By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
Head football coach Chris Thomsen spent his second off-season under the Texas sun with one thing on his mind: every missed opportunity and close loss that defined last season.
ACU finished last season tied for last place in the conference and a handful of mistakes away from making the playoffs. With a 4-6 record (2-6 in conference), the Wildcat football team’s season was written off as a building season.
2005 was head coach Chris Thomsen’s first season at the helm, and the growing pains of the team’s transition phase were seen through the close losses forced by little mistakes. During Thomsen’s first season, half the team’s losses were by one touchdown or less, including a three-point loss to rivals Angelo State University.
Last season’s star was safety and return specialist Danieal Manning, who is now a starting safety for the Chicago Bears. But even with Manning’s impact, the one thing standing in the way of a successful season last year wasn’t a lack of talented players or hard work-it was a lack of confidence.
This offseason, Thomsen is fixing that problem by working with his team to become more confident in its ability as individuals and as a team.
“I feel like if we play at the highest level we can play each week as a team, everything else will take care of itself,” Thomsen said.
Thomsen said the highest level includes a well-rounded football team that protects the ball and does all the little things right, from the kick return to extra points. Although the Wildcats are picked to finish sixth in the seven-team LSC, they couldn’t be more ready to take the first snap. This offseason built the confidence absent in 2005 and formed them into a team that pays attention to detail.
Renewed sense of commitment
Offensive coordinator Ken Collums wants one thing from the Wildcats: a commitment to the vision of the coaching staff and the program.
“Overall, the commitment level is the biggest thing that has changed,” Collums said. “We ask them to do so much, and last year some of them weren’t ready for that.”
In the offensive huddle, second-year quarterback Billy Malone will return to the starting position after familiarizing himself with the Thomsen offensive scheme. Malone threw for 1,749 yards last season while averaging 204.3 yards per game and used the off-season to prepare.
“Last year [Malone] wasn’t doing enough to prepare himself,” Collums said. “But now he looks how a quarterback should look at this point.”
Malone will have returning junior wide receiver Jarale Badon to throw to again this season, along with transfer receiver Turtle Conner and transfer tight end Trey Simeone.
In the backfield, returning starting running back Taber Minner will receive handoffs after returning from the offseason with a renewed sense of focus and a desire to progress.
“I was more committed this off-season.” said Minner. “Our success starts with the first team, and if they do their job right, everyone else will follow from there.”
The ACU offense finished 9th (30 TD, 15 FG) in scoring in the LSC last season and 7th in total offense with 3,768 yards and 376.8 yards per game.
Defense lead by experience
Despite losing Manning and all-American defensive end Clayton Farrell’s impact on defense, defensive coordinator Jason Johns is confident the new 3-4 defense will be more than effective in 2006.
“We’re doing a lot of the same coverages and fronts that we were doing in the past under the 4-3 system, and our players work hard and want to succeed this season,” Johns said.
The secondary is bringing back cornerbacks Corey Jordan and Mark Gaines and free safety Landon Kinchen who will play next to transfer Bobby Tatum. Linebackers Marcus Brown, Cody Stutts and Travis Carpenter will start under Johns in new 3-4 set.
Kinchen, who played next to Manning in 2005, has used the NFL draft pick’s example on and off the field to inspire his own progress in the offseason.
“Our goal is to play at the highest level possible,” Kinchen said. “I really want to play at the top of my ability.”
The more speed, the better
After being last in the conference in kickoff coverage, special teams coordinator Nathan Headrick has been spending the offseason returning to fundamentals.
“We want to be a more fundamental special teams and want to spend more time planning than anybody else we’re playing,” Headrick said.
Headrick shifted the scheme of the special teams to emphasize speed rather than size to fit the players on the depth chart.
Kickers Matt Adams and Corey O’Neill are both vying for the starting place-kicker spot, and Brock Pierce will replace four-year starter Chase Fishback as the starting punter for the Wildcats.
ACU’s newly found confidence with Thomsen will be tested at Shotwell Stadium, first against University of Central Oklahoma on Sep 7. If ACU is to play at the highest level this season like Thomsen desires, it could result in the school’s first winning record since 2003.