SEASON PREVIEW: Cardinals chasing history

SEASON PREVIEW: Cardinals chasing history

The Cardinals go into the 2017 season on the threshold of history.

Fresh off a fourth consecutive Southwest Junior College Football Conference regular season title, the Cardinals will attempt to become the first team in school and league history to win a fifth straight crown.

"We are all fully aware of the chance to do something that's never been done before," said 11th-year head coach Brad Smiley. "I tell the kids they come here for a variety of reasons, one of which is the success our program has experienced through the years. But I also tell them the only thing that gets you is a big bullseye on your back."

The Cardinals have been effective dodging SWJCFC bullets the last three seasons. They are 30-4 overall during that time and have lost just three times in their last 19 league outings. The Cardinals went 11-1 last year and finished ranked No. 4 nationally after a season in which they also won their third regional title and third bowl game in four seasons.

Despite the success, Smiley, who last year became the all-time leader in wins for Cardinal head football coaches (now with 60), passing NJCAA and Cardinal Hall of Fame member Bob Baccarini, said the program is not content to rest on its laurels.

"We are still hungry – a very hungry program," Smiley said. "We still want to continue to be one of the top programs in the country, win championships and move kids on to D-1 programs at a rate that leads the nation.

"There's only one way to make this continue to happen and that's through hard work. We will continue to work hard.

"If anyone is looking for the day when we get comfortable and complacent, it is not going to happen."

To continue the success and make history, the Cardinals will depend on newcomers, whether it be in the form of redshirt freshmen, a bevy of transfers or an outstanding signing class. Four offensive and five defensive starters return among 25 lettermen.

 Smiley, who this season will match the late Carl Andress as the longest-tenured coach in the history of the Cardinal football, said, though, short on returning starters, the goals remain the same.

 

"At this level we have to reload every year -- always a fun challenge," Smiley said.

"We want to be the best team on the field every Saturday. "We want to play hard and the right way; host a playoff game; play for a conference title and in a bowl game. Our goal will always be to, first, play after Halloween and, then, after Thanksgiving."

Starters returning on offense, which last year set a NJCAA record for number of plays in a season with 972 (471 rushing, 471 passing) are Tony Mullins (5-7, 175, WR),  Kam Williams (6-1, 220, WR), Josh Hodges (6-3, 175, WR) and Orlando Victor (6-4, 315, OL).

Mullins and Williams combined for 35 receptions, more than 500 yards and five touchdowns last year.

  Expected to lead the Cardinals' video-game-like offense at quarterback is sophomore Shelton Eppler, who saw extensive playing time last year, including in critical and comeback situations. On the season, he completed 46-of-75 passes for 690 yards and nine touchdowns. He did not throw an interception and had a 178.2 efficiency rating.

"He played in all 12 games last year and was very productive," Smiley said. "You would never know he was a freshman by the calming effect he had on the team when he entered a game."

Defensive starters returning are Marvin Terry (6-2, 240, DL), Blake Stephenson (6-1, 220, LB), Patrick Peek (5-11, 210, DB), Ryan Coleman (6-2, 255, DL) and Anthony Fields (6-0, 295, DL). Prince Robinson (5-10, 180, DB) started at wide receiver last season and is moving to the secondary this year.

Peek started all 12 games for the Cardinals last year, recording 63 tackles, five fumble recoveries, which were second in the nation, and a sack.

Newcomers via the transfer route, which now is unlimited due to a conference rule change, are Greg Eisworth (5-11, 190, DB, Mississippi), Cassius Grady (5-9, 185, DB, Northern Illinois), O'Shea Jackson (6-1, 310, DL, Colorado State), Peytton Pickett (5-9, 200, RB, Massachusetts), Michael Scott (6-5, 240, DL, SMU), Tristen Wallace (6-4, 225, WR, Oregon), Trey Baldwin (6-1, 235, LB, Missouri), Sam Aguilera (6-4, 205, P, North Texas), Jaylon Henderson (6-2, 210, QB, UT-San Antonio), Jack Leechman (6-1, 220, LB, SE Louisiana) and Jeremy Lewis (6-2, 190, RB, Tennessee).

To win a fifth straight league crown, the Cardinals will have to navigate the choppy waters of the SWJCFC, which Smiley knows is no easy task.

"There are no weak links in our league," Smiley said. "It's the best in the country and every team is getting better.

"You can't look at your schedule and circle games that are automatic wins. The coaches are too good and the talent level is too good.

"One thing that is certain about our league is you better bring your best every Saturday."

