumbling and bumbling. U.T.S.A. was bad, but not… that bad. Many were expecting worse from a ragtag bunch of walk-ons and youngsters; many were expecting the Bad News Bears without the late-year turnaround. U.T.S.A. played nobodies, beat a few nobodies, lost to a bunch of nobodies, but the team wasn’t terrible. But is this team ready for the F.B.S.? That’s the big question.
High point The program got off on the right foot, beating Northeastern State, 31-3, in its debut on Sept. 3. Better than the win, perhaps, was the scene in the stands: 56,743 fans showed up at the Alamodome for the program’s initial foray into college football, an N.C.A.A. start-up record. “This is maybe the most awesome game I’ve ever been around,” said Coker. “I’m being totally honest with you.”
Low point If you ignore the level of competition, and tend to think of glasses as half full, not half empty, you can see the fact that U.T.S.A. only suffered one lopsided defeat as a very good sign. The ugliest loss came at Southern Utah, where the Roadrunners were on the foul side of a 45-22 loss, but it was never much worse than that. If you take out that defeat and a 38-17 loss to U.C. Davis, the Roadrunners suffered losses by 3 points, 15 points, 3 points and 3 points. This isn’t a backhanded compliment: U.T.S.A. was playing inferior competition, but it was competitive — most of the time.
Tidbit So U.T.S.A. won its first game in program history. Could this be a sign of good things to come? Of the last 10 teams to win the B.C.S. national championship, seven won their first game of college football. Alabama beat Birmingham High School, 56-0, in 1892. Auburn beat Georgia, 10-0, in 1891. Florida beat the Gainesville Athletic Club in 1906. Texas sneaked past the Dallas Athletic Club, 18-16, in 1893. U.S.C. beat the Alliance Athletic Club — located somewhere in California — in 1888. Ohio State beat Ohio Wesleyan, 20-14, in 1889. Miami (Fla.) beat Rollins by 39-7 in 1927. The outliers are L.S.U., which was blown out by Tulane, 34-0, in 1893; Oklahoma, which was embarrassed by the Oklahoma City Town Team, 34-0, in 1895; and Florida State, which lost to Stetson, 14-6, in 1947.
Tidbit (old age edition) Coker is 21 years older than the WAC’s youngest coach, Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes. Coker, who born in 1948, is only 10 years younger than Dykes’ father, Spike, the former head coach at Texas Tech. Of the WAC’s seven head coaches, only Coker and Texas State’s Dennis Franchione, the league’s two new faces, were born before 1960. New Mexico State’s DeWayne Walker was born in 1960, Utah State’s Gary Andersen in 1964, San Jose State’s Mike MacIntyre in 1965, Idaho’s Robb Akey in 1966 and Dykes in 1969. Coker is the eighth-oldest head coach in the F.B.S., trailing Bill Snyder, Frank Solich, Steve Spurrier, Frank Solich, Mike Price, Frank Beamer and Larry Blakeney.
Former players in the N.F.L.
1 Not zero, as I originally believed. Cowboys’ receiver Teddy Williams was on the track team at U.T.S.A., giving the Roadrunners one former player — using that term loosely — in the N.F.L.
Arbitrary top five list
Best power forwards in N.B.A. history
1. Tim Duncan (1997-present)
2. Karl Malone (1985-2004)
3. Bob Pettit (1954-65)
4. Charles Barkley (1984-2000)
5. Kevin Garnett (1995-present)
Larry Coker (Northeastern State ’70), the first and only coach in program history. He’s 4-6 after one season back in college football, with wins in his debut campaign against Northeastern State – that might have been awkward – Bacone, Georgia State and Minot State. Coker’s imprint is all over this program: he’s the face of U.T.S.A. football, its ambassador since day one, and the prime architect of the university’s rapid on-field climb from nothingness to the F.B.S. level. As a big fish in a small pond, Coker will have the luxury of coaching with a far longer leash than the one he served under at Miami (Fla.), where he went 64-21 from 2001-6. Everything came up roses – the Rose Bowl, most notably – over Coker’s first two years; Coker led the Hurricanes to the national title in 2001, coaching what most believe to be the finest team of the last 15 years, and followed that up with an overtime loss to Ohio State in the following season’s B.C.S. National Championship Game. What happened from there? Off-field woes only exacerbated the frustration with Miami’s on-field woes, and after Miami plummeted to 7-6 in 2006, the university opted to make a coaching change. Hopefully, the way his tenure at Miami ended doesn’t impact the way Coker approaches his new position; Miami might have been intolerant of losing, but wins and losses won’t define his early seasons with the Roadrunners, but rather the slow and steady progress that comes with starting on the ground floor. Coker seems to understand this fact, saying at his initial press conference that U.T.S.A. has “to step back and do it the right way. We can’t afford to go too far forward and then have to back track.” Unlike at Miami, slow and steady will win the race.
