(Part 11 of a 12-part Sun Belt Conference football preview series)
Texas State has turned to a full-fledged youth movement in an effort to climb back from its worst season since 1938.
Coach Everett Withers' first year in San Marcos began on a promising note with a 56-54 overtime victory at Ohio. Lopsided losses to Arkansas and Houston followed, but a 48-17 win over Incarnate Word evened the Bobcats' record at 2-2 going into Sun Belt Conference play. A 40-34 Week 6 loss at ULM proved to be the only competitive game in league play for the Bobcats, who closed out a 2-10, 0-8 campaign mired in an eight-game slide.
To escape the Sun Belt cellar, the Bobcats will need to generate some offense. Seven starters return from a unit which ranked 124th out of 128 FBS teams in scoring (18.6 points per game), dead last in rushing (82.4 ypg), 77th in passing (219.9 ypg) and 126th in total yardage (302.3 ypg). Adding to the woes were a minus-14 turnover margin, 44 sacks allowed and a 31 percent third down conversion rate.
Texas State's reliance on youth wasn't by design. First-year co-coordinators Zak Kuhr and Parker Fleming face an even greater challenge following the recent suspension of New Orleans Rummel product Damian Williams, a Mississippi State graduate transfer who was projected to replace four-year starting quarterback Tyler Jones.
A quartet of true freshmen (Jaylen Gipson, Willie Jones III, Kishawn Kelley and Jaylin Nelson) have all taken snaps, though Jones and Gipson appear to have separated. Kelley, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, and Nelson could both end up at other positions.
The Bobcats are also unexpectedly younger in the backfield as Stedman Mayberry, the team's leading rusher and No. 2 receiver, opted not to return for his junior season. Sophomore Anthony D. Taylor is the likely starter with Nelson and Kelley among the possible backups.
Led by junior slot receiver Tyler Watts (43 receptions, 364 yards, 1 touchdown), the top seven pass catchers return. Among the others to watch are sophomore flanker Thurman Morbley (35-400-2), senior wide receivers Elijah King (28-453-2) and Eric Luna (20-174-3), junior WR Mason Hays (17-198) and senior tight end Gabe Schrade (25-286-2).
Aaron Brewer heads up the offensive line after recording 54 knockdowns as a true freshman. Following seven starts at guard, Brewer spent the final four games at center. Junior Tryston Mizerak drew nine starts at left tackle, while Jacob Rowland started the final five games at guard.
A listless offense wasn't exclusively to blame for the 2016 woes as the defense ranked 125th nationally in scoring (41.1 ppg), 106th against the run (222.3 ypg), 87th against the pass (248.8 ypg) and 117th in total yardage (471.1 ypg) while managing only nine sacks and three interceptions.
Sophomore inside linebacker Bryan London II was a bright spot, finishing second in the FBS in tackles (141 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles). Senior inside 'backer Gabe Loyd (102 tackles, 7 TFL, 2 sacks) and junior outside linebacker Frankie Griffin (48 tackles, 5 TFL) round out the starting group. Senior Easy Anyama, who originally signed a track scholarship at Texas, started the first three games before having his season shortened by an injury. Sophomore Hal Vinson (23 tackles) is coming off of a promising spring.
Junior Ishmael Davis (38 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 blocked kicks) and sophomore Dean Taylor (23 tackles, 1.5 TFL) gained a year of experience at the ends as did sophomore tackle Jordan Mittie (31 tackles, 4 TFL). Junior college transfer Sami Awad brings some much-needed bulk to the interior.
All four starting spots in the secondary are vacant. Junior A.J. Krawczyk is the projected starter at free safety after switching over from wide receiver in the spring. Sophomore Anthony J. Taylor (27 tackles, 2.5 TFL), who started four of the final games at cornerback, will also figure into the equation.
Sophomore Marcus Ripley and junior James Sherman will handle the kicking chores, with one or the other doing the punting. Ripley made 5-of-6 field goals and 17-of-18 PATs. Sherman was 2-of-4 with a team-long 39-yard field goal, while earning credit for three touchbacks on 13 kickoffs.
Texas State is looking for help in the return game after ranking last in the Sun Belt in kickoff returns with a 16.8-yard average.
2017 TEXAS STATE SCHEDULE
(All times Central and subject to change)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 Houston Baptist 6 p.m.
Sept. 9 at Colorado 1 p.m.
Sept. 16 Appalachian State* 6 p.m.
Sept. 23 UTSA* TBA
Sept. 30 at Wyoming TBA
Oct. 7 ULM* 2 p.m.
Oct. 12 at Louisiana* 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 28 at Coastal Carolina* TBA
Nov. 4 New Mexico State* (HC) 2 p.m.
Nov. 11 Georgia State* TBA
Nov. 18 at Arkansas State* TBA
Nov. 24 (Fri.) at Troy* TBA