 

POSITION GROUP PREVIEWS

Here is a postion group preview heading into the 2017 season:

 

DEFENSE

Ends

Returning Starters:  Marvin Terry

Players To Watch:  Ryan Coleman, Michael Scott, Tevan McAdams

Top Newcomers:  Dillon Springer, Tyler Spillman, Casey Thurman

Position Coach: Mark McMillan (1st season)

Smiley Says:  "Having three sophomores, we have the physical maturity and athleticism at the position. This has the potential to be a very talented group."

Tackles

Returning Starters:  Anthony Fields

Players To Watch:  Oshea Jackson

Top Newcomers:  Jake Neal, Bryce Peoples, D.J. Pinkard, Kory Tolliver

Position Coach: Mark  McMillan (1st season)

Smiley Says: "Thin on experience here. Our young guys will need to grow up quick and depth will need to step up."

Linebackers

Returning Starters:  Blake Stephenson

Players To Watch:  Brandon Floyd, Jaquay Pough, Mike Carrillo, Sean Milligan, Trey Baldwin, Jack Lechman,

Top Newcomers:  Rashad Henry, Duce Reese, Josh Midgette, Jamir Williams

Position Coach: Cortney Finney (1st season)

Smiley Says:   "Easily the most experienced, deepest position on the team. We expect a lot out of this group."

Secondary

Returning Starters:  Patrick Peek, Prince Robinson (as WR) 

Players To Watch:  Blake Daniels, J.R. Blades, Will Johnson, Prince Robinson, Greg Eisworth, Cassius Grady, Joseph Sweeny, Kenneth George

Top Newcomers: Odessa Thurman, Bryce Cook, Dedrick Howard, James Blue

Position Coach: Will Reed (11th season)

Smiley Says:  "This is a talented, deep group, led by a 12-game starter in (Patrick) Peek.  Having four lettermen at safety is key. Redshirt freshman at cornerback need to get game experience quick."

 

OFFENSE

Line

Returning Starters:   Orlando Victor 

Players To Watch:  Matt Martin, Cyrik Ransom, Jermaine Townsend, Cesar Vidana, Cris Wasylciw, Darrius Mosley

Top Newcomers:  Isaiah Brown, Khalil Corbett-Canada, Josh Donovan, Caleb Johnson, D'Mauryon Moore, Howard Pitts III, Kenneth Pleasant, Thomas Spann, Dylan Spears, Daniel  Utu, Wayne Westby, Kameren Williams

Position Coach: Nate Harezma (1st season)

Smiley Says:  "With just one returning starter/letterman, we will rely heavily on redshirt freshmen and newcomers. Our signing class that the position was as good as we had since I've been here. It won't be surprising to see several freshmen play key roles."

 

Wide Receivers

Returning Starters:  Tony Mullins, Kam Williams, Josh Hodges

Players To Watch:  Torin Justice, Tristen Wallace, Brayten Kubeka, Jose Blakenship

Top Newcomers:  Dhailon Phillips, Deshon Moreaux, Q.T. Barker, R.J. Briggs, Tyri'k Barnes

Position Coach: Antonio Whitfield (8th season)

Smiley Says:  "With three starters and four lettermen returning, we have talented experience back. We made some great additions with big outside guys with a physical presence and some young speed and quickness."

Tight Ends

Returning Starters: None

Players To Watch:   Lik Estilien

Top Newcomers:  Zach Rumfield, Blaine Hoover, Michael Williams

Position Coach: Brad Smiley (11th season)

Smiley Says:  "Though we have no experience, we will get a lot more out of the position than last year. This group has toughness and athleticism."

Running Backs

Returning Starters:  None

Players To Watch:  Khalil Banks, Peytton Pickett

Top Newcomers:  Jeremy Lewis, Alex Brown, Antonio Davis

Position Coach: Brad Smiley (11th season)

Smiley Says:  "This position has a chance to be very good with Khalil (Banks) returning and with the addition of two D-1 transfers (Pickett, Lewis) and two extremely talented freshmen (Brown, Davis)."

Quarterbacks

Returning Starters: None  

Players To Watch: Shelton Eppler, Jaylon Henderson

Top Newcomers:  Colton Atkinson, Michael Henry

Position Coach: Sherard Poteete (5th season)

Smiley Says:  "Though Shelton (Eppler) was not a starter, he played in all 12 games last year and was very productive. We also added an exciting transfer (Jaylon Henderson) from UTSA and sign two very talented freshmen. We are excited to see this group compete."


Specialists

Returning Starters:  None

Players To Watch:  Jesse Delarossa (K), Taylor Soto (DS), Sam Aguilera (P)

Top Newcomers:  Angel Seveir (P/K), Eddie Godina (P/K), Dane McElrath (DS)

Smiley Says:  "We have to find three starters. This group is very talented and competitive. Unlike the past, we may see more than one kicker."