First-year programs back on recruiting trail

More news about: Berry | Hendrix | Southwestern
Berry didn't have a lot of success vs. varsity programs but did win a game against LaGrange's JV squad.
Berry athletics photo

Berry coach Tony Kunczewski is hot on the recruiting trail.

The regular season for Division III football officially ended Saturday. But the head coach of the first-year program out of Georgia is returning phone calls in between visits to high schools, trying to spin a Week 11 bye into a head-start on courting new players.

Coach Buck Buchanan at Hendrix, the first-year program out of Arkansas, was still conducting exit interviews with this year’s players on Tuesday morning. The Warriors, who had the best record of the three start-up teams in the South with three wins, played the final week of the season. But while Buchanan talked with players about their season under his staff, that coaching staff was already out on the road as well -- hunting for the second class of Hendrix Warriors.

It’s the same at Southwestern, where coach Joe Austin says he’s planning on recruiting “the other half” of his football team this offseason.

There are challenges and growing pains with building a football team where none existed before. There are basic questions of infrastructure and personnel. But there is opportunity in a brand new program, as well.

Hendrix, Southwestern and Berry all offer recruits new, state of the art facilities. In Arkansas, it’s all brand new -- from the locker room and weight room to Young-Wise Memorial Stadium. The Texas team was born, in part, as a result of the opportunity to lease newly built, 10,000-plus seat Bernard Birklebach Field from the Georgetown Independent School District. In Georgia, the Richards Memorial Gymnasium, originally built in the 1930s, got a dramatic renovation, while brand-new Valhalla Stadium is in the works.

Austin is the only one of the three coaches without prior experience on the staff of a first-year team. He says he specialized in rebuilding programs, “reclamations.” In some ways, he considers starting from scratch an easier task.

“In a lot of ways an empty cupboard is better than a messy cupboard,” he said. “… We’ve got a lot of guys that we want to have. We don’t have to clean up a mess. We don’t have to change the culture of the program, we don’t have to get rid of kids that don’t have the right attitude.”

But even with plenty of planning -- new athletic facilities, hiring coaches who in turn hire a staff and recruit those perfect players -- a brand new football program is inherently something of a last-minute assignment. Members of the staff gather may be completely assembled for their new assignments only a few months before players actually arrive. Berry’s staff met all together for the first time in July of this year.

Their players practiced for the first time on Aug. 13. On Sept. 7, they played their first college football game.

For those incoming freshmen, there are no informal meetings of upperclassmen to practice passing routes, no organized sessions in the weight room. The raw material for these new teams is almost exclusively the high school senior -- who must immediately and miraculously be molded into a college player ready to compete against other college players. And, without monitoring by high school coaches back home and still lacking the network of support from the college level, some freshmen may enter their first year of college ball less prepared than they were for their senior season in high school.

So while recruiting is important to any program, it may be especially so for new and developing teams looking for motivated players able to contribute immediately as well as grow physically and intellectually -- and, perhaps most importantly, be ready to commit four years to a coach already looking forward to a day that his team will have its own upperclassmen.

Hendrix, which had a handful of transfers this year, had no seniors.

“We didn't have Senior Day today,” Buchanan said, laughing. “We'll have actually 'Senior Day' next year cause we'll have one, so we'll have Senior Day.”

Without veteran role-players and longstanding starting assignments, coaches of fledgling programs remind prospective players that there is a very, very real opportunity to contribute immediately. Established programs with older players may be more likely to expect newcomers to pay their dues in practice and in back-up roles.

Buchanan has consciously leaned on this angle from the beginning. He deliberately kept a small first-year recruiting class to make sure that all those new players got plenty of repetitions in practice. And, with only 50 or so players currently in the program, members of the new recruiting class should easily envision themselves in uniform and on the field.

In one way, that strategy immediately paid off. Through the first half of the season the Warriors were 3-3.

The margin of victory in the three defeats averaged to just over five points. And Hendrix (3-7, 1-7) played what Buchanan described as their best game of the year in a four-point loss to playoff-bound Washington University that came down to the final play of the game behind a backup Warriors’ quarterback.

But that was the downside to Buchanan’s strategy of keeping his numbers small. When starting quarterback Seth Peters left the Wash. U. game with a knee injury, depth immediately became an issue. The Warriors’ backup quarterback was already on the field -- at receiver. As the season progressed and the injuries mounted -- as they do for any team -- Buchanan had to keep moving pieces around to fill gaps. Only about 42 dressed for the final game, a 35-9 home loss to Sewanee on Saturday.

