By Alexander Haynes
The bye-week in football is a time to sit back and actively rehabilitate while reevaluating where a team stands. Simply sitting back and moving about as usual is a waste of a week to find comfort in discomfort, create new goals, and navigate new opportunities. Head Coach Everett Withers knows the classical coaching truth of bye-week preparation – actively taking time to pave new path’s amidst downtime – delivering his Monday press conference in a way that could only be described as stoically serious. It may have been the renewed focus on, “One day at a time, one meeting at a time, one practice at a time, because if you don’t [take things one day at a time] you start looking ahead and say, ‘wow eight weeks’, and you start to get down. You can’t do that, you have to take one day at a time and try to get better.” Or, it may have been the practice he just left with the impression that, “I thought we had a lot of energy and focus going into day one of practice, and we came out on top.” Regardless of the reason for the business-like press conference, the mantra set in bye-week and all weeks thereafter was about winning every moment down to the small repetitions during practice.
The Importance of an Active Bye-Week
“The two things more important than anything else are health and trying to get ahead of opponents,” is the punctuation coach Withers put on his dialogue regarding the importance of the bye-week. The 25-21 loss against UTSA not only was a sharp stab to the outlook on the season, but a stab to the health of the team. Quarterback Willie Jones left the game in the first quarter, running back Caleb Twyford was suffering from a shoulder injury, offensive lineman Kameron Jemison was struggling with residual foot pain, and defensive end Dean Taylor was suffering with an unnamed but frustrating wound of his own. In short, the litany of minor aches quickly curates a worrisome injury list with one fateful blow here and there. The bye-week served as a reset of sorts for the list, with players getting “needed rest and rehab.”
In conjunction with health is getting ahead of upcoming opponents not only in terms of a well-rested roster, but a refocused roster under the tenants of re-evaluation. Typically, the first four weeks of the college football season serve as an out of conference, impartial judge – the perfect time to perfect an offensive or defensive scheme. Leaning into this methodology, the bye-week arrived at the perfect time for Texas State’s programming.
“We always talk about preparation, whether it be our off-season preparation, our spring training, our training camp, [it] is always predicated on the first four ball games. And what it [the bye-week] did give is is an opportunity to evaluate ourselves, our program, and everything in our program…. It also gave us an opportunity to prepare for two tough opponents as we will be in the short week next week.”
With Texas State heading into the brutal front of Sun Belt conference play, the bye-week was time to watch film, observe opponents, observe self, and then make adjustments during a week other teams will not have until later. In short, the bye-week created the opportunity for coaching advantage in the weeks to come.
Playing at Home and Restless Fans
After traveling to South Alabama, playing the UTSA ‘I-35 Showdown’ at the Alamo Dome, then spending a week without playing, it will have been nearly a month (since Sept. 8) since the Texas State Bobcats have played in the confines of Bobcat Stadium. The comfort of home was a key reason the Bobcats were able to start strong out of the gate in their 36-20 win against Texas Southern, and should be a key to starting out with refined execution this weekend.
Coach Withers’ comments spoke to the importance of playing at home.
“It will be nice to get back… We knew it was a tough early schedule for us… playing on the road, then having a bye week before you have a chance to get back home… I think it will be nice playing at home against a tough Sun Belt team and hopefully in front of a really nice crowd on Saturday.”
However, home crowds also bring the vilification of adamant fans who have, and will continue to, make their voices known. When asked about his message to these fans, coach responded bluntly, “… just watch…” establishing gameday, not haughty words, as his message.
“Yeah, just watch and see how much better we have gotten better from year one to now. Just keep coming to support the program that is getting better.”
And if there was any doubt on his determination, Coach lowered his voice to establish his subsequent line in resonance, “There is no person at Texas State who wants to win more than this guy standing right here. But, also understand that we are making the right progress for where we are going.”
