Angelo State took a huge step back to respectability last season, finishing the year with a winning record for the first time since 2005. And while a winning record is nice, especially after compiling an 8-23 record over the previous three seasons, the Rams might feel as though they let the playoffs slip away from them. Heading into week nine, ASU was 6-1 against D2 competition and a trip to the playoffs were likely if they could win two of their last three. Instead, the Rams dropped all three, including heartbreakers to playoff qualifiers Tarleton State (14-21) and Texas A&M-Kingsville (32-35).
The key to Angelo State's turnaround was the offense. The Rams doubled their scoring average, going from just 14 points per game to 28. The return of Josh Neiswander played a big part. Neiswander set team records for passing yards (2,933) and TDs (25), while compiling a 143.0 pass efficiency rating. Newcomers V'Keon Lacey and Dakarai Pecikonis combined for 109 receptions, for 1,635 yards and 17 TDs. The defense was fourth in the LSC in points (25.5) and sixth in (363.3)yards allowed. The run defense was particularly stingy, allowing opponents a paltry 91.1 yards per game, but teams passed for 272 yards per contest.
Out with the old
The defense has quite a few holes to fill, as the top five tacklers from the 2009 defense were seniors. All-American Calvin Fance had 14 sacks last season, while fellow lineman Dustin Arthur started 10 games. The linebacker position was hit hard with leading tackler D'Angelo Waites, Ian Ritchey and Edward Cantrell all exhausting their eligibility last year. Pete Parker, Rickey McKinley and Tanner Jacobs will also need to be replaced in the secondary. The offense did not lose as much, but honorable mention LSC South linemen Brian Dickey and Zack Bradley will not be easy to replace. The team's top two rushers, Dwight Pete and Michael Simpers (combined 910 yards and 8 TDs rushing) also will not return. Kicker Ryan Smith converted 14-25 field goals and 51-55 PATs the previous three seasons.
Senior quarterback Josh Neiswander can become ASU's all-time leader with 2,615 yards and 23 TD passes. That accomplishment seems likely with Lacey and Pecikonis joined by Zach McCormick, Garrett Tidwell and Excelle Osborne at the receiving positions. He will once again be backed up by Aqura Brown, who only had 8 pass attempts last season. HM LSC South fullback Johnathan Norcott will return to clear the way for the running game. Up front, full time starters Stephen Boyle and Connor Cook, are back, as well as Austin Sumrall, Keefer Preece and Aaron Simon, each of whom started at least 3 games. The tight end position is also deep, with Bradan Ritchey, Trey Anderson and Nate Bayless (missed 2009) returning.
Cody Smith was a second team LSC South selection last year, but is the lone starter on the defensive line coming back. Backups Godwin Ubah, Devin McDonald and Zach Petitt are experienced and should be ready to step in. Brandon Mayse is the only returning linebacker with more than 1 start, but D. J. Clough, Sebastian Lafaelel and Lance Tissue each had more than 20 tackles. The secondary returns the most experience - starters Markeith Jones, Alvin Johnson, and Jake Eannareli combined for 99 tackles and 7 interceptions last fall.
Garrett Tidwell is ready for another solid year returning kicks - he averaged 26 yards per return, with a 96 yard TD in 2009. He and Pecikonis split duties on punt returns. Each had 12 returns - Pecikonis averaged 10 yards per return, while Tidwell averaged just under 6 yards. J. D. Bales is back at punter after averaging 34 yards per punt in 2009 and 40 in 2008.
In with the new
The Rams will try to fill the hole at running back with several transfers - Michael Connor (Frenship HS, signed with Colorado State out of HS), Samir Baker (Euless Trinity HS, signed with Alcorn State) and junior college players Tristan Carter and Nevin Gardiner. Defensively, lineman Raymond Johnson (Citrus CC), linebacker Joseph Schumpert (Kilgore JC, 2nd team All Conference) and defensive backs Terrance Preston, Travis McCloud (both Cisco JC) and Trevor Drayton (Navarro JC, NJCAA All-American honorable mention).
All Conference Candidates
QB - Josh Neiswander
FB - Jon Norcott
WR - V'Keon Lacey
WR - Dekarai Pecikonis
TE - Nate Bayless
OL - Austin Sumrall
DL - Cody Smith
DB - Alvin Johnson
DB - Trevor Drayton
All American Candidates
QB - Josh Neiswander
WR - V'Keon Lacey
9/11 - Texas A&M Commerce - Harvey Martin Classic in the Cotton Bowl. The Rams used last year's opening game victory to springboard them to a fast start.
9/25 - West Texas A&M - with two weeks to prepare for the preseason favorites, this game could serve notice, not only to the LSC, but nationally as well.
10/30 - at Abilene Christian - this could be a de facto playoff game, if the Rams can survive the four week gauntlet from games 3 through 6.
Best Case Scenario
8-2 Seems like a stretch for the team picked sixth in the LSC South? Not if you consider last year the Rams were just a few plays from an 8-2 record against D2 schools and a playoff spot. With the talent returning at QB and WR, and the influx of running backs, the offense will be more potent than last year. Defensively, while Angelo State quite a few starters, they bring back a slew of reserves with experience and added some transfers that should be ready to step in a contribute. There should not be a dropoff on this side of the ball, either. They will need a few more breaks to go their way, but getting back to the playoffs is not nearly as far-fetched as it seemed coming into the 2005 season.
Worst Case Scenario
4-6 The schedule is brutal. Not only do the Rams have to get through the LSC South, but they also face the teams picked to finish one through four in the LSC North. If the Rams cannot run the ball effectively (top two linemen and running backs don't return), teams will be able to load up the pass rush. Can the defense replace the top 5 tacklers, plus two other starters?