Buchanan said he was forced to limit the physicality of his play-calling and even his practices as he tried to hold together a small, season-weary team of players who are physically immature compared to the upperclassmen of established teams.

“We tried to take the physicality out of the ball game last year as much as possible, because we had all freshmen,” he said. “So, you know, putting the ball out in the perimeter, getting it out in space where it wasn't just a scrum situation. We got beat up a little bit toward the end of the year because we're playing teams that are running the ball overtop of us and control the line of scrimmage more. … I was very pleased with the fact that we were competitive in our ball games this year. And the ones that we weren't, we got out-physicaled in and that should start evening out after an offseason.”

Buchanan said he went to more of an NFL-style of practice with limited contact as the season bore on.

Austin found himself struggling occasionally in practice even earlier in the season, especially before the first game. Without a foundation of players with previous college experience, he had no way to replicate the increased speed of the college game for his new recruits. Their first college game blew them back a bit.

“It was just an eye opening shocker for our kids,” he said, “because there’s no way to prepare them for it. Because when you’re practicing with freshmen there’s no way to prepare them for the speed.”

While the Pirates started at about twice the size of Buchanan’s Warriors, the injuries still took a startling toll. Austin said he was curious to compare injury notes with coaches of this season’s other two first-year programs. His own program struggled through something like 30 season-ending injuries.

He attributed many of the shoulder and knee injuries he saw so frequently this season to a lack of stability that a steady program in the weight room would help to build. And, of course, there’s the physical mismatch between teenage freshmen and more physically developed upperclassmen.

“The biggest thing is, you’ve got 18-year-old young men playing against 21-, 22,- 23-year-olds who have had the benefit of two to three offseasons in the college weight room,”  Kunczewski said. “And that’s a huge difference. I think especially at the Division III level … the development of the players is probably -- I would argue is bigger here than at any of the other levels.”

Kunczewski’s young Berry (0-9, 0-6) team also started out at about twice the size of Hendrix. But the Vikings found themselves splitting time between two local stadiums that served as “home” locations this season. In addition to five actual road games, this set up left Berry without much of a home-field advantage. Although, Kunczewski is quick to point out, attendance at those two locations was outstanding as Berry embraced its new football team. All three coaches expressed pleased surprise at the immediate support their teams received and how readily football was embraced.

That’s probably attributable, at least in part, to a coach’s willingness and availability to try to engage the community, both on the campus and in the surrounding area. Kunczewski said he hasn’t turned down many, if any, opportunities to interact with the public since he was hired in 2012.

But the Vikings schedule also turned out to be something of a surprise. Berry faced playoff-bound Maryville and Washington University, I-AA Mercer, and co-conference champion Rhodes in its first four games.

Struggling on the field in the first year of existence is not unexpected. Berry at least had the benefit of winning against a JV squad from LaGrange. But keeping a positive outlook for an overmatched team over the course of a season can be especially challenging, even if the struggles aren’t unanticipated.

For Southwestern (0-10, 0-3), a scheduling quirk had the Pirates playing Austin College and Trinity (Texas) twice each. That at least allowed the players to see some progress as they were able to measure themselves against the same team at different points in the season.

“I really do like our guys,” Austin said. “They’ve gone through a lot and they’ve come back swinging. It’s tough when you don’t win a game and our guys don’t see the fruits of their labor.”

In an effort to play a full schedule, his Pirates finished the season on a cross-country tour to Southern Virginia. While any road game with a full field of freshmen is a special kind of challenge -- there are no team captains, Austin explained, saying he often found himself filling the role of both coach and captain. For the season finale, his team left campus at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, took a 40 minute bus ride to the airport in Austin, then flew commercial flights to Houston, to Raleigh, N.C., then into Roanoke, Va., where they spent the night.

On Saturday, a bus took the Pirates to Buena Vista for the at that point all-but-forgotten purpose of playing a football game. 

Perhaps predictably, they didn’t perform very well in a 40-0 loss over a muddy field, but it was an experience that will make them all infinitely more mature for next season. And as coaches of all sports appreciate, the true joy of coaching freshmen is watching them become bigger, stronger, smarter sophomores.

“When you don’t see the results that you’re looking for out on the field, you tend to hit the panic button and say, ‘Okay, we’ve got to totally revamp what we’re thinking,’” Kunczewski said, “You know, offensively and defensively.

