By Grant Abston, Sports Editor
The departure of one of the greatest offensive trios in ACU history left ACU with an unfamiliar look entering the spring. But after wrapping up workouts with a scrimmage Saturday, the Wildcats moved one step closer to finding replacements to defend their 2008 Lone Star Conference championship.
“The thing that stands out about the spring to me is that I think we made improvement in every phase of what we are doing,” said head coach Chris Thomsen. “The quarterbacks stand out to me. They made some real strides, and I thought Clark Harrell had a really good spring.”
With the departure of quarterback Billy Malone, the LSC all-time leader in passing yards, redshirt freshman Zach Stewart, sophomore Clark Harrell and redshirt freshman Mitchell Gale will all be competing for the starting position. Stewart will likely enter two-a-days as the starter after leading ACU to two wins last season when Malone was out with a broken thumb. In his two starts, Stewart threw for 547 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. However, Stewart was kept out of spring drills following off-season shoulder surgery on his throwing shoulder and is expected to be back for two-a-days.
With Stewart out, Harrell and Gale led ACU’s offense throughout the spring, each quarterbacking the offense in the spring scrimmage and getting a chance to prove themselves. Harrell completed 7 of 15 passes with one interception, while Gale finished 10 of 22 for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
“It will be good competition in training camp in that spot,” Thomsen said. “Those two guys, Zach and Clark, have both worked really hard, and Mitchell has worked really hard. The competition at that position is really strong going into camp.”
Harlon Hill winner Bernard Scott and wide receiver Johnny Knox left ACU as two of the top skill position players in ACU history, leaving the door wide open for competition at those positions. Patrick Washington is the only returning running back on the roster and will be joined by a number of transfers competing for the starting position.
Kyle Fox, a transfer from Angelo State who was LSC South first-team offense and Freshman of the Year in 2005, participated in spring drills after sitting out the last three seasons. Reggie Brown from Blinn College led the Southwest Junior College Conference in rushing in 2008, averaging more than 7.5 yards per carry; he also will be in the mix for the starting position.
At wide receiver, Edmund Gates, a LSC South first-team selection in 2008, will lead an inexperienced group of receivers. J.T. Aspra and Colby Freytag caught touchdown passes during the final spring scrimmage and will be joined by a number of returning receivers, including Chance McCoy, Doug Pierce and R.J. Long.
One of the strong points throughout the spring was the offensive line that returns three starters. Tackle Tony Washington, the reigning LSC Offensive Lineman of the Year and all-LSC South Division first team, will be joined by all-LSC South Division second team selections Trevis Turner and Royland Tubbs. Matt Webber will look to take over at center, while Levi Wolfe has emerged as the front runner at the right guard position.
“Guys have kind of emerged at those positions, and we still need to continue to get better,” Thomsen said. “[The offensive line] is the most experienced group on offense.”
Defensively, the Wildcats return a core group of veteran players that includes eight starters. Linebackers Fred Thompson and Bryson Lewis, cornerbacks Drew Cuffee and Alex Harbison and defensive lineman Nick Jones and Aston Whiteside will look to improve a defense that ranked No. 2 in scoring defense in the LSC last season.
ACU’s roster will be bolstered by 22 high school signees and a group of transfer players for next season, and Thomsen said they still are looking to add three or four transfers. With 14 total starters returning (eight defense, six offense), the Wildcats will rely on different players to step up entering two-a-day workouts.
“I’m most excited that we have a good core of returning players with experience and we are adding some good players into that mix,” Thomsen said. “I think the LSC is wide open, and a lot of teams could win it, so it will be very competitive.”