ABILENE – When head football coach Ken Collums thinks about the future of his program at ACU, he knows a lot of the long-term success could be traced back to the class of players he and his assistant coaches are able to sign in about three weeks.
Armed with 12-15 scholarships to dole out on Feb. 5, Collums believes this class will lay the foundation for the future of the program. This class of players – whether they redshirt or not – will be the first full class of players who will be eligible to play for a Southland Conference championship and berth in the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs by the time they are seniors or redshirt juniors in 2017.
"We have to make sure that we have a quality list of players at each position and then do a great job of being thorough and studying each player," Collums said. "This is certainly a very crucial signing class for us and we've got to be able to sign guys at every position who will be productive players for us.
"But to do that we've got to be able to study these guys and get to know them," Collums said. "Highlight tapes don't tell you anything; you've got to learn these guys and get to know what they're all about."
Collums and his assistants will welcome a slew of players on official visits this weekend (Jan. 17-19) and then another group the weekend of Jan. 24-26 before the last weekend of visits, Jan. 31-Feb. 2. National signing day is set for Wednesday, Feb. 5, and Wildcat football fans can again see the class unveiled via a live Webcast featuring Collums and ACU play-by-play voice, Grant Boone.
Collums will introduce the class to Wildcat football fans in the Living Room of the McGlothlin Campus Center on the ACU campus. ACU's announcement will be streamed live on the ACU Web site.
Boone and Collums will discuss each player the Wildcats sign to national letters-of-intent on Wednesday, and that discussion will be backed by highlights of each player. Fans are encouraged to attend and light snacks will be provided.
Collums and his staff have a huge task in front of them during this signing period as they must re-stock an offense that arguably suffered its heaviest losses in total since Collums came back to ACU in 2005. Gone are quarterback John David Baker, running back Charcandrick West, receivers Taylor Gabriel, Darian Hogg, Darrell Cantu-Harkless and Drew Peters, and linemen Josh Perez, Blake Spears, Will Latu and Garrett Langthorp.
Defensively the Wildcats lost end Kolby Rowe, tackles Asthon Thomas, Nick Finney and Candon Canady, linebackers Thor Woerner and Jesse Harper, and cornerback Caleb Withrow. The team also lost deep snapper Brent Schroeder.
Those losses put a premium on signing and developing big bodies along both the offensive and defensive lines. Those positions will be a huge key for the Wildcats moving forward in the Southland Conference.
"We've got to get some big bodies along the offensive and defensive line," Collums said. "But we don't need just 'big bodies.' We need big bodies that can go out and play and play at a high level. Of course, we're not the only ones looking for those guys. They're out there; we just have to go find them and get them here.
"We've lost a lot of guys off last season's lines, so we've got to rebuild those lines, which means we've got to get several guys both offensively and defensively," he said. "I know this: we've got to be able to stop the run and put heat on the quarterback defensively or we're not going to have success in the Southland. And offensively we've got to be able to protect our guy (quarterback) and open holes for running backs for us to do what we like to do offensively. We need to rebuild the depth on both lines to give us options when we run into injuries and other things."
The quarterback spot is another key position for the Wildcats, who have last year's backups returning in Malcolm Ruben and Parker McKenzie, as well as redshirts Kade Munden and Will Weathers. Collums said he would like to add another quarterback "or two." And after watching Baker operate last year with his head, arm and feet, Collums knows the Wildcats need a signal-caller that can move around in and out of the pocket with equal effectiveness.
"I'd like to get one quarterback to come in here and immediately compete for the starting job," Collums said. "We don't have anyone on our roster who's taken meaningful snaps, so this is a big spring for those guys.
"But with what we're doing now, I'm looking for more guys that can throw and run," he said. "We're about to walk into the toughest schedule we've ever faced, so we've got to have a quarterback who's a threat to run the ball as well. That just puts extra stress on the defense and we'll need to be able to do that."
The wide receivers spot is obviously another area of concern where only DeMarcus Thompson (23 catches for 305 yards and 3 TDs in 2013) returns from ACU's top five receivers. The Wildcats also return tight ends Jonathan Parker and Jamie Walker, as well as receivers Monte Green-Avery and Cade Stone. ACU should have transfer receiver Cedric Gilbert in uniform in 2014 after he red-shirted in 2013.
Still, Collums said he would like to add "two or three" receivers who will probably have to make an immediate impact on the team. At tight end / fullback – where the Wildcats rotate Parker, Walker, Noah Cheshier an Cy Wilson – Collums said he would like to add some players either as scholarship players or walk-ons to bolster the depth of those spots.
The running back position could also be addressed as ACU will have only transfer Herschel Sims and redshirt freshmen De'Andre Brown and Randy Gober on the roster, along with Adrian Duncan (36 carries, 156 yards and two touchdowns in 2013). Gober is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered the first day of summer practice last August.
Collums said Gober's situation would lead to the Wildcats probably taking at least one running back and "maybe two" if, as he said, he can find a guy "whose heart is engaged in what we're doing here."
Defensively, outside of the line, the linebacker situation is one that must be addressed as the Wildcats had little depth there last season. They will also have seniors in 2014 in Justin Stephens, Blake Rudd, Vicente Cantu-Harkless and Lynn Grady. They should welcome back Travis Tarver at outside linebacker after he missed the 2013 season.
"We've got to find some inside linebackers who can come in and make an impact for us right away," Collums said. "Our outside linebackers need to be safety-type guys who can run and hit and play sideline-to-sideline."
All of those areas of concern make the next 22 days some of the most important in the recent history of ACU football.
"We're looking for guys who have a heart for ACU and our mission and want to play championship-calibre football," Collums said. "We started that process last year with what I thought was a really good signing class. We've got to continue that process this year with another great class. We're on a lot of good players – I mean really good players. Now we've got to show them that ACU is the best place for them over the next four or five years."