Molding a program demands time, and the football program was entirely turned over when Coach Withers was hired three years ago. Optimists, however, have now turned to pessimists as the program has yielded mum results early in the third season. Constrained within time is the virtue of patience, and one of the underlying storylines moving forward will be the patience meter from supporters and the coaching response within a program that is finally finding an essence of balance with young personnel.
Offensive Identity, Vertical Threats, and Practice Leadership
With a slew of young quarterbacks leading the offense and a quandary of young running backs in the backfield, offensive identity is set to evolve throughout the season. After the athletic sophomore Willie Jones was announced as the starting quarterback, one of the most intriguing aspects of the team would be the offensive dynamism. The micro, offensive output play-to-play may change depending on the opponent, but the meta-theme of, “getting the ball to particular players really well…” is continuing; ‘particular players’ can also be defined as the athletic and playmaking running back corps, wide receivers, and tight ends, as discussed in week’s past.
“What has been hurting us is the big double minus plays. When I watch the offense, there is not a whole lot of bust and break down… We want to run the ball better, we are not doing that… we still want to run it and takes shots down field…”
The answer to the offensive identity may have been a bit cliché and non-committal. The Bobcats rank 98th in rushing (128.8 yard per game), 127th in third down conversion (.286), and 103rd in scoring (23.8 points) – the inefficiency is self-evident. At the same time, their red-zone conversion rate (27th, .917) speaks to the potential on drives without the “double-minus” plays.
One of the players who has been able to help offensive identity solidify is tight end Keenen Brown, “a quarterback’s best friend,” who has collected 19 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns. He is equally athletic and physical, transferring from Oklahoma State as a graduate and equating to the type of player, “we have not had that vertical threat since I have been here…” and, “The key so we can make that evolution offensively.”
Schematically, Coach Withers discussed how the vertical threat of a sizable tight end is key to removing the threat of the mike and will linebacker. Leadership wise, Brown serves as a veteran teacher with Coach stating, “The biggest thing to teach young guys, you cannot flip that switch on Saturday. You have to take game reps, and our young guys get to watch him take game reps. Is he perfect at practice? No, he is not, but he works at it and is a product of it on Saturday.”
Shorter: treat practice like a game and learn from every single play. When asked about veterans and the theme of practice later in the conference, Coach discussed the importance of the young players choosing to work hard at practice every single day, “If you want to be a good football player, you have to work at it every day.” The importance of the bye-week practice, veteran leadership, and turning inefficient offensive numbers into efficient programming are not separate entities, but pieces to the puzzle of winning football.
Brown, who also spoke to media, iterated comments of the same tone when he could have had praise heaped on. He was recently rated by Pro Football Focus as the highest rated tight end in the nation through five weeks of plays. Yet, when asked about the praise, his response was team-focused, “I mean, it is pretty good to have that attention, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
The team-centric demeanor is an extension of his attitude since transferring from Oklahoma State, stating he was prepared to be the number two if that is what it took to win. However, in the end, he is grateful to return to his pass catching days from high school instead of serving as a lead fullback. As a quick example of his dominance, according to Pro Football Focus he has forced nine missed tackles; the next tight end in the nation has forced only four missed tackles. For that reason, upon getting asked about what he likes to do once the ball is in his hand, he stated, “I just want to score most of the time. Run fearless most of the time. Whoever is tacking, it does not matter.”
Injury and Personnel Report
Due to the overriding focus on player’s health, Coach was asked about several specific personnel packages. First, Twyford was not able to participate in the UTSA game to a shoulder injury. However, he had a good bye-week practice and will be available this week. Defensive lineman Taylor had to take some time off during the bye-week as well but he too will be available this week with some limitations. Offensive lineman Jemison’s status remains day-to-day, with a clearer status coming during gameday. Regarding quarterback Jones, coach quickly stated, “Jones will be one of the three quarterbacks playing for us on Saturday,” leaving his official status for gameday.
Featured image by Alexander Haynes.