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At long last, Smith’s Skyhawks set for football debut at Dixie State

Smith gets first chance to lead Skyhawks into a game Saturday
Jayden Helms of Fort Lewis College is a player to watch, whether he’s on defense or playing special teams.

Darrius G. Smith has waited a long time for his first game as a head college football coach. After he was hired by Fort Lewis College in February of 2020, he was left waiting even longer.

The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out spring ball after only a few practices in 2020 and canceled the NCAA Division II Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference season in the fall. With the opportunity to schedule games this spring, Smith and the Skyhawks jumped on an opportunity to put together a three-game schedule.

“This has been a long process,” said Smith, who signed a three-year contract to join FLC from Bryant University in Rhode Island after previous assistant coaching stops at University of Massachusetts, Villanova, Northeastern, James Madison, Idaho, Indiana (Pennsylvania) and New Mexico Highlands during a span of more than 25 years.


“COVID has put a monkey wrench on everything. We’ve been able to persevere and get some things done on and off the field. Now, we get a chance to line up and play somebody else, a good team, and our guys are excited for it,” Smith continued. “We’re going in to play a game. This is our regular season. It’s only three games, but we are going to line up and play to win each game.”

It starts at 7 p.m. Saturday at Greater Zion Stadium against Dixie State University, a former RMAC opponent that has transitioned to the Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level and enjoyed an increase in funding and scholarships.

The TrailBlazers will enter the game with a 1-3 record with a three-game losing streak. After a 26-14 road win against Tarleton State, the TrailBlazers lost 36-29 to New Mexico State, 37-15 at home to Tarleton and 37-27 last weekend at Kennesaw State in Georgia.

During the 2019 season, FLC lost a 23-14 home game to Dixie State in a matchup that showed the strength of the FLC defense. But Smith knows the team his returning Skyhawks players will see Saturday night is anything but the one they faced two years ago.

“They’ve built up their program, and we have to step up to a big challenge,” Smith said. “They’ve added more bodies and have scholarship dollars behind it. By no stretch of the imagination are we thinking we will see the same Dixie as in 2019. I want to see our guys out there sharp, fast and mentally strong. That’s the team I think we’re capable of being.

“For our first game, going on the road in a big stadium against a team new to the FCS, we have to take the positives of what we’ve done in practice and minimize the mistakes. If we do that, we can expect a hell of a football game.”

Fort Lewis College quarterback Connor Apodaca has been in a battle all fall and spring with Armon “Bubba” Hickson for the starting QB job. Both could get a chance to play Saturday at Dixie State.

FLC will hope to get more answers about its quarterback battle between Connor Apodaca and Armon “Bubba” Hickson. Smith would not name a starter ahead of Saturday’s game.

Apodaca, a redshirt freshman transfer from the University of Northern Colorado, had to sit out last season because of transfer rules. Hickson is new recruit out of Georgia who played at Reedley College in California. In two seasons at Reedley, he passed for 1,625 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions while he ran for five more scores.

“It’s been a really good quarterback competition. It’s had its ups and downs like most training camps,” Smith said. “One day, one guy is head and shoulders above the other. Then the next day, the other is. They both have good football IQs, can work in the pocket and have the ability to run the offense effectively. It’s a tight race.”

The same can be said at running back with 2019 leading rusher Jeff Hansen competing alongside known commodity Brayden Lucero, the 2018 team’s leading rusher, and redshirt junior Emmanuel Nwosu, a transfer from Santa Barbara City College who did not play in 2019.

“We are excited to see what (Nwosu) can contribute,” Smith said. “We are platooning guys right now. Everything is competition mode, and all three of those guys have had a good camp who have been showing up at the right time in the right moments.”

Zach Russell of Fort Lewis College is one of the top tight ends in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

FLC is relatively loaded when it comes to pass catchers. Redshirt junior Dylan Holt of Aurora is a transfer from Colorado State. Tight end Zach Russell is one of the top tight ends in the RMAC and had four touchdowns in 2019. Isaac Leppke, a second-year Skyhawk who transferred from Wyoming, also had four touchdowns at wide receiver last year, while Markez Boykin, a transfer from Black Hills State, grabbed a pair of touchdowns for FLC in 2019.

Smith also likes the team’s additions to the offensive line, including Durango’s-own Ryan Barkley, who transferred from Montana State.

“Seeing a guy like Barkley coming home to play with his athletic ability and size, I think he’s going to be a major contributor,” Smith said. “I look forward to seeing what he does live.”

The defense returned some talent from the 2019 team. With defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato retained on Smith’s staff, the Skyhawks will hope to see continued progress after the unit ranked third in the RMAC in 2019. Safety Jayden Helms is the top returning tackler from 2019 when he had 52 tackles and two fumble recoveries. Twin brother Dakota Helms also returned after he had 45 tackles, an interception, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery that season.

Blayke De La Rosa helped the Fort Lewis College defense come up with plenty of explosive plays in 2019. After a year and a half without games, the Skyhawks will look to see where they have improved since 2019.

Up front, the Skyhawks can lean on Blayke De La Rosa and Lorenzo Tanner to make big plays. Tanner had five sacks off the edge in 2019, while De La Rosa had 2½.

Several players who were seniors this season decided to graduate in the winter not knowing if they would get a chance to play this year. Because of that, Smith expects depth to be a bit of an issue. But with three weeks between Saturday’s opener at Dixie State and the lone spring home game of the season at 2 p.m. April 17 against Western Colorado, Smith knows there will be plenty of opportunities for players to step up.

“Thank goodness we are only playing three games,” he said. “A lot of schools at the D-II level aren’t playing at all this year. But we had enough depth to field a competitive football team, and we are going to roll out there and give it our best. The schedule is advantageous for us to play a very good football team, see where we measure up and then come home and look at what we liked and what we didn’t. We’re going to find out who we are.”


Game info


Fort Lewis at Dixie State


NCAA football


7 p.m. Saturday


Greater Zion Stadium, St. George, Utah









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