In 2012 the East Central University football team had a solid year, finishing with a 6-5 overall record. The team saw 14 student-athletes earn All-Great American Conference honors, one earn all-region honors, two All-Americans and the first player since 1979 to be drafted by an NFL team.
The 2013 edition of the Tigers will have both key losses and returners, but is expected to continue to turn up the intensity on the field.
Besides the new faces on the field, the team will be competing on a new surface, as the natural grass that had been at Norris Field for over 80 years was replaced with turf by the FieldTurf Company. The $880,300 facelift was completed in late April.
“I think seeing and being on the same surface that we will always see on the road and being on the same basic surface every practice and every game will be a great addition for our program,” said head coach Tim McCarty.
The Tigers finished the 2012 season with a 4-4 mark in the second season of play in the Great American Conference and were tied for fourth in the league standings.
This year the league’s head coaches have picked ECU to finish fifth (65 points). Henderson State was picked as the top team in the league (100 points/10 first-place votes), with Southern Arkansas (85/1), Harding (83) and Ouachita Baptist (73) rounding out the spots above the Tigers in the poll. Southeastern (49), Southwestern (47), Arkansas Tech (37), Arkansas-Monticello (31), Northwestern and Southern Nazarene (17) fill out the remainder of the poll.
The 2012 version of the ECU offense struggled to find consistency early in the season, but over the last three games emerged as a strong force. The good news for the Tigers is that eight of the offensive starters from a year ago are returning, including sophomore quarterback Spencer Bond.
“The offense was extremely inconsistent in the first eight games last year, but the last three were consistent,” McCarty said. “We like to tie that in with our quarterback becoming confident and being able to operate our system. Moving forward the thing to remember about our offense last season is how it ended and who we were at the end of the season. What we as a coaching staff saw has us very excited for this season.”
Bond earned the starting quarterback position four games into the 2012 season and made the most of his new spot. He went 94-189-10 in passing, with eight touchdowns. Bond also added seven rushing touchdowns and rushed 86 times for 340 yards.
“We are excited about Spencer Bond returning,” added McCarty. “Spencer is a good quarterback and more importantly he is an awesome leader. Because of his ability to lead the players and coaches have confidence in him.”
Besides Bond, the Tigers could also call upon Austin Crisler, a senior who has been in the ECU system and is a strong second choice at quarterback.
The Tigers will have four returning seniors at the receiver position that will help continue the consistency that was gained at the end of 2012. Lindsey Anderson, LaQuan Harper and Caleb Holley were all in the mix at receiver last season and combined for four touchdowns. George Robbins returns to the ECU lineup after sitting out the 2012 season due to academic issues.
“George holds the conference record in touchdowns,” commented McCarty. “After sitting out last season we are expecting a great season out of him. Caleb has superior athletic skills and LaQuan and Lindsey are also great in their own right.”
Last year the Tigers started two tight ends and lost one, but Cody Nall is expected to return and have a strong senior season.
The offensive line is full of returning starters and players that have seen a great amount of time on the field. Marcus Beale, Eli Cook, J.J. Farrell, Travis Hening, and Talon Starkey are strong on the offensive line and will have more competition for field time, with the addition of players like Joel Reser.
Who will step up in the running back position after the loss of Titus Mobley is the top question before the season starts. The Tigers have returners in Dominque Massengill and Justin Todd, who earned some starts and played in several games for ECU last season. The duo will have tough competition for a starting role this season from transfer JoJo Snell.
The 2012 season highlight reel was filled with defensive plays from players like Jason Catchings, Norris Wrenn (the ECU all-time leading tackler) and Armonty Bryant (NFL Draft pick). However, the core of the defensive line was lost to graduation, with only four returning starters.
“We lost Armonty Bryant, Jason Catchings and Norris Wrenn and that is a lot of production gone. That production has to be made up somewhere or by somebody,” added McCarty. “The question I have right now is who in that group is going to step up and fill in those holes.”
Three key players expected to fill in some of that production are in the ECU secondary, with two having already received pre-season honors.
Senior Fred Gaines has been named to the Beyond Sports Network and USA College Football Pre-Season Division II All-America second teams. Junior Qumain Black was also honored by USA College Football as a pre-season honorable mention.
Another key returner in the secondary is corner Ruben Tiller, who started in all 11 games of 2012 for the Tigers.
“Fred Gaines, Qumain Black and Ruben Tiller are three players that you will see in the conversation for the best players in the conference at safety and corner,” McCarty commented.
The rest of the secondary is expected to perform well, as Aaron Ballard, Lexus Jackson and Jamaal Whitney all return from 2012 redshirt seasons. ECU has also bolstered the line with the addition of transfers Robert VanDeripe and Kellan DeLaRosa.
“We feel really strong in the secondary because of all the returners and additions that we have this season,” McCarty said.
Another spot that is full of depth and quality players is linebacker. The Tigers will have returning players in Ken Berry, Blake Burgess, Daniel Holland, Alex King, Garrett Martin, Gumaro Murphy, Antoine Peek, Charles Ramsey, Lamares Shields, Cole Weber and Jameel Whitney who have all seen large amounts of action.
ECU added competition for playing time with the addition of JuJu Turituri and Ryland Weidner.
“We are not going to replace Armonty Bryant, Jason Catchings or Norris Wrenn,” commented McCarty. “You are going to miss guys like that, but at the same time that allows someone else to step up and shine. We don’t know who that will be yet, but we feel that a bunch of them can step up.”
The offense and defense are not the only areas where there will be strong competition for playing time, as special teams has also seen a lot of transfers and newcomers emerge for a spot on the field.
One of the more interesting additions is a pair of players from California that have been a kicker/long snapper duo. Long snapper Kristian Castellanos and kicker David Massuere have worked together in the past and will bring that chemistry to the Tigers special teams.
“Kristian’s father owns a long snapping camp and trains all the long snappers in California,” added McCarty. “So we are lucky to have him on the team.”
“Overall when I think about the team I know that we have great team chemistry,” said McCarty. “The players enjoy each other and they have a chip on their shoulder so I think this team has a chance to be a special one.”