The NCAA Division I football era at ACU begins Tuesday when the Wildcats hit the field at the Wally Bullington Practice Facility for the start of spring training.
For the first time since the summer of 1973, the Wildcats will take the practice field as members of a league other than the Lone Star Conference. The ACU athletics program will move up to NCAA Division I affiliation and the Southland Conference on July 1, 2013, and while ACU won't play a Southland Conference schedule in 2013, the Wildcats will still be a member of the Southland.
The Wildcats' first practices of the spring will be Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of this week with weekday starts set for 4 p.m. and Saturday's start set for 10 a.m. The 13th and final practice of the spring sessions will be Saturday, April 13, at Shotwell Stadium. The Wildcats will not have an official spring game this year.
"The No. 1 thing we want to get done is to finish spring ball knowing exactly what we're dealing with going into the fall," ACU head coach Ken Collums said. "We've got to have a good idea of what tools we have and if we have them in the right spot to be successful. We also need to have a very clear idea of where we need to look for help later this spring and summer."
The Wildcats' biggest question mark heading into spring football is quarterback where incumbent backup John David Baker is the starter after serving as the backup to record-setting starter Mitchell Gale for each of the last two years.
Baker has appeared in 10 career games and has completed 5 of 10 passes for 32 yards and one interception. He's also carried the ball six times for 32 yards with a long run of 18 yards. Baker, Collums said, isn't the passer that the Wildcats have had in the last eight years in Billy Malone (2005-08) and Gale (09-12), but is a better runner than either of those players.
"We won't be quite as pro style with John David back there," Collums said. "We'll probably have a little bit of a different flavor, which is good. John David can throw it and he can run it. The biggest thing we've got to do with him is find what he likes and what he does best instinctively. In the past we haven't implemented any outside run stuff or zone read, but we will have all of that as part of our packages with John David."å
Baker will have most of his weapons available in the spring as seniors-to-be Taylor Gabriel and Darian Hogg return at wide receiver, although Hogg will also be participating in track and field. Running back Charcandrick West also returns, as does tight end Jonathan Parker. Cy Wilson – who has suffered season-ending injuries in 2011 and 2012 – is moving from linebacker to fullback this spring.
One player Baker won't have at his disposal this spring is senior-to-be Darrell Cantu-Harkless, who is still recovering from the injuries he suffered in a serious one-vehicle accident in early February. Harkless was returning to his Austin home early one Saturday morning when he lost control of his vehicle and hit a tree head-on. Harkless was able to walk away from the accident, but suffered injuries that will keep him out of spring training and could threaten his senior season.
"He's still limping around pretty good," Collums said. "We're really lucky that he's even still around. The best thing he does is make cuts while he's moving really fast. Obviously he can't do that right now, and I don't know if he'll ever get that back. Right now his focus – and our focus with him – is to just get him healthy. Will he be the same player when he gets healthy? I don't know. But I do know that he's working hard to get back to that point. He's struggled some going from maybe our best player to the point where he might not be able to play again. That's been hard on him, but we're working through all of that. The main thing is that he's still here and his life wasn't cut short. We're more thankful for that than anything else."
Several players could see time in Harkless' slot receiver spot, including DeMarcus Thompson, Cade Stone, Milton Roberts and Drew Peters.
The offensive line's problems in 2012 were well-documented as the Wildcats ran for just 900 yards on the season and allowed 38 sacks of Gale. But Collums said he feels good about the group as long as senior-to-be Josh Perez remains at right guard.
"When he was playing center last year, we weren't as good because everything was thrown off," Collums said. "But to keep him at guard we've got to find a center."
The tackle spots are manned by Will Latu (left tackle) and Blake Spears (right tackle) with the Colton Carnes and Garrett Langthorp competing for the starting left guard spot.
The Wildcats had several players go down with season-ending injuries during the 2012 campaign, but Collums said outside linebacker Chris Summers will go through spring, but Blake Rudd (broken ankle) will be somewhat limited. Linebacker Derek Morrow (ACL tear) won't go through spring training.
Along the defensive front, Nick Finney returns at tackle, but he'll also see some time at defensive end. Collums said defensive tackle Ashton Thomas has had a good off-season, and also said it's time to see Josh Bloom begin to make strides at tackle. At end, the Wildcats return Rob Boyd, Nick Richardson, Brandon Dornak and Candon Canady.
At outside linebacker, ACU returns running back-turned-linebacker Travis Tarver, Summers, Justin Stephens, Vicente Cantu-Harkless and several others who saw some playing time in 2012. At inside linebacker, Jesse Harper and Thor Woerner return.
At cornerback, the Wildcats return Caleb Withrow and Jeremy Rivers, but Collums said he really wants to see sophomores-to-be Tyler Chapa and Keith Barnett make big strides in spring training. Former cornerback Justin Stewart has been moved to safety where he joins Angel Lopez and Lynn Grady to give the Wildcats a solid trio of safeties.
Information provided by ACU athletics department.