Spring is here, and change is in the air.
Flowers are blooming, Durangoans are putting away skis and snowboards in favor of bikes and hiking boots, and the weather is going from warm to cold at the snap of a finger.
Change is bountiful for Fort Lewis College football, too.
A bevy of new recruits, with potentially more to come, and five new members of the coaching staff have given head coach Cesar Rivas-Sandoval and his charges an energy boost as spring practice draws to a close with the spring game scheduled for 11 a.m. today at Ray Dennison Memorial Field, weather permitting.
“I’ve been here for two years now trying to do this thing, and I think we’ve got a great blueprint, so sometimes it’s nice to reenergize with fresh ideas, fresh faces and new perspective,” Rivas said.
Perhaps some of the biggest changes are on defense, where Rivas said the Skyhawks are looking to use speed, speed and more speed both on the line and in the secondary.
Overseeing the new-look D is a familiar face. Ed Rifilato, head coach and defensive coordinator from 2004-09, returns as defensive coordinator, and Rivas, who’s been involved coaching defenses for the last 12 years, has turned over full control to Rifilato as FLC looks to fix a defense that was ninth in the 10-team Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference in scoring defense last year.
“It’s a very unique experience for me, because I’ve been on defense for 12 years. ... For me, it’s actually kind of refreshing ... because going over to offense, it’s new every day,” Rivas said.
Chris Jewell is the new coach in charge of the defensive line, and former Skyhawk Thomas Stevenson also will help coach on the defensive side of the ball after being a first-team All-RMAC selection in 2004 and 2006. Mark Meng returns as linebackers coach, and Dave Varnell will reprise his role as a defensive assistant. They’ll oversee a defense that’s moved a handful of linebackers to rush end positions and a recruiting class with a large sum of defensive backs.
Rivas said he’s been impressed with Cody Miles’ transition to more of a defensive end role this spring and the play of Mike Campbell – a junior college transfer and Fruita Monument product – in the secondary, along with linebackers Phil Odell, Willy Klein and Cole Stephenson, among others.
“Cody Miles, we moved Cody Miles down to defensive end, and he’s just a beast down there,” Rivas said. “We can’t block him on offense. He’s everywhere. He runs like a safety.”
On offense, Brad Wilson returns as offensive line coach, while Rivas plans to be focused almost squarely on the offensive side of the ball in terms of position coaching. Bill Griffith is the new running backs, tight ends and H-backs coach, while Micah Smith takes over coaching receivers.
Offensively, FLC will look to replace losses at wide receiver while retooling an attack that was ninth in the RMAC in points per game. A lot of the improvement will start with the offensive line.
Spring also has given senior quarterback Tim Jenkins a chance to get a handle on the new offense while working out timing kinks with several new receivers.
There’s also a chance he could factor a bit more into the running game, Rivas said, which still will lean heavy on backs Van Gramman and A.J. Miko.
“Right now, the guys are just still learning. We’ve got some new faces out there at the receiver position. We only had seven seniors, but three of them were receivers,” Rivas said.
The head coach isn’t just looking for improvements from players; he wants to improve his skill set, too. Improvements across the board will be needed if FLC wants to get closer to the league title it hasn’t won since 1984, and Rivas said it starts with him.
“It’s not anything you ever perfect,” he said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how to work with a staff better and try to utilize their strengths.”