FOOTBALL: Thoughts and Opinions on the First Third of the Spring Season
(Photo courtesy of Weber State Athletics)
Although Weber State football has only played two games in this strange spring season, they're already a third of the way into the regular season. We asked some of our panelists some questions regarding their thoughts and feelings surrounding the team's performance thus far.
Now that we are a third of the way through the spring football season, how have the Wildcats lived up to your expectations?
AC: Right around what I expected. I think there has been a lot of rust, and the fact that they haven’t been able to play in consecutive weeks yet isn’t helping that. The defense has been great, the offense looks better but still has room for improvement. I trust that a team with this much talent, combined with one of the best coaching staffs in FCS, will build on what we have seen. I imagine that the ‘Cats will hit their stride, make the playoffs and cause some serious trouble as things really get rolling.
Joe Traub: It is so nice to have Weber State football back, and I think the performance through two games is what many fans have gotten used to seeing throughout this incredible rise for the program. A mix of explosive offensive plays, a solid run game, timely interceptions from the forceful defense and a raucous crowd in the home opener have all led to a 2-0 start. Stewart Stadium might not be completely full these days, but the people who show up are going to make noise because they have missed their football, too.
Sean Lewis: We came into this spring season knowing that the Wildcats had a soft schedule that shouldn’t present many speed bumps on a direct path to the FCS playoffs. So to that end, they are 2-0, ranked #3 in the FCS, and at the end of the day, that’s what counts. The defense has lived up to expectations, but I think the offense has struggled more than I had anticipated. But they are undefeated which is the most important expectation, and the ‘Cats have achieved that goal so far.
Dustin “Chappy” Chapman: They have lived up to my expectations. They’ve won the games they were supposed to and they’re primed and ready to go after this week for a good stretch run to finish the regular season and hopefully a deep playoff run. The conference set them up to have a runway to be able to improve and get better throughout the season, and they’re taking advantage of that.
Bronson Barron being named the starting quarterback was a surprise to a lot of people. What are your thoughts on his performance through the first couple of games?
AC: Yeah, I was definitely surprised that he got the nod, but he had an incredible collegiate debut against the team up north, then he followed it up with a gritty, find-a-way type of victory against UC Davis. Even though his performance against the Aggies wasn’t perfect, I can’t help but be impressed by the poise that this guy has. He’s got a great arm, and I think he’s showing an amazing amount of potential. Wildcat fans should be stoked for the future of the program.
Joe: For not playing a competitive game in nearly three and a half years, Barron was darn impressive against Idaho State. He seemed fired up and ready to go for live competition and was able to deliver a pretty consistent performance all afternoon, limiting any mistakes to few and far between. Last week’s game was definitely a struggle from the get-go, and the cold weather potentially had something to do with it. However, the third quarter showed a big sign of maturity to me. The key for a young quarterback is to not let in-game failures keep him down, and Barron came out poised at the start of the second half. Much of the rally featured solid fundamental football plays, and that is often what is required to come back and win football games.
Sean: Barron getting the QB1 nod was most definitely a surprise. I still have questions about whether a freshman QB who hasn’t played in a competitive game in three-plus seasons is up to making a deep playoff run. Those questions aside, he has impressed me in his decision making and not making egregious mistakes that are common for players in a new environment. By all accounts, we are not seeing the high-flying, high-scoring offense that the coaching staff and players promoted before the season began. But I also see the flashes of potential and leadership that Barron brings to the field. Hopefully, as the season progresses, Barron will get more comfortable and the team will find its offensive groove.
Chappy: The kid looks much better than a traditional true freshman QB. Obviously, he’s a little older than a traditional freshman, but the way he plays is where he looks better, in my opinion. As much as I would have liked to see a running QB in Randall Johnson, the weapons we have make a pocket QB fit perfectly. He hits the deep throws; he throws the ball away like a mature QB, rather than trying to force the ball in; and he feels pressure well and escapes the pocket well. The intangibles are there for a really, really good QB going forward.
With a new starting quarterback and a new offensive coordinator, many thought that the offense would look significantly different than in 2019. How do you feel the offense has performed in the first part of the season?
AC: I do feel like they’ve got the potential to be better than they were in 2019. The ‘Cats have seen some guys, like Ty MacPherson, take massive leaps in their game, and had others (Dontae McMillan), burst onto the scene and make their presence known. I think that Matt Hammer has done a good job of spreading the ball out and finding weapons. It feels like he has made Rashid Shaheed a primary target in the offense after being criminally underutilized as a receiver in 2019, and I think that opens up all kinds of options for the Wildcat attack. The game against UC Davis wasn’t perfect, but after two games I think that it’s fair to say that we’re seeing some explosiveness out of this offense that might have been missing in years past.
