ABILENE, Texas – McMurry University football head coach Mason Miller is not one to shy away from challenges and the 2013 War Hawks football team is more than willing to emulate its first-year head coach.
For starters, Miller has embraced a 2013 slate of games that will include no less than three NCAA Division I FCS foes and five Lone Star Conference opponents- including two NCAA Division II playoff teams from last season. Additionally, Millers’ McM players know they will be under the proverbial spotlight with those LSC games, as it was announced that the War Hawks football program will become members of the Lone Star Conference beginning with the 2014 season.
Add to that the graduation of the program’s all-time passing leader and holder of virtually every passing and total offense record (Jake Mullin), and it’s a scenario that would have even the most grizzled veteran coaches running for cover.
“The expectation is always to be successful,” Miller said of his mantra for the 2013 McM squad. “But we’re just focusing on one game at a time. I know everybody says that, but you really have to do that or you get too far out in front of yourself and you’re not going to accomplish what you are trying to do. Our expectation is always to be successful. You don’t get on the bus if you don’t think you’re going to be successful. That’s our goal.
“But more importantly, we are trying to build this program toward the caliber it has to be to compete in the Lone Star Conference.”
Millers eager expectations for the campaign have filtered down to his players, as well.
“We’re just excited about a new beginning,” said senior defensive back Cory Pippen. “We’ve got a new schedule and more expectations.”
Junior wide receiver Jeret Smith echoed those sentiments. “As a team, we’re ready to play and have a good season.”
As to the departure of Mullin at quarterback, Miller has tabbed sophomore Brady Lambert (Wimberley, Texas/Wimberley H.S.) to be the first player – other than Mullin - to get the opening-day nod at that position since the 2008 season.
As Mullin’s understudy in 2012, Lambert actually had the team’s top completion percentage, albeit in a reserve capacity, with a lusty 73.3 percent (33-45/416 yards). Lambert connected on four aerial TDs.
Lambert, who has been a part of two Texas state championship teams at two different schools (and on both sides of the football), will have plenty of returning targets in the War Hawks’ pass-oriented offense.
With a total of 22 different players making at least one reception in 2012, Lambert will have at least 13 of those targets available to him again in ’13.
Chief among those is the junior tandem of Greg Livingston and Jeret Smith. Livingston last season set McMurry school records for receptions in a game (18 vs. Southern Arkansas) and in a season (97), while also racking up 1,060 yards via receptions (the second-best season total in school history). He had seven TD grabs and averaged 96.4 receiving yards per game.
Smith, who missed five games after a knee injury in the season opener, came back and still managed to secure 43 receptions for 446 yards and a team-leading eight touchdowns. Smith averaged 74.3 yards per game and 10.4 yards per catch receiving.
Other top receivers back for McM include runningback Paxton Grayer (54/413 yards), Clinton McCoy (40/529 yards), Chris Simpson (26/156 yards), Barrett Cain (18/133 yards) and Ryan Nelson (11/169 yards).
Grayer and Simpson were also the team’s top two options in the backfield for the War Hawks last year. Grayer, as a freshman, carried 99 times for a net of 503 yards and six rushing TDs. Simpson had 63 rushing attempts for 260 yards and five TDs on the ground.
Undoubtedly one of the biggest voids left by graduation was the departure of three-year starting center Kiefer Price. If one considered Mullin – who passed for 3,478 yards and 25 TDs last season – as the “war head” of the McMurry attack in 2012, then Price was the “booster rocket delivery system” that got everything started. Price was called the “quarterback of the offensive front” by Mullin, recognizing his ability to recognize defenses and call out blocking assignments.
In the early going it looks to be a three-man race for the job of replacing Price, between Art Schoonover (Abilene, Texas/Cooper H.S.), Daquon Bratcher (Copperas Cove, Texas/Copperas Cove H.S.) and Jake Trotter (Allen, Texas/Allen H.S.).
