By Alexander Haynes
Monday’s With Coach Withers – Finding a Spark in Youth and Turnovers
“Winning is hard man, winning is hard…” was the exasperated statement that Head Coach Everett Withers sighed out at the Monday press conference following a 20-14 loss in Monroe, Louisiana. After 60 minutes of gridiron battling, the University of Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks squeezed past a passionate Texas State Bobcat defense, primarily heralding their victory on complete control of the Texas State offense featuring three freshmen starting on the offensive line and Brett Elliott officially taking over play calling duties. As Texas State falls to 1-6, there is an essence of the offense attempting to find that proverbial spark to their engine, coach Withers stating as much in regards to the transitions, “We made several moves, moved Aaron Brewer to center… we needed a spark.” If the offensive spark is being found in youth and refreshing personnel, then the defensive spark has continued to be found within turnovers and sacks. Recording two sacks and two fumble recoveries, the entire defense is coming together, a positive point amid the loss, coach stating, “I thought we played good on defense, if you would have told me we would have gone into University of Louisiana-Monroe with a potent offense and skill players they have and kept them to 20 points, I would have said we won the game…”
The Defensive Operation
Texas State ended up winning the time of possession battle (31:12 to 28:48) and forced ULM into pressure situations, resulting in a mere four of 12 third down conversions. Three was the bigger number, however, as the allowance of 100 plus yards on three plays haunted the other stalwart performance. “We play well when we have 11 guys play well, when we have eight, nine, 10 guys play well, we give up cut your head’s off type plays to our opponents. We have to fix that on defense.”
ULM quarterback Caleb Evans finished with only 13 completions on 29 attempts, 124 yards, and a singular touchdown. For 90 percent of the game, the Texas State defense was cutting off the head of ULM’s explosive oriented passing, a major sign of progression for a secondary that struggled at the beginning of the season. As the 3-4 defense system continues to evolve, stability and persistent aggression has allowed the defense to flow as a unit.
One of the main assignment players who stood out was linebacker Clifton Lewis, coach stating he was moved to the Bandit position. “Clifton Lewis at bandit helped us big time… he got his hand on the ball two or three times on the RPO. We got him out there because we thought he could read the ball.”
The Bandit position in the 3-4 is essentially a spy on the quarterback, a ghost reading Evans on the option play. When the quarterback moves to make an option play, Lewis’ assignment shifts to stepping up and disrupting the transition; he excelled in that task, popping four tackles, forcing a fumble, recovering another, and arising from the scrum to swat a pass down.
The two turnovers are emblematic of a team focusing on cherishing the ball, one of the team’s goal for the season, and becoming, “Savvy at punching the ball.” Coach praised Defensive Coordinator and Inside Linebackers Coach Chris Woods for his focus on turnovers on Monday. “It is kind of our deal on Monday, we have a turnover circuit we have work on Mondays… I think Coach [Chris] Woods has done a good job making it an emphasis on our defense. You know, we have got a lot of balls out by tackling guys and stripping the ball and punching the ball out… I think Jashon Waddy punched the ball out that Ishmael [Davis] got the other night… I think Clifton Lewis punched the ball loose the other night. I think our kids have gotten really savvy at really stripping at the football.” However, coach was brewing on how the team can improve on this goal, “I think we can improve on balls in the air, we have to get more interceptions when the ball is in the air.”
Coach Withers’ philosophy on finding turnovers is simple, and again, core to his belief of cherishing the football, “I think turnovers show up when you are not turning it over… We didn’t turn it over on Saturday and we got two… well, we should have gotten four.”
The Linebacker Corps and Defensive Pressure
The leading tacklers on Saturday were Nikolas Daniels, recording his second straight week of double-digit tackles (11), Bryan London (nine), Davis (nine), and Frankie Griffin (eight). The common theme among these players: leaders and linebackers (Davis is the exception, coming off the defensive edge). London, Daniels, and Griffin lead the team in tackles at 67, 53, and 46, respectively. The numbers speak to a tenacity and developed nose for the football, stemming from a desire to learn and process the game as leaders of men.
Coach Withers spoke highly of Daniels, the junior linebacker who arrived on the field with tenacity, “He has been a valuable member… He has to improve in his defensive responsibility, but he has done a great job of understanding what we are doing schematically and putting himself in position to make more tackles and plays.” Coach Withers then went into dialogue on how the entire linebacker crew has assisted one another and set an example in the way they study the game.
“I think the combination of Nik[olas Daniels], obviously Bryan London, now Clifton Lewis, and Frankie Griffin gives us four guys who are football players. I call them football players, guys that understand the game. You can say one thing to them and they understand it. You know, B-Lo is the best, he comes over to the sideline and tells you exactly what happened…. You know if he is part of it [a miss-read play], he will say I need to do this, and you know Cliff and Nik are both the same way… They have played a lot of football to, so that is a positive.”
