By BRAD KEITH
Tarleton football players are free for spring break this week. When they return, they will dive right into spring football practice.
For redshirt freshmen such as Julius Hurndon and Dashaun Phillips, that means they finally have the opportunity they have been working for since arriving on campus last August - to compete for a spot on the field with the 2010 Texans.
Hurndon was a district MVP and first-team all-state selection as a linebacker for 2008 2A state champ Daingerfield.
Phillips, a speedy defensive back from Duncanville, was a 5A district’s Defensive Back of the Year.
Hurndon and Phillips are among the headliners of a class of 30 high school recruits who signed with Tarleton last year, 27 of which are still in the program.
“Usually you can count on losing about 10 freshmen,” said Cary Fowler, who was named head football coach at Tarleton Monday after spending 10 years as a defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator in the Lone Star Conference. “To lose only three is almost unheard of.”
Fowler is confident a number of players who redshirted last fall and still have four years of eligibility will become starters and significant contributors sooner rather than later for the Texans.
“We have several guys in that class who I think are going to help us as freshmen this fall,” Fowler said. “Our starting quarterback may even come out of that class.”
Among quarterbacks currently in the program, redshirt Aaron Doyle from Evant appears to be the frontrunner to win the starting position this spring. At 6-3, 220, Doyle has the size, and - Fowler says - the speed, to provide the Texan offense with a dangerous dual-threat signal caller.
Doyle was a first-team all-state and district MVP honoree at the state’s smallest level of 11-man football, and also made the All-CenTex Team.
Doyle, Hurndon and Phillips are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to talented players in the class - such as Greg Brown, a unanimous 5A all-state pick as a defensive back at Garland who Fowler says received very limited Division I attention because he is only five feet, seven inches tall.
“Five-seven or not, he will knock you out,” Fowler says of Brown. “He could have started at weak-side safety and helped us (last fall).”
The coach makes similar statements when speaking of tight end Will McLane, a Smithson Valley product who redshirted last fall.
“Julius, Dashaun and Will are three guys who could play at the next level (professionally) if everything works out for them,” Fowler said.
Cory Jackson, a defensive end from Allen, Casey McKenna, a behemoth 6-4, 315-pound offensive lineman from Vista Ridge, Grandview running back Jerod Cochran, Branden Wright, another defensive back from Garland, and Wichita Falls Rider defensive lineman Zack Shaver are other redshirts Fowler can’t wait to see compete for playing time when spring ball gets under way.
“Nobody saw much from the 2009 class last year because they were redshirts,” Fowler said. “We’re about to begin to see just how special that class of guys could prove to be.”
Fowler likes the idea of redshirting as many freshmen as possible - and plans to build the Tarleton program around high school recruits who spend five years on campus.
“When we have players on campus who are here that long, they have the opportunity to develop pride in their school and that effects how they perform,” Fowler said. “We want our players to know who the Plowboys and the Purple Poo are and why they do the things they do. We want them to know why we don’t walk on the grass on our campus.
“The ideal (signing) class would be 30 high school kids with a few junior college and Division I transfers sprinkled in to fill in the holes,” Fowler continued.
For several of the redshirts, sitting out a year after being stars on their high school teams has been a painstaking experience.
“I was like, ‘It’s Division II, I know I can go there and be the best one,’” Phillips said. “Then I got here and found out I wasn’t anywhere near ready.”
Hurndon also initially thought he would play right away.
“I thought I would play last year because I was a good player from a state championship team,” Hurndon said. “But when you get here you learn it’s like starting all over again.”
For Cole Vitolo, a 5-11, 280 pound offensive lineman from Wichita Falls Rider, reality set in quickly when he arrived on campus last fall.
“I went from being one of the biggest linemen on my high school team to being one of the smallest ones around when I got here,” Vitolo said.
Wright pretty much summed up the feelings of the entire group.
“It was disappointing having to sit out a year,” Wright said. “Everybody wants to play.”
They all wanted to play immediately, but in retrospect, the players interviewed all look back and say redshirting has helped their development tremendously - as both students and athletes.
Cochran is making the transition from life at a 2A high school.
“The schedule is so much different than in high school. You have to learn to get yourself up and to class and handle so much more responsibility,” Cochran said. “Juggling that with playing as a freshman would have been difficult. Now that we’ve had a year to get started as students, adjusting to the playing schedule will be a lot easier.”
Phillips is still stunned at how he’s developed physically during his redshirt year.
“I was so small when I got here. I weighed 140 pounds,” Phillips said. “Now I weigh 170.”
Wright says he has grown from 170 pounds to 200.
Jackson says the physical development can be credited to the expertise of Tarleton strength and conditioning coach Rod Cole.
“I preferred to redshirt because I was undersized at 245-250,” Jackson says. “Coach Cole has given us all so much more strength and explosion because he teaches Olympic-style lifts to help with those things.”
The redshirt Texans have also spent the last year developing a key intangible - togetherness.
“Their togetherness is their biggest strength,” Fowler says of the group. “There’s some great kids in that group and for the last year, they’ve been growing together like brothers. They live on the same floor together in the dorm and they do just about everything together.”
Vitolo agrees with his new head coach.
“Especially since Coach Fowler’s been in charge it’s truly become like a big family around here,” Vitolo said.
Now, the 2009 signees who have not played competitively in more than a year have just one week before they strap on the pads to compete for a spot on a Tarleton team that finished last season ranked No. 9 by the American Football Coaches Association.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for is a chance to put on the pads and play,” Wright said.
“Now we actually get to practice to play, not just to go home on the weekends,” Cochran added.
Shaver says the anticipation of spring ball will dominate his thoughts during spring break.
“It will be on my mind all week,” Shaver said. “No matter what I’m doing, all I’ll be able to think about is that spring ball starts Monday.”