ABILENE - The ACU Wildcats began their first season as an NCAA Division I FCS program Wednesday afternoon when 95 players reported for physicals, team meetings and a pre-camp conditioning run.
Fall camp will get started Thursday afternoon with a 4 p.m. practice, followed by 8:30 a.m. practices Friday and Saturday. Two-a-days will get started Monday as the Wildcats prepare for the 2013 season-opener, which is slated for Aug. 31 at home against Concordia (Ala.) College.
The Wildcats are playing an independent FCS schedule before officially joining the Southland Conference in 2014. Every other ACU program is officially in the Southland Conference this year, but the football program is a year behind because of prior scheduling commitments throughout the league.
NCAA Division I rules mandate that only 95 players can participate in practice until the first day of school (Aug. 26), a change from NCAA Division II rules, which had no limit. That will stress the Wildcats' depth the first few weeks of practice, which second-year head coach Ken Collums said might lead to less hitting in fall practice.
"We'll get out there and run around and hit each other, but we might not be as physical as we've been in the past just because we can't afford a lot of injuries," said Collums, who led the Wildcats to a 7-4 record in 2012. "We've got good players, but in the course of this transition we've lost some of our depth. We'll get after it in practice, but we've got to be careful that we don't get anyone hurt."
One of the key pieces the Wildcats lost from last year's team was quarterback Mitchell Gale, who is now with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. Gale's replacement figures to be senior John David Baker, who has only completed 5 of 10 passes with one interception and 32 yards in three seasons. He's run the ball six times for 33 yards as Gale's primary backup the last three years.
"The competition going into the spring was pretty wide open simply because I hadn't really seen what John David could do on the field," Collums said. "But he had a really good spring, took care of the football and matured quite a bit as went through it. He'll be fine, and we've got a lot of playmakers around him who will be able to help him."
Among those playmakers are wide receivers Taylor Gabriel (52 catches for 684 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012), Darrell Cantu-Harkless (56-651-2 receiving, 39 rushes for 175 yards and two touchdowns and a combined 1,187 all-purpose yards), Darian Hogg (37-578-5) and DeMarcus Thompson (34-451-2), as well as senior running back Charcandrick West (98-422-6 rushing in 2012).
Three offensive linemen return to starting roles in 2013: offensive tackles Will Latu and Blake Spears, although they've switched sides with Latu moving to right tackle and Spears protecting Baker's blind side at left tackle. Also returning is guard Josh Perez.
Defensively the Wildcats return starters in end Nick Richardson, middle linebacker Thor Woerner, corneback Caleb Withrow and safeties Justin Stewart and Angel Lopez. Some of the most important battles during the spring will be on the defensive line and at linebacker as well as for the two kicking spots.
"We've got some work to do and things to figure out, but I feel good about where we are," Collums said. "We don't know what's out there waiting for us, but we're going forward and moving quickly. We're not going to be afraid of it; we're just going to move ahead.
ACU FOOTBALL NOTES
Cantu-Harkless, who was involved in a serious automobile accidence in February, should be ready to practice Friday without limitations, just six months after the incident. ... Linebackers Chris Summers and Blake Rudd and fullback Cy Wilson - all of whom missed significant portions of the 2012 season - all appear to be ready to go full speed beginning Friday. ... Running back Jeremiah Williams - who graduated from Eastern Kentucky but has a year of eligibility remaining - joined the Wildcats on Wednesday. He transferred with one year of eligibility remaining after missing the 2012 season with a knee injury. ... However, in 2011 (his first with the Colonels), Williams ran for 317 yards in six games. ... The 5-11, 195-pounder ran for 119 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri State on Sept. 10, 2011, to earn Ohio Valley Conference Newcomer of the Week honors. ... He played at Allen High School, tallying 2,543 rushing yards and 558 receiving yards and helped the Eagles to the 2008 Class 5A Division I state championship. ... He then attended Trinity Valley Community College where as a sophomore in 2010 he was a second team all-conference wide receiver with 45 catches for 553 yards. ... Also showing up Wednesday was defensive tackle Damon Williams (6-4, 315), who transferred to ACU from Oklahoma. ... Williams, who graduated from Irving Nimitz, was the 35th-ranked defensive tackle in the country in 2010 and a three-star recruit by Rivals.com. ... He was red-shirted at OU in 2010 and didn't play in 2011. ... He played in just one game in 2012 and came up with two tackles. ... As a senior at Nimitz in 2009, he had 95 tackles, 5.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries. ... Aside from his Rivals.com ranking, he was the 45h-ranked defensive tackle in the country by Scout.com and the 65th-ranked player in Texas by Rivals.com. ... Senior offensive lineman Josh Perez will switch back to No. 65 for his senior season.