September: the month where hope springs eternal for every college football team.
The Fort Lewis College program is hoping to make those good vibes last in a way it hasn’t since 2006. That was the last time the FLC football team finished with a record above .500. FLC finished 7-4 that season behind then-head coach and current defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato.
Since then, it’s been a dry spell for the Skyhawks. In the five seasons since, they’ve won 11 games or an average of 2.2 victories per season, helped along by what’s become an increasingly difficult Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference to navigate with the emergence of CSU-Pueblo and Colorado Mines as national players alongside the now-departed Nebraska-Kearney.
Still, the optimism inside the program for Year 3 of the Cesar Rivas-Sandoval regime is palpable.
Offensively, the skill positions appear stronger than they have been since Rivas took the reins, led by fourth-year starting quarterback Tim Jenkins, who needs just 178 yards today against New Mexico Highlands to move into third place on the school’s all-time passing yardage list. He currently has 7,040 yards passing overall.
“Just really being a student of the game. He’s like another coach out there right now,” Rivas said. “He’s really helped me perfect this offense to the point where he could really go out there and call the whole game by himself if he wanted to, or I let him.”
Jenkins will be flanked with experienced receivers. Jonathan Price – who led the team with 546 receiving yards last year – Doyle Bode and Jesse Freeman return and are expected to increase their output in 2012, and FLC added Michigan State transfer Jordan Benton to the mix as well.
In the backfield, Van Gramman returns after a 47-catch, 114-carry season as a freshman, although he may miss today’s game for personal reasons. A.J. Miko brings a wealth of experience to the backfield as well.
But it may be the freshmen backs who could make the biggest splash, particularly Josh Beacham, who broke off a long touchdown run in the exhibition against Cole College. They’ll be needed to boost an attack that yielded just 40.5 rushing yards per game and 1.6 yards per carry last year, the worst averages in the RMAC.
“I’m excited to see what some of these new guys on offense can do. It’s going to be a fun, fun season,” linebacker Phil Odell said.
The guys up front bring a bit more size to the table as an entire unit than in recent years. Tackle Evan Wagstrom (270 pounds), guard Estevan Lucero (290) and tackle Antonio Alicea (300) return, while Taylor Suta (250) won the battle to start at center. Tanner Todd (275), Sean O’Neil (255) and Joe Abeln (280) likely will see time as well.
On the defensive line, the bulk isn’t as readily available, and some camp injuries have depleted the depth a bit, so the Skyhawks opted to go the other direction: speed. Expect to see players such as Brett Barnes, Cody Miles and Drew Smith with their hands on the ground on the outside of the defensive line instead of their usual haunts at linebacker, while former defensive ends such as Cary Purchase could be trying their luck from the inside.
“Those are still kind of young guys, but I think they’re guys who’ll pay dividends for us not just this year but for the next two or three years,” Rivas said of the speed rushers.
Odell, a 6-1, 215-pound senior, is the anchor of the defense at linebacker and is 97 tackles away from breaking the school record of 356 held by Shane Voss. FLC has a bevy of players listed at the linebacker position, including senior Zach Moisey and N.M. Highlands transfer Derik Wetzel along with several young players who could see time.
The defensive backfield got a jolt of experience thanks to several junior college transfers to play alongside returning standout Jamal Campbell, junior Jordan VanVeet and senior Tim Muhovich. Five junior college transplants dot the active roster – Lucas Stafford, Dillon Sterling, Terry Perkins, Kaulana Waalani-Arroyo and Mike Campbell.
Jenkins has received a good look at them in practice, too.
“Kaulana ... he’s a freaking stud, man. He’s a stud. Comes downhill quick,” Jenkins said. “Mike Campbell, Jamal Campbell – all those guys in the secondary do a great job making me work all practice, which is all I can ask for.”
Punting duties will be handled by either backup quarterback Cougar Beaubien or Stephen Andrews, while Andrews or Eric Garcia-Henderson will manage placekicking responsibilities.
After an extra week of waiting, the Skyhawks are bursting at the seams to play games that count. The question is: Can they get the wins to keep that enthusiasm rolling all season long and scratch a six-year itch?
“Until you play live bullets – somebody else is playing fast, too – you don’t really know what to compare it against at the moment, but I do like what I see,” Rivas said. “We’ve got a good group of guys, coaches are coaching fast, and I like it.”