Wednesday, August 9, 2017

West Texas A&M 2017 Preview

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2016 Recap
The 2016 season had some good (wins over nationally ranked Colorado State Pueblo and #4 Midwestern State) some bad (shutout by TAMC, followed by a 28-6 loss to Angelo State, lost Wagon Wheel for third time in four seasons) and mostly mediocre (third straight six win season).  That led to a coaching change as Mike Nesbitt was let go after his fourth season (25-17) and Colorado State Pueblo's defensive coordinator, Hunter Hughes, was brought in to replace him.

Just how average were the Buffs?  The offense scored 27.7 per game, while the defense gave up 27.5.  In conference play the numbers were 29.9 off to 29.3 def.  Yardage?  Offense averaged 362.4, defense allowed 362.1. In conference games it was 379.4 to 380.0.  I doubt any other team was that close statistically in the nation.

For the past dozen years, WT football was synonymous with offense.  But the 2016 Buffs did not have one player on the LSC first team offense for the first time since 2002.  Ethan Brinkley and Ben Arbuckle split time at QB and combined for 3,057 yards and 28 TDs, with 8 players catching 20 or more passes.  Devon Paye was the leading rusher (863 yds, 5 TDs), but the rest of the team averaged just 6 yards per game.  Up front Austin Carson (2nd LSC) ended his career with a 46 game streak as a starter on the offensive line.

The defense struggled against the run, giving up 199.5 yards per game, and 4.3 per carry.  They led the LSC in passing yards allowed (162.6) and were a very close second in pass defense efficiency (117.3).  The leaders of the secondary, Davontae Merriweather and Lee Anthony Dawson, were named first team all conference. Daelin Young led the team with 78 tackles, 15.5 for losses and 6.5 sacks, earning him second team all-conference honors.

2017 Outlook - Offense
Forget the all-out air attack that WT fans have grown accustomed to seeing.  Get ready for a more ground oriented, ball control offense that will try to wear defenses down.  Ben Arbuckle is the only returning QB with playing experience, but Sklyer Bonneau impressed in spring ball and is familiar with the offensive scheme from high school.  Look for TE's Junior Pome'e and Ja'Quarius Daniels to be heavily involved with the new scheme.  At running back, Trent Canion was the second leading rusher last year, with a modest 178 yards, picking up 4 per carry.  Other returners include Collin Bailey and Warren Weatherspoon, though neither saw much playing time.  Transfer Krysten Hammon rushed for 197 yards in just two games as a true freshman in 2014 at Georgia State.  The line returns Travis Vornkahl, Dillon Vaughan, Moses Mondesir (all full season starters) and Nathaniel Nanai (who started the last five games.

2017 Outlook - Defense
It would appear that the defense will be a bit ahead of the offense.  Up front, the Buffs return to honorable mention all-LSC players in Solomon Perdue and Gerred Johnson, as well as Lance Hyder.  The trio combined for 102 tackles, with 16.5 for loss and 5.5 sacks.  Mykeil Clayton, a 5-9 242 lb transfer from Bakersfield College should see plenty of playing time as well.  The strength of the defense should be at linebacker, where Daelin Young (moving from DE), Hayden Dennis, Carter James, and Trevor Myklebust return.  Young received was 2nd team All-LSC, while Dennis was an honorable mention selection as a freshman.  Carter enters the season with 231 career tackles.  The secondary, which was so good last year, has a lot of holes to fill, with just two returning players with much experience - Chazz Slatinsky, an honorable mention selection and Frank Honang.  According to Kale Steed's early camp article (read here), two redshirt freshmen head into camp as the leading contenders for the cornerback positions.


2017 Outlook - Special Teams
Special teams is a mixed bag.  Gone is Conner Hollabaugh, who received all-LSC recognition for the past three years and second team Daktronics All-American honors as a sophomore in 2014.  In his three years, Hollabaugh was 34-49 on FGs and 124-129 on PATs, while averaging 61.6 yards per kickoff.  His contributions won't be easy to replace.  Fortunately, John Cummings is back at punter.  The honorable mention all-LSC averaged 41.9 yards per punt.  P. J. Leonce (16.7 punt return average, 17.5 kick return avg.), Cameron Smith (23.2 kick return avg.) and Trent Canion (15.9 kick return avg.).