“But we wanted to stick to the plan here. Now, certainly as a coach you need to make adjustments, and I’m not denying that, but there’s also a sense of you’ve got to stick to the plan and you may not see the results in 2013, but we’re hopeful in 2014 and beyond that we see the results of the plans that we’re implementing.”

Southern Athletic Association

Rhodes dropped Millsaps on the field and out of playoff contention on Saturday.

After suffering their first loss of the season, the Majors were snubbed by the NCAA selection committee. The SAA is in the second year of a two-year probationary period before the conference champion can receive an automatic qualifying bid.

Rhodes and Millsaps share identical 3-1 conference records as well as the SAA title.

Blake Box rushed for a touchdown and passed for another to put the Lynx up 14-0 only seconds into the second quarter and Rhodes never trailed.

Majors quarterback Zak Thrasher was picked off three times in the loss. Michael Shield ran back an interception 40-yards to score with :26 remaining in the Rhodes’ season. It was Shield’s fourth interception this season, the most in the SAA. Shield also led the conference in total tackles, with 91.

Millsaps’ Mike Barthelemy finished the season with 21 rushing touchdowns -- also a conference-high. He also led the conference in rushing yards (1,400), yards per game (140), and total carries (268).

On the other side of the ball, Zach Bell and Jeff Milner led the Majors and the conference in sacks.

-- Sewanee wrapped up the season with a pair of road wins over a pair of first year programs, Berry and Hendrix.

 Curtis Johnson rushed 30 times for 150 yards and a touchdown as the Tigers (4-6, 3-3) defeated Hendrix, 35-9, on Saturday.

 Cody Daniel carried 12 times for 112 yards and a touchdown. Daniel also completed 4 of 7 passes for 35 yards, caught a 31-yard pass – the Tigers’ longest of the day – and punted four times for a 37.5 yard average.

 Hendrix’s Casey Caton topped the SAA in receiving yards per game, with 80. Caton’s eight receiving touchdowns were second in the conference standings.

 Warriors quarterback Seth Peters threw for 17 touchdowns, second in the SAA, despite missing the second half of the season. Tanner Frye, who took over for the injured starter, led the conference in completion percentage (65.8%).

-- Harry Meisner carried 24 times for 142 yards and four touchdowns as Centre ended its season in a 53-19 win over Birmingham-Southern.

 Meisner finishes the season second in the conference standings in both rushing yards per game (103.6) and touchdowns (20).

Colonels quarterback Heath Haden’s 254.4 passing yards per game leads the conference.

Birmingham-Southern’s Tyson Beacham was second with 209.7 ypg. Beacham also completed 17 touchdown passes.

 On Saturday, the Panthers lost three of four fumbles and Beacham was picked off twice.

 Selwyn Mallah returned one of those interceptions 50 yards to score.

Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference

-- Texas Lutheran rebounded with a season-ending win, but it wasn’t enough to propel the Bulldogs into the playoff picture.

The Bulldogs downed Howard-Payne 63-14 at home.

The Bulldogs eight wins are the most since 1976. Quarterback Brent Peavy averaged 285 passing yards per game and threw for 28 touchdowns; both marks lead the conference. Twin Cameron Peavy caught 13 touchdown passes and averaged 121 receiving yards per game – also conference-topping marks.

The four-team SCAC does not receive an automatic qualifying bid for the conference champion. A loss two weeks ago to Hardin-Simmons dropped Texas Lutheran (8-1, 3-0) out of the pool of independents that could be selected and out of the pool of at-large bids.

-- Austin College finished the season on a four-win streak.

The Kangaroos (5-5, 2-1) had not won five games in a season since 2008. The last time Austin College won more games was 2000.

The Kangaroos defeated Trinity (Texas) at home, 35-7, to end the season on Saturday.

 Trinity scored on a 9-yard run by M. Williams with 1:29 remaining in the second quarter and the game was tied 7-7 at halftime. James Nwankpah scored his first touchdown on a 1-yard run with 10:06 to play in the third, Andrew Klink’s kick put the Kangaroos up by seven, and Austin College never trailed. Nwankpah led the conference in carries with 155 and averaged 73 yards per game – second only to teammate Bryce Murphy. Murphy’s 97.3 yards per game top the conference. His 142 total carries are second to Nwankpah.

Noah Jesko threw for 274 yards and three TDs without an interception Saturday.  Jesko averaged 211.7 passing yards per game – second in the conference -- and threw for 13 TDs.