Tidbit (coaching edition) The good news: Eight of Coker’s nine assistants return for the Roadrunners’ second season. This is good for continuity. The not-good-but-not-awful news: Only two of Coker’s nine assistants have prior full-time coaching experience on the F.B.S. level. The first is offensive line coach Jim Marshall, whose 35-year coaching career has led through UTEP, Louisiana Tech, Wyoming and Arkansas State. Prior to joining Coker last season, Marshall was the offensive coordinator at Incarnate Word, a Division-II program in, coincidentally enough, San Antonio. Marshall saved money on moving, I’d imagine. The second is defensive line coach Eric Roark, who was an assistant at S.M.U. from 2002-7. Prior to joining U.T.S.A., the remaining seven assistants were at Permian High School, Texas State, Central Arkansas, New Mexico State as a strength and conditioning assistant, Texas as a quality control assistant, Midwestern State and Drake.
Players to watch
Here’s what we know about the Roadrunners: everyone’s back. Well, almost everyone. The vast majority of last year’s team remains in the fold, including all 11 starters on the offensive side of the ball. That’s great news, though entirely expected: a program in its first season of existence typically isn’t chock-full of seniors, though neither is the same program loaded with recruited student-athletes. Behind the scenes — off the field, and all day, every day — Coker and his staff are working on compiling a roster full of F.B.S.-caliber performers. It’ll take some time.
The new offensive coordinator is former tight ends coach Kevin Brown, who replaced Houston-bound Travis Bush. Don’t look for anything to change: Brown and Bush go back a ways — Brown was a position coach at Texas State when Bush was calling plays — so in all likelihood, the offense you saw last fall will be fairly similar to the offense the Roadrunners trot out in the season opener. That’s good news for Eric Soza, a dual-threat quarterback who fits well into the Roadrunners’ system.
Soza was surprisingly consistent last fall as a passer; this has much to do with Bush, who did a very, very good job milking the most out of an offense short on experience and talented skill players. Soza only had three foul showings in the passing game: Southern Utah, when he completed 14 of 28 attempts for 141 yards; Bacone, when was 9 of 20 for 157 yards; and Sam Houston State, when he was 26 of 52 for 217 yards and 3 picks. Soza was more hit or miss as a runner, finishing second on the team in rushing (285 yards) but only three times gaining more than 29 yards in a game.
Soza has weapons to work with in the passing game. The Roadrunners return each of last season’s top three receivers: leading target Kam Jones (39 catches for 578 yards), Brandon Freeman (30 for 419 and a team-best 4 scores) and Kenny Harrison (28 for 209). As a whole, U.T.S.A.’s receiver corps, 12-players deep, is likely the strongest and deepest position on the team. Freeman, a transfer from New Mexico State, is the team’s best: Coker cited his “wow factor” heading into last season, and while Jones became Soza’s favorite target, Freeman might have the highest ceiling of any member of a strong receiver corps.
U.T.S.A. will be able to throw the ball — with consistency, if not with the sort of explosiveness found elsewhere in the WAC. Running the ball, however, was an issue last fall. Part of this inability to mount a competent ground game can be tied back to the offensive line; in my mind, this group will be the slowest to reach the sort of level the offense needs in order to match up with the rest of the WAC. Think of it this way: You see inexperienced underclassmen make waves at the offensive skill positions, but how often do you see a freshman or true sophomore offensive lineman play at an all-conference level? It takes time, and the Roadrunners need to be patient.