Davis, also speaking to the media, iterated the team-work oriented discussion, “As a defense, there is a few things we have to fix, but we are working on it at practice, and personally, my success came from everyone around me.” In response to the efforts of the defensive line restraining the running game in the past two weeks, he notated the urgency comes exactly from the engrained importance of everyone focusing on their job, “Every team that has a strong back it is important for us to own our job… as a defensive line, if we don’t own our jobs no one else can own their jobs.”
Davis’ personal study of opponents is one of his favorite parts as he details that he analyzes “everything” from hand movement, placement, and twitch tendencies when preparing for the game. On the field, his motivation is derived from a love of sacks, responding with a brimming smile that when given the option between a sack or forced fumbled, he would love to set the tone with a sack.
Davis was one of the players who landed a sack this week, counting toward the five sacks in the past two weeks. The tone-setting power is a strong juxtaposition to a mere three sacks through the first five games. Coach Withers credited his team for being smarter in the pass rushing lanes as well as the secondary creating sacks. He noted the pressure creation another element of the entire defense working as one unit, “People getting sacks and people think about the defensive line, just like people think of the secondary and think of interceptions… they have to work together.”
The Refreshing Spark of the Future Offense
In comparison to the defense utilizing veterans to find a spark, the offense is utilizing youth and new positions to solidify an identity. With Elliott taking over play-calling, running backs Anthony D. Taylor and Robert Brown combined for 18 carries, marking an effort to establish balance with the desire to “run downhill”. As Brewer moves to center, and three freshmen intertwine into new starting roles, the downhill running is a factor coach Withers stated he wants to grow on.
Consistency, however, was hard to come by. Coach cited a string of 16 plays where the team followed up a positive play with a negative play. The source of that inconsistency may have been the turn to youth, “I made a mistake, I started three freshmen on the offensive line… I looked on the field and it was fun to see those kids playing, but watching what was happening to them on the field…”
The mistake of starting three freshmen is one of the necessary evils of rebuilding a team. Brewer was thrown into the mix his freshmen season, learning through the pain of mistakes. Now playing center, coach stated he is one of the best offensive linemen in the Sun Belt. “Those guys are going to get their lumps until they get their experience in paying… They have got to play, you have to put those guys in the game.”
For the young crew, it is about focusing on the positive amongst the negative. Each of the starters bring a unique trait to the team, Kylar Cooks being the athletic prodigy, “I think Kylar Cooks is the most athletic of all the linemen in that class and maybe other than Aaron Brewer is the most athletic we have.” Morgan Moore is a determined athlete, arriving from high school football in Oklahoma after having been recruited by schools as far as Wyoming and Missouri. Jalen Momerelle, standing at a flexible 300 pounds, received multiple accolades from coach for having the best Saturday among the three.
Although the immediate future may continue to be an inconsistent pattern, the hope is that the spark of quarterback Tyler Vitt and three offensive linemen growing together will lead to special play creation in short time.
Looking Ahead to Take a Look Back at Homecoming
On Saturday, Texas State will be defending Bobcat Stadium from the New Mexico Sate Aggies for a special occasion – homecoming. The team will be dressing in special uniform as well, noting the first time since the name change in 2003 the football team will be wearing uniforms championing the South West Texas State football teams. Coach encouraged fans to come early and stay late, speaking proudly of the history and the demand to study it. “I think it is important to know your history, never run from your history, study your history and know it.” He placed emphasis on connecting the Jim Wacker team to his players and that there indeed is a strong record of success running in the blood of the program.
Injury and Dismissal Report
Defensive lineman Dean Taylor will remain out with a neck strain injury under no timetable to return and Safety A.J. Krawczyk is in concussion protocol for another week. Jaquel Pierce (ankle strain) and Jah’Marae Sheread remain questionable and day-to-day.
Coach Withers also announced the dismissal of Keshawn Kelley and T.J. Bedford, citing multiple university and team violations. Kelley did not play in 2018, while Bedford played in five games.
After the announcement of Bedford’s dismissal, it was discovered that he was arrested in 2017 for a sexual assault allegation. No criminal case was pressed. The University has not responded to request for further comment. Bedford told Austin American-Statesman reporter Keff Ciardello that the case did not go to trial due to a lack of evidence. “The University found me innocent and I was allowed back on the team. I am off the team because of something different and I would like to keep my business my own.”
Due to an incongruency with Texas State University police arrest records, a publics record request with the university is awaiting further response.
Featured Image by Madison Tyson.