2017 Outlook - Non-Conference Schedule
Azusa Pacific has had WT's number the last two seasons, squeaking by the Buffs 27-24 in 2015 and taking a more decisive 28-10 last year.  The Cougars lost just two regular season games (23-27 at Colorado Mines and 24-33 at Colorado Mesa), earning their first NCAA playoff berth.  QB Andrew Elffers leads an experienced group back.  Elffers (despite a poor game against WT) threw for 2,100 yards and had a 21-3 TD-Int ratio.  He has two of his top three receivers and top two running backs returning as well.  Aaron Berry, Mykal Walker and Taliuaki Suliafu headline a stingy defense that gave up just 16 points per game.

No team should be more prepared to play Colorado State-Pueblo this year than the Buffs.  Coach Hughes had been the defensive coordinator at CSUP for all ten years of their existence.  However, CSUP should have a pretty good idea of what kind of team the Buffs will hope to field.  This has been a very good d2 rivalry that has become all too rare in recent years with the rise of large conferences, some of which do not play any non-conference games.  Since 2011, the teams have met 6 times, with each team winning 3, though WT has won the last two regular season games and the only playoff matchup, a 34-13 win in the 2012 national quarterfinals.

Adams State.  Okay, now this should be a good game for WT.  The Grizzlies are coming off a 2-8 season, and have not had a winning season since 2013.  They like to throw it on offense (300 ypg), but don't have a strong run game to keep teams honest.  The defense is more balanced, struggling against the run (288.5 ypg) and pass (255.5) pretty equally.  They return the majority of their top skill players, including QB Jorge Hernandez and RB Corey Brown, but have a lot of holes to fill on an already leaky defense.

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We asked Kale Steed, from the Amarillo Globe News what we might expect from the Buffs this year.  A two time recipient of the LSC writer of the year award, Kale knows his football.

Kale what do you think the biggest challenges are coming into the season?
Kale Steed - It will definitely be interesting to see if the Buffs filled the concerns regarding the depth on offensive line and the defensive line. Looking at the roster, it seems they've addressed it with some transfers. The quarterback position will also be a position to watch. They may not throw 50 times anymore, however, if WT can run the ball effectively it will set up the pass. Junior Ben Arbuckle and redshirt freshman Skyler Bonneau look to be frontrunners.
What are the team's strengths?
KS - Defense will be one step ahead. The Buffs will see depth at the linebacker position with core group (Carter James, Trevor Myklebust, Hayden Dennis) back. Daelin Young is going to be an outstanding as a hybrid type player between defensive end and linebacker. Defensive lineman Solomon Perdue has All-American written all over him.
What newcomers can we expect to make a significant impact?
KS - At the DII level it's hard to tell. We learn of the transfers as they come. But as for the incoming class, Hughes and his staff did an excellent job snagging running backs. Daven Manning from San Angelo Central, Koby Morrow from Rowlett and Tyler Gray of Brock could be immediate impacts. Even though they're returners, Collin Bailey and Warren Witherspoon had great springs. Look out for both.

Thanks Kale, we look forward to another great season from the Buffs and reading all about it at Amarillo.com

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Best Case Scenario
8-3,  If WT can take two of three non-conference games, steal one from the top 3 in the LSC and sweep the remainder of the LSC slate.  It's a lot to ask, but each year there is a team or two that exceeds expectations.


Worst Case Scenario
2-9,  If the change in systems does not take hold well in the first year or if the improvements don't show up in the in column.  A good example of that is Texas A&M-Kingsville in 2015.


Prediction
5-6.  The Buffs will struggle early, but will surprise a team or two in the LSC.  Still will be probably a year or two away from contending.

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