The Fort Hays State University football team’s game plan is going to look drastically different in 2009 as the Tigers transform from an under-center, power-running offense to a no-huddle spread formation.
Head coach Kevin Verdugo said the change will create more gaps and make it easier for his quarterback to read the defense. Verdugo said it will resemble the spread offenses that the University of Kansas and West Virginia University run.
“I would have spread the field three years ago if we would have had the talent to do so,” Verdugo said. “You’ve got play with the cards you’re dealt. … We have some very good athletes on the outside that can command some attention from the secondary and the linebackers.”
The tempo of the game also will see a noticeable change as the Tigers transition into a no-huddle offense.
Verdugo said the style of play is not only designed to confuse defenses, but gets his players in shape while also making them better football players.
“We are getting our conditioning through actively playing football,” Verdugo said. “We don’t have to put them over on the sideline and run gassers or sprints to get the conditioning.”
The Tigers were 2-9 in 2008 and finished last in the conference in both passing yards and passing touchdowns, totaling 136 yards per game and seven touchdowns.
Verdugo said the spread would likely help the quarterback perform and improve those numbers in 2009.
“There are less people in the box,” Verdugo said. “There is less confusion. People can’t disguise things as easily, and it actually makes the field easier to see.”
It didn’t help the passing game last season that the Tigers were racked with key injuries.
Quarterback Mike Garrison fractured his jaw midway through the season and missed four games, forcing starting wide receiver Anthony Smith to fill the void at quarterback due to a lack of eligible backups.
That problem was fixed this off-season as junior Blake McAhren, a transfer from Solano Community College, and freshman Tanner Hageman arrived on campus to provide depth at quarterback.
“We haven’t had three (quarterbacks) since I’ve been here,” Verdugo said. “It takes time to build depth with a football team. I wish I had a magic wand and could do it overnight the first year, but that is unrealistic. Anybody that doesn’t realize that is in La-La Land.”
Verdugo said he does not know who will start but said Garrison, a senior this season, and McAhren are battling for the position.
“(Garrison and McAhren) both do things differently,” Verdugo said. “We grade them and chart them every day in practice. They get copies of that stuff. The guy who grades out highest is who is going to play, and that is the bottom line.”
Verdugo said this season’s team is the deepest that he has ever coached at FHSU.
“Last year, I felt like 75 percent of our positions on our football team were guys that could play for a lot of people, but we didn’t have anyone right underneath them,” Verdugo said. “(This season) I feel pretty good about most positions on the field. I wouldn’t be afraid about putting a second or third string guy in if the first guy got hurt.”
Senior Jacobb Irvin returns as the leading rusher from 2009. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns through the air and the ground.
Junior college transfers Raymond Neal and James Walker will add more experience to the running back core.
Neal rushed for 343 yards and averaged 9.3 yards per carry at the College of the Siskiyous, and Walker was the top rusher for Los Angeles Valley College, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and 89.9 yards per game.
Despite playing four games exclusively at quarterback, Smith, a junior, still led the team in receiving yards. However, he will have to compete with several recent transfers.
Verdugo did not provide the wide receivers’ names but said they will definitely challenge Smith for his starting position.
With the loss of offensive coordinator A.J. Blazek, defensive coordinator Shawn Mennenga and assistant head coach Doug McFadden prior to the start of the school year, Verdugo said he has tried to be even more active coaching the team and will even call the plays on offense this season.
“I want to get done what I want on the offensive side of the ball,” Verdugo said. “I think that will help us. I’ve been able to get some help from the coaching staff administratively, so I can just focus on football.”
On defense, the biggest change was the addition of coordinator Kyle Nystrom. Nystrom served as an assistant head coach and linebackers coach at North Dakota State University prior to FHSU.
Though there will be a change in how the defense is run, Verdugo said his team is still going to primarily run a four-man defensive front.
“The philosophy of man versus zone might change a little bit,” Verdugo said. “We were a giant zone blitz team in the past. That may change up some.”