Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
RECORD LAST SEASON: 11-3 OVERALL, 7-1 IN BIG SKY CONFERENCE PLAY
2018 NON-CONFERENCE RECORD: 2-1
BIG QUESTION: Is the next step under Hill a national championship?
Entering Jay Hill’s fifth season at the helm, the rising coaching star has laid out the blueprint for success, helping guide the Wildcats to incremental improvements each of the last four years. In Year 1, Weber State played a collection of close games, falling short more often than not in a 2-10 finish. Hill emphasized if Weber could finish some of those close games, they could be instantly competitive. That played out during a 6-5 finish that included five Big Sky wins.
The upward arc continued with a playoff berth in 2016. Last season, Weber State took the proverbial next step once again, sharing the Big Sky championship with Southern Utah and avenging the only league loss to SUU by ousting the Thunderbirds in the second round of the FCS playoffs. That playoff win came on the heels of a 21-19 win over Western Illinois in the first round.
The Wildcats took No. 1 James Madison down to the wire in the quarterfinals before losing 31-28. With consecutive playoff berths and a league title already secured, the next step for the Wildcats seems like Final Four or bust. The team must replace gritty quarterback Stefan Cantwell, NFL tight end Andrew Vollert (Arizona Cardinals), NFL defensive tackle McKay Murphy (Los Angeles Rams) and NFL Draft pick cornerback Taron Johnson (Buffalo Bills).
But the roster features a collection of talent headlined by All-American linebackers LeGrand Toia and Landon Stice along with All-American offensive lineman Iosua Opeta returns. After a disheartening 41-10 loss to in-state rival in which WSU gained just 59 yards of total offense, Weber State has looked stout defensively. WSU held Cal Poly’s vaunted triple option offense to 3.4 yards per rush in a 24-17 win in San Luis Obispo, California. Last week, Weber locked down No. 22 South Dakota’s explosive offense on the way to a 27-10 victory.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH: JOSH DAVIS, running back
This spot likely would’ve gone to senior captain running back Treshawn Garrett before the season. Veteran running back David Jones, wide receiver and All-American returner Rashid Shaheed or whoever won the right to replace Cantwell under center could’ve also been choices.
Instead, one of the breakout stars among Big Sky Conference players during the non-conference has been Weber State’s most productive offensive weapon. The 2016 Utah Gatorade Player of the Year set the Beehive State record for all-purpose yards in a single season with 3,836 yards as a senior. He rushed for 2,645 yards and 28 touchdowns that year.
After finishing his prep career with 5,289 yards and 56 touchdowns, Davis was slated to play as a true freshman last season before suffering a season-ending injury in Weber’s opener against Montana Western.
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Davis earned Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors after rushing for 177 yards and two touchdowns in WSU’s win over Cal Poly. He rushed for 105 yards on 27 carries last week against South Dakota. Garrett has managed just six carries this year after suffering an injury early against Utah.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH: LEGRAND TOIA, middle linebacker
The fiery, high-motor senior earned second-team All-American honors in his first year as a starter last fall by spearheading Weber State’s highly competitive, smothering defense. He had 79 tackles, 39 solo tackles, eight tackles for loss, five sacks and a forced fumble on the way to first-team All-Big Sky accolades.
Toia enters his senior year with 179 total tackles, including 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. This season, the fearsome inside linebacker is second to Stice on the Wildcats in tackles with 25 and leads the team with 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Weber State head coach Jay Hill: “That’s what’s fun in college football is that every year, you lose guys like that,” Hill said. “I was worried the year before with some of the guys we lost. Everyone asked me about losing Jadrian Clark and Cameron Livingston. That’s the fun part of college football. You are going to lose a good crew like that every year. The good thing is we didn’t lose very many of them. Vollert, Taron Johnson, McKay Murphy, Stefan Cantwell. But there wasn’t very many of them, although the ones we lose are great players.”
First conference game: Northern Colorado at Weber State, 6 p.m. MST