One good sign: U.T.S.A. has found — and stuck to — a starting five. The same group started all but a total of five games last fall: left tackle Cody Harris, left guard Payton Rion, center Nate Leonard, right guard Scott Inskeep and right tackle Cody Harris. Former Oklahoma State transfer Patrick Hoog, who started the last two games of last season at right guard, should grab a permanent starting spot in 2012. How long will it take this line to gel? It won’t happen overnight, but as with the team as a whole, the group should only improve. It’s a smaller line than most, which hurts the Roadrunners in the running game, but the line has flashed an ability to fare ably enough in pass protection.
How do you win when you have nothing? By being quirky, more often than not. So the offense runs a spread, helping the Roadrunners offset a lack of speed and explosiveness — though the team had more of both qualities than most believed it would. And the defense runs a 4-2-5, because it’s far easier to find smaller guys who can run than it is to find guys bigger guys who can run. Recruiting, simplified. The defense returns 10 starters, with safety Mark Waters, last year’s second-leading tackler, the only full-time starter not back in the mix on either side of the ball.
This doesn’t mean that U.T.S.A., which hung tight in most games last fall, is standing pat. Defensive coordinator Neal Neathery, who called last year’s defense “simple,” has spent the spring installing a more exotic blitz scheme. This might leave the Roadrunners in a bit of a Catch-22: last year’s defense took a pedestrian approach, but that limited the amount of big plays; taking more chances might mean more turnovers, but it also might lead to more defensive breakdowns. Neathery needs to weigh his desire for more pressure with his obvious aversion — he is a coordinator, after all — to letdowns in the secondary.
With Waters gone, the secondary becomes the de facto position to watch. His old free safety spot will fall to Triston Wade (two interceptions, tied for the team lead), a four-game starter last fall: three at rover, another as a fifth defensive back against South Alabama. Injuries have been an issue for the Roadrunners during the spring, as both starting safety Nic Johnston and starting cornerback Darrien Starling have missed significant time. When that pair does return, the secondary will feature Starling and Erik Brown at cornerback and Wade, Johnston and Mauricio Sanchez at safety.
The strength of this defense is at linebacker. The team’s best defensive player is Brandon Reeves, last year’s leading tackler; Reeves can play both inside and out — he’s particularly good at getting to the quarterback — which increases his value. In a perfect world, barring injury, Reeves will play outside with Steven Kurfehs (61 tackles, 2 interceptions) lined up in the middle. T.C.U. illustrates how vital the linebacker position is in the 4-2-5 set: in Reeves and Kurfehs, U.T.S.A. has a nice one-two punch along the second level.
Could this defensive line be more than just WAC-ready? As in, could this front four already be better than more than one or two lines in the conference? If nothing else, there aren’t many other lines in the WAC capable of going seven or eight deep up front, as can the Roadrunners. Of course, such a statement is tempered by one fact: the Roadrunners were going deep against Bacone, Northeastern State and the like, not the meaty top slice of the WAC.
But you have to like what you see from the defensive line. Despite missing a game, end Marlon Smith led the Roadrunners in tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (8). Opposite Smith, U.T.S.A. can trot out Jason Neil — a six-game starter last fall — Franky Anaya, William Ritter or Lekenwic Haynes, the latter a converted safety who might be valuable as a pure rush end in certain packages. Anaya is intriguing: a spot starter both inside and out, he could be an anchor at end on first and second down before giving way to a Haynes, who could bring pressure on clear passing downs.
Anaya is one cog in the middle, joining incumbent starters Richard Burge (31 tackles, 1.5 for loss) and Ashaad Mabry (20 tackles, 3 for loss). Also in the mix: Ferrington Macon (15 tackles, 2.5 sacks), redshirt freshman Leighton Gilbert and incoming freshman Brendon Brinkmann, if the coaching staff feel he can add the requisite weight to his 6’6 frame — if not, Brinkmann’s size will translate to end.
The bottom line, in my mind: While teams like Louisiana Tech will drop more than a few crooked numbers, this defense seems more prepared for the WAC than does the offense. That may be because it’s easier to grasp the intricacies of a defensive game plan than it is to run an offense capable of keeping pace with the rest of the conference. More than anything, it seems as if the defense might be further along in the process than the offense.