Joe: Whenever there is a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback at any level of football, it could be a few weeks before things take shape. Hammer is a veteran football coach and is familiar with many players on this team, so he has a quality understanding of their skill sets and how comfortable they are in certain situations. While the offense still has room for improvement, they have shown more flashes of brilliance than not early on, and that is a positive thing going forward. Any time a team has a two-headed monster at the running back position, that can prove so key in wearing down an opponent’s defense, and that has shown with the work of Josh Davis and McMillan so far this year.
Sean: To me, the offense is performing right now like a driver learning how to operate a manual transmission vehicle. There have been stutters and maybe a couple times they have killed the engine because they released the clutch too soon, but eventually they will figure it out and will be taking the car on a twisty canyon drive, which we all know is the most enjoyable way to drive a stick shift car.
Chappy: I feel like our run game hasn’t had quite the same mojo as it did last year, and it feels like we’re just running a different run scheme. I also feel like we’re down a few guys on the depth chart at RB. But overall, when Davis is healthy, Weber State is in good hands there. Coach Hammer clearly likes the long ball and he should with the weapons he has at WR, and, to me, that’s the biggest difference between last year and this year. That deep threat will help WSU a lot as the season progresses.
Jay Hill’s defenses at Weber State have traditionally been very strong. What’s stood out to you about this year’s defense?
AC: They reloaded. The defense lost two All-Americans and a captain and they’ve still been finding ways to stymie the opposition. Sherwin Lavaka has been a revelation and his ability to get in the backfield has made a massive impact. Conner “The Captain” Mortensen has continued his phenomenal play from 2019 and is on pace to be an all-conference player this season. Weber State’s secondary has been superb, keeping Hunter Rodrigues and Tyler VanderWaal from completing even 50 percent of their passes. This defense is stacked, and it looks like it will stay that way for a long, long time.
Joe: When the Wildcats defense is coming up with clutch plays late in games, just like old times, it is a way to tell nature is healing. We saw it again last weekend with both Eddie Heckard and Preston Smith doing a fantastic job of reading a route and intercepting Hunter Rodrigues in the fourth quarter. I see this trend continuing as the season gets deeper, especially if the ‘Cats are involved in a late, close game, and good teams find ways to win those contests so often due to a defensive stand. George Tarlas also had an impressive showing in Pocatello three weeks ago as he looks to build off his electric season last year. He wants it as much as anyone; now one of the veterans on this unit.
Sean: Timely turnovers. The Wildcat defense seems to have a knack for getting a drive killing stop just when they need it. I think the defensive line hasn’t been as dominant as we would have hoped, and even looked undersized in person against UC Davis. But like the offense, I believe the defense will continue to gel and get better as they proceed towards the playoffs.
Chappy: They’re good, and they know they’re good. They’re cohesive as a unit and they’re flying around the field. I love watching our defense play. They basically neutralized the pass against Davis, which was the thing they struggled with a bit against ISU. As long as Hill is coaching and calling the plays on that defense, Weber State will be very strong there.
Special teams have been a hallmark of Weber State’s most successful teams. How have they performed in comparison to years past?
AC: Through two games I don’t think they’ve performed up to standard. They were mediocre against Idaho State and good against UC Davis. I think that the next step would be consistency, but I also don’t think we can be too harsh for their performance against ISU considering the fact that it was their first game in a million days. They dramatically improved from games one to two, I expect them to continue that trend and become the weapon that we’ve seen Hill’s special teams be in the past.
Joe: Miscues committed on various aspects by the special teams unit was a cause for concern in the opening game, but a 49-21 victory over Idaho State could have overshadowed that. However, Coach Hill and his staff simply do not let things like this slide, no matter how lopsided the winning margin is. Watching the game against UC Davis from afar, it appeared they tightened things up during practice in the bye week. Special teams played a big role against the Aggies, from the trick play two-point conversion to a nice Shaheed return, to outstanding punting by Mackenzie Morgan. Wildcats fans were spoiled by the remarkable legwork of Doug Lloyd the last few seasons, and they might have just found another gem in Morgan, a transfer from North Carolina State.
