In the Sporting News preseason FCS Top 25, the Weber State Wildcats garnered a No. 23 national ranking. For some who follow the Big Sky Conference, it was a surprise for an upstart program entering Jay Hill’s third season. For others, it was a testament to the strength of the Big Sky, a league featuring six teams that earned preseason national recognition.
For the Wildcats themselves, the No. 23 ranking was a sign of disrespect. Welcome to the culture of supreme confidence cultivated by Hill as Weber State strives to return to the ranks of the Big Sky elite.
“We felt that was low because teams we beat several teams that were ranked ahead of us,” Weber State senior outside linebacker Tre’von Johnson said. “Montana, North Dakota, we beat them. People still think it’s a fluke season. ‘Let’s see if they can do it again.’ We have to show them it wasn’t a one-time thing. We have to prove Weber State is going to be a force to be reckoned with and I’m excited to get going. The city of Ogden deserves a winning program. They’ve been through a lot of losing seasons and it’s time for us to bring back a title. We have the talent to do so.”
On the surface, Johnson’s assured attitude might seem unfounded. But take a closer look and one realizes the Wildcats should certainly be in the playoff picture when the calendar turns to November if things go according to plan.
Junior Emmett Tela is a preseason All-Big Sky selection after two straight all-league campaigns. He is among the candidates for the best middle linebacker in the Big Sky. Johnson, a converted safety who can still run like a defensive back, was a second-team All-Big Sky selection last season and has 13 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. Before coming to Weber State, Jared Afalava started a handful of games as a sophomore at Nebraska in 2013. The trio should make up one of the stoutest linebacker corps in the conference.
“Without a doubt in my mind, we can be one of the best units in the league,” Johnson said. “We have Emmett Tela, one of the best players in the conference hands down. We have myself or 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 W’s.”
Former Utah transfer McKay Murphy, a starter as a freshman in 2014, sat out last season with a torn ACL but is healthy. And the secondary is anchored by senior safety Josh Burton, one of the league’s most athletic players on the back end and Taron Johnson, an All-Big Sky cornerback as a sophomore.
The Wildcats feature one of the Big Sky’s best offensive lines, a unit anchored by senior right guard Cameron Livingston and senior right tackle Calvin Steyn, each preseason All-Big Sky selections and each among the best players at their respective positions in their conference.
In 2014, Zach Smith rushed for 742 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry as a sophomore. Injuries cost him most of last season, opening the door for breakout seasons by sophomore Eric Wilkes and freshman Treshawn Garrett. The highly-touted duo combine for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns. Throw in Emmanuel Pooler’s 279 yards and 6.6 yards per carry on limited touches and Weber’s running back rotation should be one of the Big Sky’s deepest.
“I think we are a playoff contender and the key to that is our offense is way better than it was last year,” said junior cornerback Taron Johnson, an All-Big Sky selection in 2015. “That’s going to be the biggest surprise in the whole conference because our offense is very good this year. Our running backs are studs. Our quarterbacks are better. I think we are going to be a different team this upcoming year.”
The key for Weber State offensively will be the performance of senior quarterback Jadrian Clark. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder is one of the most athletic signal callers in the Big Sky. But his career has been plagued by inconsistency. Last season, he completed just 51 percent of his passes for 1,875 yards (170 per game), 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions although Weber gave up just 17 sacks, third-best in the league.
“My mindset is very focused and determined,” Clark said. “I’m ready to do everything it takes to lead this team this year. It most definitely feels different. We are ready.”
In a league dominated by offenses, the three most star-studded defenses competed for the Big Sky’s three playoff teams. Behind the NFL talent of defensive end James Cowser, the Big Sky Defensive MVP, along with draft picks safety Miles Killebrew and cornerback LeShaun Sims, Southern Utah won its first league title in school history in 2015. Behind the ball hawking of safety Patrick Onwuasor, now with the Baltimore Ravens, Portland State earned the No. 6 seed in the FCS playoffs. Behind the relentless pass rushing of FCS Defensive Player of the Year Tyrone Holmes, Montana earned the Big Sky’s third playoff berth.
But Weber State actually led the league in total defense (346.9 yards per game). The Wildcats ranked second to North Dakota in rushing defense, giving up 144.7 yards per game.
“If you look at Jay Hill, that’s a good football coach and I think Weber State is a team to watch out for this year,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said at the Big Sky Kickoff in Park City, Utah in July. “I think they are really, really good. I’ve watched them on film and I was like whoa. I think he’s done a great job.”
Hill came to Weber State from Utah, where he served as Kyle Whittingham’s special teams coordinator while coaching various position between 2007 and 2013. Hill inherited an unusual mess when he first arrived in Ogden.
Ron McBride, who coached Hill at Utah in 1998 and 1999, led Weber State to its last Big Sky title in 2008. During his seven seasons at the helm, Weber was 34-22 in league games. Since his departure, Weber is 10-22 in league play with half of those wins coming last season. Weber finished 6-5 overall, its first winning campaign since 2010.
WSU swung for the fences, trying to hire John L. Smith, a veteran head coach who had success at Idaho, Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State. He served as Bobby Petrino’s special teams coordinator at Arkansas from 2009 until 2011 before taking the Weber job. Petrino was abruptly fired before the 2012 season amid a cloud of controversy. Smith jumped ship to lead the Razorbacks, leaving before ever coaching a game for the Wildcats.
Defensive coordinator Jody Sears, now the head coach at Sacramento State, took the wheel for two seasons, winning just three league games before being let go. Hill posted just two wins in his first season but hung tough with North Dakota State, Southern Utah, Cal Poly, Montana State and Northern Arizona.
The 2015 season began with two straight losses, at Oregon State and at North Dakota State. Weber won six of its next nine, including a breakthrough win at Montana in overtime, WSU’s first win in Missoula since 1987. WSU also beat North Dakota, likely denying 7-4 UND a playoff bid in the process. The Wildcats lost at No. 5 Eastern Washington 14-3. Weber wrapped up 2015 with two straight wins to finish 5-3 in league, 6-5 overall.
“Coach Hill just brought a belief factor to us, the belief we can win football games,” Tre’von Johnson said. “At first, it was like, ‘I hope we can compete against this team, they are pretty good.’ Now it’s like, ‘We are pretty good. We can go out there and beat them.’
“It just took time for us to really buy into it. Now we are all bought in. We went up and played against Montana, beat Montana. We played well against Eastern Washington. Beat North Dakota. We believe we can do that against every team now. Coach Hill has brought that excitement back to football for the players.”
If Johnson and the Wildcats sound confident, that’s all part of the plan. Hill tries to cultivate that sort of attitude within his team as he tries to lead Weber State up the rungs of the Big Sky ladder.
“We have to keep that confidence level rolling and build upon it,” Tre’von Johnson said. “We have to stay confident and not get complacent with the success we had last year. It was only 6-5 and that’s not enough. We want the Big Sky title. I think confidence level will be our key factor in winning football games.”
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