Position battle(s) to watch
Running back Who will run the ball? It might not be with one lead back, but rather a share-the-wealth mentality. Last year’s leading rusher (326 yards), Evans Okotcha, was the only back to break the 100-yard mark — doing so against Bacone, when he had 106 yards on 8 carries. Soza chipped in with 285 yards, as noted, and could do more if the Roadrunners had a back capable of keeping defenses honest. While a few options do return, like Okotcha, Brandon Armstrong and David Glasco II, this is not in itself look like a group that will strike fear into a conference that seems allergic to stopping the run. Not that the onus falls completely on the backfield: the offensive line also needs to step up, as touched on above. For now, Okotcha, a bit of a bruiser, should be viewed as the Roadrunners’ best full-time option. If Okotcha does take over, he may loosen up defenses for shiftier backs like Armstrong and Glasco II. Depth at the position took a significant hit last week when Marcus Wright, a transfer out of Georgia Tech, opted to enroll at Incarnate Word — that school again — rather than with the Roadrunners. Wright, who starred at Reagan High School in the San Antonio area before signing with the Yellow Jackets, cited Bush’s departure as coordinator and the difficulty he encountered gaining access to the U.T.S.A. graduate school as reasons for an abrupt about-face.
Game(s) to watch
We’ll know much about both U.T.S.A. and South Alabama, two of the four new F.B.S. additions, by the first day of September. The two meet to open the year, with the loser perhaps clinching the bottom spot in the weekly re-rankings for the entirety of the 2012 season. The Roadrunners sandwich the year with the Jaguars and new WAC rival Texas State; the meat of the sandwich is the rest of the conference schedule and three games against F.C.S. foes: Texas A&M-Commerce, Georgia State and Northwest Oklahoma State.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Wins and losses don’t matter. Well, they do — no one wants to lose — but they don’t. This season won’t be judged on Texas-San Antonio’s won-loss record; it’ll be judged by progress of another sort, the kind that can’t be seen in the standings but remains, without a doubt, the most important task at hand as the program begins its second season of existence. It’s about improvement: getting better every day, getting after it on the recruiting trail, growing as a team with every practice and developing the sort of mentality befitting a program with grand aspirations. U.T.S.A. didn’t take this step to be a bottom-feeder, or for the cachet being part of the F.B.S. holds. The long-term plan is to use the facilities, support and recruiting ground to become the best team in the WAC, and it’s not a tremendously far-fetched idea to consider the Roadrunners as the conference’s up-and-coming star. What about in the short term? You’re going to see a young, inexperienced and untested team scuffle through a season’s worth of growing pains. This is a team less than one year removed from its debut going against solid — or better than solid — teams like Utah State, Louisiana Tech and San Jose State. It’ll be ugly at times. One win against true F.B.S. competition — not counting South Alabama or Texas State — would be a tremendous accomplishment. What seems far more likely is no more than three wins, with two of those coming against F.C.S. foes. Keep the long-range vision in my mind when watching this team: U.T.S.A. could one day be somebody. Today, the Roadrunners are nobodies.
Dream season The Roadrunners start 4-0, drawing a tremendous amount of national attention to the program, before winning only one game the rest of the way. Nevertheless, 5-7 is a huge debut season for this young program.
Nightmare season The lone win comes over Texas A&M-Commerce; yes, the Roadrunners lose to South Alabama, Georgia State and Northwest Oklahoma State.
In case you were wondering
Where do Texas-San Antonio fans congregate? Good football chatter isn’t made overnight, or even over the span of 24 months, so be patient. You can still find a few spots, like the U.T.S.A. forum over at Spurs Talk, the blog and message board at Inside Runner Sports and the Web site of the San Antonio Express News. More options via the comment section: Per one reader, the best U.T.S.A. football talk can be found at Rowdyville and Rowdy Talk.
Texas-San Antonio’s all-name nominee CB Xaviar Archangel.
Through one team 3,373.
Who is No. 123? The next program — on whatever day it falls — has the best career winning percentage of any program in the F.B.S.
Tags: Brandon Freeman, Brandon Reeves, Darrien Starling, Eric Roark, Eric Soza, Evans Okotcha, Franky Anaya, Jim Marshall, Kam Jones, Kevin Brown, Larry Coker, Marlon Smith, Neal Neathery, Nic Johnston, Patrick Hoog, Steve Kurfehs, Texas-San Antonio, Triston Wade, WAC
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