At the other four o-line spots, McMurry welcomes back its 2012 starters intact with right tackle Mike Goodman (6’6”, 315,Sr., Miami, Fla./Columbus H.S.), right guard Matt Newby (6’5”, 350, Sr., Beaumont, Texas/Vidor H.S.), left guard Rafael Gallo (6’2”, 270, Jr., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada/Mayde Creek H.S.) and left tackle Nolan Nasis (6’4”, 295, So., Bulverde, Texas/Smithson Valley H.S.).
Defensively, the War Hawks bring back four of the five secondary starters from last season. The quartet had the Nos. 1-3 and No. 7 tacklers on McM in 2012. The cast is headed up by sophomore safety Ryan Williams (Corinth, Texas/Guyer H.S.), who had a team-high 87 tackles last year, along with three interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Senior safety Cory Pippen (Cisco, Texas/Cisco H.S.) notched 69 tackles, one interception and two forced fumbles. Junior corner Desmond Guy pulled together 57 tackles, three interceptions and two fumble returns (both of which were for touchdowns).
The quartet is rounded out by Gregory Pinckney (Arlington, Texas/Seguin H.S.), a junior free safety. Pinckney rolled up 42 tackles, three interceptions and a team-leading three fumble recoveries as a sophomore in 2012.
The linebacking corps will have returning starters Scott Roberson (Breckenridge, Texas/Breckenridge H.S.) and Jonathan Blair (Georgetown, Texas/Georgetown H.S.), who amassed 53 and 48 tackles, respectively, last year. Blair tied for the team lead with 10.0 tackles for loss.
Niko Alana (Wimberley, Texas/Wimberley HS.), a reserve last year, looks to have the inside track at middle linebacker position in the early going.
On the defensive front, sophomore Calvin Middlebrooks (San Antonio, Texas/Churchill H.S.) returns after posting 18 tackles last season at the nose guard spot. At the defensive tackles, senior Markell Rice (Itasca, Texas/Itasca H.S.) and sophomore Garrison Railsback (Abilene, Texas/Cooper H.S.) are the projected starters. Rice cooked up 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks last year, while Railsback (who played in just six games last year) was commended by Miller for a strong off-season that saw him put on nearly 30 pounds of muscle weight.
Special Teams is one area where the War Hawks will be unproven. Graduation claimed the team’s top two punters and placekicker, as well as record-setting punt return man D.J. Baiza (who had five career returns for TD).
Decorated freshman Chris Purvis (Cypress, Texas/Cy-Fair H.S.) is slated to do the punting, while former McM soccer player Ian McCarthy (Frisco, Texas/Wakeland H.S.) will handle the placekicking chores.
Livingston and David McHugh (Ingleside, Texas/Ingleside H.S.) will vie for punt return duties.
McMurry will kick things off on Saturday evening (Sept. 7) at 6 p.m. versus crosstown rival Abilene Christian University for the second-consecutive season.
“We’re just excited to play,” Miller said of the pending season opener versus ACU. “I know these guys are tired of looking at each other. Practice has been spirited the last couple of days. We’re excited to play.
“The biggest thing is we have to just go out there and block and tackle and protect the football. That’s three things we didn’t do (in last year’s loss to ACU).”
That will be followed by road games at Stephen F. Austin (Sept. 14) – which plays Texas A&M the previous week – and Texas A&M-Kingsville (Sept. 21). The War Hawks play their first home bout on September 28 versus Oklahoma Panhandle State. That will be followed by McM’s Homecoming Game against Angelo State (Oct. 5) the following week.
A pair of road games will follow. McM is at NCAA II playoff team Midwestern State University (Oct. 12) and Texas A&M-Commerce (Oct. 19).
McMurry comes home to face NCAA II semifinalist West Texas A&M University on October 26, along with NCAA I FCS opponent University of the Incarnate Word on November 2.
McMurry will visit Wayland Baptist University the next weekend (Nov. 9), before coming home to close out the season with Southern Nazarene University (Nov. 16).
“We can’t worry about external factors that we can’t control,” Miller surmised on the challenges facing his young squad in 2013. “We have to go out there and put our best foot forward, and I think that we will do that as a team. We have to go out and play our game and do what we can do.”