In a league filled with explosive offenses, the formula for success is trending toward defense. Weber State hopes to find a way into the postseason mix with a similar formula.
Eastern Washington is the last Big Sky Conference team to win a national championship, claiming the FCS national title in 2010. The Eagles used a quick-strike, big-play offense to streak through the playoffs en rout to the first national title in school history. The Eagles dominated the Big Sky for the first half of the decade, claiming the league title with a similar method in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
The pendulum swung back the other way last season as Southern Utah, Portland State and Montana used three of the best defenses in the Big Sky to earn the league’s three bid to the FCS playoffs. Southern Utah led the league with a +20 turnover margin thanks to 31 takeaways, including 20 interceptions. Portland State ranked second with a +13 margin thanks to 18 interceptions, nine of which were snared by FCS Defensive Player of the Year finalist Patrick Onwuasor. Montana led the league with 43 sacks, including 18 by FCS Defensive Player of the Year Tyrone Holmes.
In Jay Hill’s second year at the helm, Weber State led the league in total defense by allowing 346.9 yards per game. The Wildcats surrendered 24.5 points per game, third in the league as the Wildcats went from a two-win team in 2014 to a 6-5 record in 2015, WSU’s first winning record this decade.
Behind the powerhouse linebacker duo of Emmett Tela and Tre’von Johnson along with a veteran secondary featuring All-Big Sky talent like junior cornerback Taron Johnson and senior safety Josh Burton, the Wildcats hope to build upon the groundwork laid in Hill’s first two seasons at the helm.
“The confidence from our defense comes from within us,” said Taron Johnson, a three-year starter who earned All-Big Sky honors last fall and preseason All-Big Sky honors this summer. “Coach Hill has given us a whole different mindset. He has changed the culture the last couple of years since I was a freshman. We will keep rising to the top, keep rising to the top and I think that’s where the confidence comes from. We know we are on the way up.”
The Wildcats do not lack confidence in themselves as a whole, but the confidence when asked about each other oozes from each as they praise their teammates. Tre’von Johnson calls Burton and junior safety Mitch Tulane “the best safety pair in the league” and predicts that Taron Johnson will be “one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Sky.”
As Taron Johnson about the Weber State’s linebackers and he offers similar compliments.
“I think our linebacking corps is one of the best in the whole conference and I think that they are going to be better this year than last year, honestly,” Taron Johnson said. “They are the toughest group on our team.”
Tela, a 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Provo, Utah, burst onto the scene with a 14-tackle performance against Arizona State in the first game of his true freshman year. By the end of the season, despite missing four games, he earned a vote for Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. Last season, Tela earned second-team All-Big Sky honors by leading the team with 72 tackles, including two sacks and seven tackles for loss.
“As good of players as there is in this league, I think Emmett should be in the upper echelon of that group,” Hill said. “Last year, I thought he played as good as any player at any position in the league on defense.”
Tre’von Johnson is one of the league’s best defensive athletes. The 6-foot-1, 235-pounder came to Weber State as a safety before switching to linebacker in 2014.
“I always like to hit,” he said at the Big Sky Kickoff in Park City, Utah in July. “I never wanted to be the post guy. NEVER. When Coach Hill came in, we sat down and I asked him what he saw my future at football in. He told me I could be a great outside linebacker and I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ I believe in everything that is Coach Hill’s word. He told me I would be a good outside linebacker and I took advantage.”
Last season, the switch paid major dividends as Johnson dominated the line of scrimmage as well as any outside linebacker in the league. He piled up 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks among his 66 total tackles in earning second-team All-Big Sky honors.
“Tre’von has the size and athleticism to be a real special guy and get looks at the next level of football,” Hill said. “He’s athletic, he can run and he’s physical. If you talk about setting the edge, spilling power, he can do it. Our linebacker corps is a reflection of great competition. I expect them to be the best in the Big Sky because they were last year.”
Senior Jared Afalava, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound former transfer from Nebraska, started for two seasons for the Cornhuskers after earning a ranking as one of top prep players in Utah at Bingham High in South Jordan, Utah. Last season, he piled up 47 tackles, including six tackles for loss.
“Without a doubt in my mind, we can be one of the best units in the league,” Tre’von Johnson said. “We have Emmett Tela, one of the best players in the conference hands down. We have myself and Jared Afalava from Nebraska. Us three, we will be a force in this conference and I believe we can lead our defense and help our team to some Ws.”
Offensively, the Wildcats will lean upon a veteran offensive line anchored by preseason All-Big Sky selections guard Cameron Young and tackle Calvin Steyn. Last season, the one-two tailback punch of sophomore Eric Wilkes and true freshman Treshawn Garrett combined to rush for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns, each averaging more than 4.3 yards per carry. Add in big-play threat Emmanuel Pooler and Weber should have one of the deepest stables of tailbacks in the league.
“Toward the end of last year, I thought we were playing defense as well as anyone in the league,” Hill said. “I thought we ran the ball really well. But what we didn’t do well was throw it at a high efficiency. We got much better at that during spring ball.”
The onus of bolstering Weber’s passing game will fall on senior Jadrian Clark, a talented but inconsistent 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior. In 17 career starts, Clark has thrown for 2,782 yards (132.5 yards per game), 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. During spring, he distanced himself from Justin Shaw, a highly touted 6-foot-5 local product who played in spot duty last season.
“Jadrian solidified himself as our starter and I expect him to play well,” Hill said. “One thing I saw was his composure and poise got so much better this spring. Instead of relying on his feet, he relied on his reads, first, second and third progressions and doing what our coaches tell him. That’s key. If he continues to play within the confines of our offense, I think he could have a really big year.”
Hill took over a Weber State program awash in turmoil after John L. Smith’s abrupt departure without every coaching a job. Hill spent a decade as an assistant and ace recruiter on Kyle Whittingham’s staff at Utah, his alma mater where Hill played defensive back for Ron McBride in 1998 and 1999.
McBride coached Weber State from 2005 until 2011, leading the Wildcats to the 2008 Big Sky title and a second straight playoff appearance in 2009. McBride retired after the 2011 season, giving way to Smith, a well-traveled coach who got his start at Idaho before rising to coach Michigan State. Smith coached for less than six months in Ogden before jumping ship to take over at Arkansas before the 2012 season.
WSU scrambled, naming Jody Sears as the interim coach. Weber won two games in each of Sears’ two seasons before he was let go. Hill took over in 2014 and won two games his first season as well.
Now Weber State seems to be on the brink of returning to respectability. The Wildcats are ranked in the top 25 in several preseason FCS polls. The continued high performance of its defense coupled with an offense that looks poised to improve has Weber State on the brink of returning to the Big Sky’s best.
“We are just getting to the back of where we should be,” Hill said. “When Coach McBride was here, we won Big Sky championships. We should be a program where we are among the elite teams in the conference. I think we are just getting back to where we should be. We are playing better football right now but all you have to do is look in this conference, look at the 13 teams in it and know you better show up every week. Anybody can beat you every single week.”
Photos courtesy of Weber State Athletics – Robert Casey. All Rights Reserved.