Sean: I understand that many will look at the performance of the special teams and see cause for concern. But really, the shanked punts against UC Davis could have been just as much weather-related than actual performance issues. The missed FG against ISU was not a bright spot, but didn’t impact the result of the game. For me, the special teams have been exactly what you want. They haven’t hurt us. They haven’t added a ton. They are simply average.
Chappy: Waiting with anticipation for Shaheed to bust a return for a touchdown. I was pleasantly surprised by the kicking game against Davis, as well. This is the same as the defense, for me - as long as Hill has influence over special teams, the ‘Cats will be good in that department.
How much does Weber State’s strength of schedule concern you?
AC: I know this is the big knock on Weber State, but I’m not too concerned. This team is talented and unbelievably deep at near every position. In addition to that, they’re mentally locked in and have one of the best coaching staffs in FCS football. I think that this team will be prepared and focused no matter who lined up across from them. Is their regular season schedule very demanding? No. But I think that when the lights are brightest during the playoffs, this team has the mental makeup and talent to show up.
Joe: Simple answer: it doesn’t. It is the most unpredictable year in sports history. College football is being played in the spring, and the bottom line is that Weber State must go out and give it their all every game, regardless of who the opponent is. You can’t control who you play in a season like this, and I believe Hill preaches this to his team. When playoff time has rolled around in prior seasons, the Wildcats have shown they are comfortable handling opponents they have never seen before, so I don’t think this will be a concern come late April.
Sean: It doesn’t. They are playing the hand they have been dealt. They can only control what they can control. Win the games and let the chips fall where they may.
Chappy: I think it was the right move for the Big Sky to schedule the way they did. The Missouri Valley Conference teams are going to beat up on one another and all end up with a loss or two. The only concern here is if Weber loses a game. They’ll be punished more for that than The Valley teams because of the strength of schedule. So as long as they keep winning in the regular season, strength of schedule isn’t a big deal.
With two byes in the first four weeks of the season, the schedule has been a little bit funky. How much do you think their weeks off have impacted performance?
AC: We’ve heard from multiple people in the last week or so how bye weeks have made it difficult to build rhythm, especially on offense. Weber State has struggled coming out of bye weeks, too. With a completely different offense and multiple bye weeks this early in the season, I don’t really see a way that the byes are helping performance. The fellas came out flat against Davis and turned it around, but it’s hard not to imagine the bye week playing a major factor in them starting that game slow.
Joe: Weber State football did not play a game for 14 months, finally took the field and won 49-21, then had an unexpected week off due to COVID issues with Cal Poly. It sure is a funky schedule this spring, and a bit of rust appeared to show in the first half against UC Davis. We have seen this from the ‘Cats before in the sense their performance is a bit off upon returning to game action following a bye week. They were able to pull out a gritty win, but hopefully the entire squad comes out firing on all cylinders against Northern Arizona.
Sean: I see the byes as extended “camp” weeks that allow the ‘Cats to install things that they wouldn’t normally get to during a normal season. Would I prefer that they get to play every week? Yes. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we should be grateful for any opportunity to play, even if it’s not every Saturday.
Chappy: I wish they had a late bye before the playoffs. It would be a good chance to heal up, but with the Wildcats’ struggles after bye weeks, perhaps it’s a good thing. I think they get in a groove after this week, playing week-in and week-out, and it will ultimately be a good thing for us them, as long as they don’t have any major injuries.
How far do you expect this team to go this season?
AC: The top end of FCS is wide open. If the ‘Cats get to Frisco, I think they can beat anyone in any given game. The path to get to Frisco might be more tricky than anticipated, though. Will they have to play North Dakota State, or another top-tier opponent, in the second round? Is James Madison going to remain undefeated and stay on the other side of the bracket? Being this early in the season, it’s hard to predict. I do, however, believe that anything less than a semifinal appearance, would be a massive disappointment. I think this team has their eyes set higher than that, though.
Joe: As far as the defense takes them. This is still the main strong point of Wildcat football, and they have shown the ability to make plays to keep the team in any game. If Barron can get in a consistent rhythm with wide receivers, such as David Ames and MacPherson, look out. We saw how electric the offense can be in the season opener, and performances like this may return with the weather hopefully warming as April nears.
Sean: Frisco or bust.
Chappy: This is the year. NDSU isn’t a sure bet. JMU is struggling and isn’t going to have a game for three weeks in a row. The table is more set this season than it has been in the past few years. Weber State has the respect of the pollsters to get a high ranking - and keep it - if they keep winning. This. Is. The. Year.