Lions solid at LB, uncertain at WR as rough schedule looms

Sep 2, 2015

There was a time in college football when a talented corps of wide receivers was considered a luxury. Nice, but not essential. Now, teams flourish or fail based on their ability to keep up with the pass-happy pace of today’s game.

That worked well for Texas A&M University-Commerce last season. Wide-outs Vernon Johnson and Ricky Collins helped the Lions finish the season as NCAA’s best scoring offense, averaging 54.1 points per game. Sulphur Springs High School alumnus Tyrik Rollison quarterbacked an air show that contributed to a Lone Star Conference Championship for the Lions (9-3, 6-1).

As far as this season is concerned, though, that might as well have happened back in the era of leather helmets. Those players have moved on, leaving A&M-Commerce head coach Colby Carthel (16-8 over two seasons) to turn to an unproven cast of hopefuls for this fall’s pass-catchers.

“Let’s revisit that question about week three or four,” Carthel said when asked to evaluate the current corps of wide receivers. “The muddy water should be a little clearer by then.”

The 2015 Lions will have the benefit of a seasoned signal-caller to lead the new-look offense. Senior Harrison Stewart filled in ably for an injured Rollison in 2013, sat out last year as a redshirt and will now get a chance to put his stamp on the program’s history.

“(Stewart) has looked really, really sharp throughout fall camp,” Carthel said. “(He) just understands the offense and what we’re trying to do with the football.”

Running backs Richard Cooper, a junior, and Theo Wofford, a senior, should provide the Lions offense with some much-needed reliability in the ground game. Clearing the way will be left tackle Elwood Clement and right guard Shane Thompson, both seniors.

Junior Lance Evans should figure into the mix at wide receiver, but with August’s two-a-days now past, the personnel situation at wide-out remains a story in progress. Senior A-back John Thomas should get some balls thrown his way as well.

On the defensive line, All-American senior Toni Pulu, the 2013 LSC Defensive Player of the Year, leads a solid front that also features senior Todd Peat.

A fleet-footed crew of linebackers gives A&M-Commerce a formidable answer to whatever speed-oriented offenses it should encounter.

“If we can stay healthy, that should be the strength of our team throughout the season,” Carthel said. “We’ve got three seniors starting. Davarus Shores, at the sam linebacker, is a guy we moved from corner to linebacker when we got here … Inside, Charles Woods and Cole Pitts, they can really run. It’s almost like we’re playing with, to be honest with you, seven DBs on the field instead of four. Because all three of those linebackers are all about 190 to 200 pounds and they can just run like a DB, good instincts, so they’ll be fun to watch and they’ll be all over the field.”

The defensive backfield appears to be another area where Carthel is looking for some players to step up from a crowded field of contenders and take a leadership role. Sophomore Steven Baker leads a young secondary that also includes fellow sophomore and former running back Ki-Janaven Garrett.

The Lions enter the season ranked no. 22 in the Division II poll, one of two LSC teams to crack the preseason national rankings. Angelo State, the early favorite to win the league, is ranked no. 13. Eastern New Mexico, Midwestern State and Tarleton State all seem poised for strong seasons. West Texas A&M is expected to bounce back from an off year and return to its usual place among the title contenders. Texas A&M-Kingsville, which stumbled through a bad 2014, has a new coaching staff and could surprise the conference in the way the Lions did in 2013.

The non-conference schedule offers no respite. Adams State, the season-opening opponent, typically ranks among D-II’s top programs. The Lions face D-II national championship contender Delta State in week two. And the toughest test of the season will likely be Division I (FCS) Sam Houston State, which the Lions will face in Hunstville after completing their conference schedule. The season will conclude with the two-week LSC Tournament, followed by the NCAA Playoffs for whichever team(s) qualify.

“We’ve got, according to some publications, the toughest schedule in Division II – in the country,” Carthel said. “So we’re going to have to grow up and grow up in a hurry … There’s not an easy game on the schedule this year.”

Adams State (0-0) at A&M-Commerce (0-0)

7 p.m., Thu., Sept. 3

Memorial Stadium, Commerce, Texas

Game broadcast: KETR (88.9 FM and Play-by-play announcer Charlie Chitwood and color announcer Brock Callaway begin pregame coverage at 6:30. Mark Haslett hosts Lions Tailgate at 6 p.m. with scheduled guest Sarah Carthel, A&M-Commerce assistant volleyball coach.

Game notes from

-- A&M-Commerce ended 2014 with a  72-21 win over East Central in the Heart of Texas Bowl ... The Lions capped off the season with nine wins  -- first nine-win season since 1990.

- The Lions were the NCAA’s best scoring offense averaging 54.1 points per game ... No team at the FBS or FCS level averages more points per game than the Lions ... Only one NCAA team, a DIII team, averages more points than A&M-Commerce.

 - Tyrik Rollison, who was named the Heart of Texas Bowl MVP, was second in passing efficiency, third in passing yards per game.

- Wide receivers Vernon Johnson and Ricky Collins were sixth and ninth in the NCAA in receiving yards respectively ... Collins was ranked eighth in receiving yards per game with Johnson ranked ninth ... Collins was ranked sixth in receiving TDs and Johnson is ranked 12.

- Collins snapped the single-season A&M-Commerce receiving TD record after catching two in the Heart of Texas Bowl ... He finished the season with 14 TDs ... Johnson held the previous mark with 13 from the 2013 season.

- Rollison broke the A&M-Commerce single-season records for passing yards becoming the first QB to break the 3,000-yard make in a season ... He also set the school record for TD passes in a season and in a single-game, yards per attempt record in a career and in a single-season ... He will also go down as the Lions all-time most accurate passer after setting the career mark for completion percentage.

- After hanging 72 points on the Tigers, the Lions set the all-time LSC record with their 54.1 points per game   ... A&M-Commerce scored a whopping 649 points to set the LSC all-time total points record by five points.

- The Lions won the LSC Championship after going 6-1 in league play ... It was 21st overall title -- second highest title total in the conference --- and first since 1990 ... It was also the 15th time the Lions won the title outright.

Familiar Faces for the Lions

- The Lions return a wealth on the offensive line anchor by Elwood Clement at left tackle and Shane Thompson at right gaurd.

- Under center is a familiar face with Harrison Stewart ... Stewart redshirted the 2014 campaign.

- The WR corps for the Lions will see veterans Hayden Marsh, Darby Smith and Lance Evans ... The trio is relatively untested after playing sparingly throughout their careers.

- In the backfield, both Richard Cooper and Theo Wofford will see playing time with both bringing experience to the table.

- On the defensive side, arguable the Lions strongest point is the linebacking corps anchored by Charles Woods and Cole Pitts.

- Familiar names  like Todd Peat and preseason All-American Toni Pulu scatter the defensive line.

- In the defensive secondary, Steven Baker returns at strong safety, while the corner position proves to deep for the Lions.

About the Series against the Grizzles

- The two teams have never met on the gridiron.

About Adams State

- The Grizzles are coming off of a 4-7 overall season in 2014 and a 3-6 record in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

- ASU head coach Timm Rosenbach is in his first season with the Grizzles.

- The Grizzles return running back Addie Brown who rushed for only 206 yards in games games ... They also return a pair of quarterbacks in Auston Hillman and Lamar McKnight ... Hillman completed 127 pass for 1,600 yards and 14 TDs, while McKnight completed 42 passes for 857 yards and 7 TDs.

- On the defensive side, LB Wesley Brandon returns after accumulating 73 tackles, while John Reed also returns at the linebacker spot after snagging 91 tackles in 2014.