By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
After the ACU football team’s 2002 campaign, it didn’t look like the Wildcats could come back with any more surprises.
After all, they went from conference cellar dweller the year before to a team that finished 6-4 overall and 5-1 in the Lone Star Conference South-tying Texas A&M-Kingsville for a share of the LSC South title-and came a touchdown away from beating Kingsville and making the Division II playoffs.
But ACU continues to surprise. Already, the program is nationally ranked: No. 24 in America by Street and Smith’s magazine and No. 23 in the first American Football Coaches Association Top 25 Poll.
“This is gonna be the team to watch,” said senior DaRay Sims, a second team all-LSC South wideout last year, as well as an all-American kick returner. “We’ve got a lot of newcomers, a lot of weapons and a lot of speed. We’re full of surprises, really.”
The biggest surprise thus far undoubtedly being the ranking. Do the Cats deserve it?
“Who knows,” said head coach Gary Gaines, who has taken the team from a 1-9 record in 2000 to where it is now. “That’s always a pretty subjective area of discussion. But it’s a credit to the players and coaches being where we were three years ago and coming back and winning. I think the players would like to be ranked at the end.”
But at least one is glad to have the number ahead of ACU’s name: “I think it’s about time,” senior offensive lineman Blake Lewis said. “I expected [to be ranked], actually. Last year we knocked off a lot of top teams, and we’ve been recruiting well, so I wasn’t that surprised.”
Still, while the opinions of a couple polls are nice, the product the Wildcats put on the field will decide their fate in 2003. And so far, the product looks solid.
ACU returns several big guns on offense. Senior quarterback Colby Freeman-the LSC South Preseason Player of the Year-will guide the unit, fresh off a junior year in which he threw for 2,093 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Lining up in the backfield behind him will be Richard Whitaker, a transfer from Texas A&M who started for the Aggies as a freshman before knee injuries put him away for two years. Whitaker faces the tough task of replacing graduated record-breaking back Eric Polk, is up to the task. “Anywhere I go I want to have goals,” he said. “I was [Texas A&M’s] leading rusher when I was a freshman, and I want to be the leading rusher up here too.” Juniors Willie Williams and Indiana University transfer Rashon Myles will battle Whitaker for the starting job.
Sims will lead the receiving corps, following up a year in which he caught 27 passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns. Dillon Cobb, Roddy Alexander, Tony Cunningham and Baylor transfer Vince Copeland are expected to compete for the other wideout slot, while Odis Dolton, Clinton Farrell and Nick Anthony will battle for the tight end position.
Seniors Britt Lively (second team all-LSC South last year) and Blake Lewis will anchor the offensive line for ACU.
“Our offense is going to be a lot better than last year,” Freeman said. “We’re going to push up front and move the ball, and get things going in our passing game.”
The defense, which Freeman calls “one of the tops in conference this year,” shouldn’t be bad, either.
“We’re going to have more team speed defensively than in the past,” Gaines said. “Each year that’s a more critical aspect of the game to have defenders who can run and defend.”
Seniors Brad Walton and Devian Mims and sophomore Clayton Farrell make ACU a big threat up front, while junior Shawn Taylor, senior Cliff Compton and Texas A&M transfer Randall Webb are equally as potent in the linebacker slots.
In the secondary, Nebraska transfer Danieal Manning leads a quick unit that includes seniors Kendrick Walker and Cory Thompson, as well as Texas A&M transfers Dawon Gentry and Adam Black. Senior David Jones is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
“I’m very happy with the defense,” Manning said. “[Defensive] Coach [Jerry] Wilson is putting together some schemes that the players are comfortable with, and we’re playing with something that works. It’s a strong unit.”
The phrase “ACU special teams” can’t be uttered without also adding junior placekicker Eben Nelson, who had game-winning kicks in four straight games for the Cats. Sophomore Chase Fishback will get the nod at starting punter.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that [Nelson]’s one of the best placekickers in the country,” Gaines said. “I’ve been very pleased with Chase Fishback; he came back better than he was in the spring.”
With the amount of transfers that the Wildcats brought in during the offseason, the team has been forced to transform into what Freeman calls “a family-oriented team,” where everyone feels welcome and appreciated.
“One thing ACU’s good at is welcoming players to the team,” Lewis said. “We like to take everyone in like family, and that’s something I’m proud to say we do.”
Whitaker, himself a newcomer, agrees.
“Everybody’s been cool,” he said. “They’ve all been respectful and nice. It feels like A&M all over again.”
Last season, ACU succeeded largely because of its ability to pull out close victories. The team won five games by a four-point margin or less, a statistic Gaines said should be integral to its ’03 campaign.
“We proved we can win tight games,” he said. “The flip side to the coin is that we’ll have a target on our chest against those teams. Upsets won’t be as easy this year.
“How you deal with adversity determines if you have a successful or unsuccessful season,” Gaines said. “We’re at a stage where we can win every time we go on the field.”
His family-driven quarterback did not dispute that.
“A lot of people have asked me if our goal is to win the conference championship,” Freeman said. “There’s no doubt that’s one goal, but we need to be going into it with a national championship in mind. If you look at last season, Kingsville went all the way to the semifinal game, and we almost beat them (ACU lost 22-16). We’re almost there. Our expectations are really high right now.”