Stephen Smith and Manny Menezes combined at quarterback for 19 of 38 passing over 221 yards with one interception against Menezes. Smith threw for 16 touchdowns over the course of the season, second in the SCAC standings.

American Southwest Conference

-- Mary Hardin-Baylor wrapped up a fourth consecutive undefeated regular season with a 56-30 win over Mississippi College on the road.

Marcus Wimby carried five times for 66 yards and two touchdowns.  Wimby also had a team-high four catches for 55 yards. Elijah Hudson led the ground game with 13 touches for 103 yards. Eric Nelson caught two passes for two touchdowns that spanned 80 yards.

The Crusaders lost three of four fumbles. The Choctaws cut the lead to 35-30 with :48 seconds remaining in the third quarter when Dewayne Lewis scooped up a Chris Wimby fumble and returned it 15 yards to the Mary Hardin-Baylor six-yard line. Jonathon Redd completed a 1-yard scoring pass to Stacey Dillard on third-and-goal, but the ensuing PAT kick failed and the Crusaders scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to put the game away.

The win earned the Crusaders a conference title.

Redd passed for 250 yards and three touchdowns, completing 24 of 38 attempts. But Redd was also picked off twice and Zach Favre’s only attempt was intercepted. Redd rushed 23 times for 79 yards and a touchdown. Favre rushed 12 times for 53 yards and caught five passes for 34 yards. Wesley Lawless had 108 receiving yards and two touchdowns on three catches. Dossie Rivers had six catches for 36 yards.

Redd led the conference in total offense, covering 1,732 yards on the ground and through the air this season. Choctaws’ Jake Weddle was the conference leader in tackles. Weddle had 43 solo efforts and got a hand in 80 this season.

Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Zach Anderson leads the conference in pass efficiency, completing 70.3% of his attempts this season. Freshman kicker Drew Owen was second in the conference in points scored with 63. Punter Chad Peevey also led the conference, averaging 42.7 yards per punt. Cody Jones picked off five passes for Mary Hardin-Baylor, also a conference high.

The Crusaders host Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion Redlands (7-2, 7-0 SCIAC) on Saturday. Mary Hardin-Baylor opened the season with 31-13 road win over the Redlands Bulldogs.

-- Louisiana College scored 26 fourth-quarter points to defeat host Hardin-Simmons 46-34.

Six seconds into the final quarter, Easton Melancon connected with Kyle Galyon on a 7-yard touchdown pass that tied the season finale at 27-27.

Melancon also threw TD passes of 62 yards and 11 yards to Ladarius Gardner and Shedrick Davis, sandwiching the only Hardin-Simmons (4-6, 2-4) score of the fourth quarter. The Wildcats failed to connect on either PAT and led by only five when senior Ryan Montague popped free for a 44-yard touchdown run with 6:29 to play.

Melancon was the conference’s most prolific passer this season. The freshman threw for 1,672 yards and 20 touchdowns. Montague was second on the list of the best conference rushers, covering 688 yards on the ground and averaging 114.7 yards per game.

Senior Josh Christian passed for 262 yards and three touchdowns, but was intercepted four times on Saturday. Combined with a pair of lost fumbles, Hardin-Simmons turned the ball over six times to the Wildcats’ two.

Senior Tevin Mitchell rushed 34 times for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Mitchell leads the conference in rushing yards (959) and average yards per game (159.8), as well as leading all scorers with 11 rushing touchdowns for 66 points.

The Cowboys finished their first losing season in two decades.

-- East Texas Baptist University took its first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter and held off Sul Ross State to finish the season with a win, 34-32.

Jake McClain connected with Tyler Bates from 7 yards out and Cory McNeil’s kick put the Tigers up, 27-26, with 13:11 remaining in the fourth quarter.

McClain and Bates hooked up again with 7:49 to play, this time from 34 yards out.

The Lobos responded with an 80-yard drive that took just seven plays and 1:10 off the clock, ending in Derrick Bernard’s 10-yard scoring run with 1:01 left in regulation. But the two-point conversion attempt failed and ETBU (3-7, 1-5) held on.

Toi Glover had 41 carries for 182 yards and two touchdowns. McClain was 5-of-9 passing for 54 yards with two touchdowns. Josh Warbington completed five of 11 with an interception.

Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com and wrote Around the Great Lakes for D3football.com from 2012-14. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

2014 columnist: Justin Goldberg
2013 columnist: Andee Djuric
2012 columnist: Kyle Robarts
2008-11 columnist: Jason Bowen

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