Saturday, August 23, 2008

Seven days to go ...

The ACU Wildcats wrapped up summer practice Saturday with a light intrasquad scrimmage at Shotwell Stadium, and when it was over head coach Chris Thomsen proclaimed his team ready for what could be the program's best season since the 1977 NAIA Division I national championship season.

And that's saying something considering the Wildcats are coming off back-to-back NCAA Division II playoff appearances and finished 10-3 in 2007 with one of the most exciting offenses in all of college football. The Wildcats' march to a third straight playoff appearance (and hopefully more than that) will begin next Saturday at 6 p.m. in Maryville, Mo., when the Wildcats take on No. 3 Northwest Missouri State in one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the season.

The reason for Thomsen's optimism entering the season is he believes he's molded the kind of team he envisioned when he and offensive coordinator Ken Collums arrived at ACU prior to the 2005 season. Thomsen wants players committed to the team concept, players who work hard, players who are focused and intense and who strive to do the right things on the field, off the field and in the classroom.

Some of his best players are the guys who embody all of those characteristics, and the other players have followed their example. Bernard Scott, Billy Malone and Johnny Knox get most of the headlines on offense, but as Thomsen said earlier in the summer, the heart and sould of the offensive unit is senior center Sam Collins. He's a four-year starter who has started every game for the Wildcats the last three seasons.

The wrapup to the Wildcats' summer practice can be found here. But here are a few notes from a post-practice chat with Coach Thomsen:

* Quarterback Billy Malone would prefer to stay out of the limelight, and that's why he's not often quoted in the newspaper or found on TV highlights. That preference has led to more coverage of Bernard Scott and Johnny Knox, not that it's not warranted. However, Malone's preference to stay out of the spotlight has covered up the fact that the senior goes into his fourth season as the Wildcats' starter in the best physical shape of his career and with a firm grasp on the Wildcats' playbook.

"Billy has had great focus and preparation, which is what I expected of him," Thomsen said. "He's picked up right where he left off last year. He's dropped about 10 pounds (down to 230 pounds) from last year, and I think he feels better physically. He's able to move around in the pocket a little bit better, and that will help him. He's right where he needs to be going into the season."

* Thomsen said that several redshirt freshmen would play prominent roles on what he believes will be a better Wildcat defensive unit in 2008, and two of them will start next Saturday against Northwest Missouri State. Defensive ends Nick Jones (Amarillo Tascosa) and Aston Whiteside (Vernon) will line up as the bookends in the Wildcats' 3-4 defense. Both were starting with the first team defense in Saturday's scrimmage, and defensive line coach Clayton Farrell said they would be in the same spots next Saturday.

Transfer Vantrise Studivant (Rutgers), redshirt freshman Ryan Smith, sophomore Austin January and senior Willis Hogan will also rotate in and out, giving the Wildcats six defensive ends who will see playing time.

"We're really excited about Nick and Aston and what they bring to us," Thomsen said. "They've got great athleticism, and we're excited to see how they perform in their first college game. I know they're getting thrown into the fire, so to speak, but I know they'll play hard and give us everything they have."

* The Wildcats are likely to add another Rutgers transfer to the defensive side of the ball on Sunday when senior linebacker Chenry Lewis reports. Lewis has one year of eligibility remaining after playing the last three seasons for the Scarlet Knights of the Big East. A teammate of Studivant's at Rutgers, Lewis initially transferred to the University of Rhode Island after playing at Rutgers, but will instead play his final season at ACU.

Lewis will go through workouts with the Wildcats this week and will then probably make the trip to Missouri. Thomsen said with a limited knowledge of the Wildcats' defense, he'll probably be used mainly in pass-rush situations. He would then have two full weeks to get ready for the Wildcats' Sept. 13 home-opener against Texas A&M-Commerce.

The 6-1, 245-pound defensive end / outside linebacker is a native of Kingston, Jamaica, and played on all three Rutgers bowl teams the last three seasons.

* Former Blinn College punter Sean McGlothlin reported to camp earlier this week and could be the Wildcats' punter against NW Missouri State, although Thomsen said he would likely take both Mark Kelley (last year's punter) and McGlothlin to Missouri.

* Tight end Trey Simeone, who missed all of last year with shoulder problems, is probably out for 4-6 weeks after injuring his foot. The redshirt junior was looking forward to returning to Maryville, Mo., this week (he played there as a freshman in 2005), but his injury will keep him out of the game. The Wildcats, though, are in good shape at tight end with returning starter Kendrick Holloway entrenched as the starter with Oregon transfer Ryan Keeling behind him and Nick Evans running as the third-stringer.

* It appears the battle for the backup quarterback spot has been won by redshirt freshman Zach Stewart, who worked with the second team in Saturday's scrimmage. The former Abilene Cooper HS quarterback looked sharp throwing the ball and Thomsen said he has put together a good summer camp.

Transfer Clark Harrell (Tulsa) is still learning the offense, while Thomsen and the offensive staff have been impressed with true freshman Mitchell Gale of Alva, Okla. The Wildcats' head coach said he believes ACU will be in good shape at the position for the next several years with three good quarterbacks to choose from after Malone throws his last pass for the Wildcats.

* The offensive line is coming together pretty nicely for the Wildcats, who have had to assimilate two mammoth transfers -- left tackle Tony Washington and right tackle Trevis Turner -- into the starting unit. However, that transition seems to be going pretty smoothly, and Thomsen said the unit really started showing signs this week of gelling together and becoming the unit it needs to be for the offense to succeed.

Thomsen also mentioned how impressed he has been with the play of redshirt freshman (and former walk-on) Matt Webber, who will probably step in for Collins at center in 2009. Also impressing Thomsen has been the play of redshirt freshman tackle Neal Tivis. With Washington, Turner, Tivis, Webber and this year's starting left guard, Royland Tubbs, returning next year, the offensive line should be in good shape in 2009.

* Most fans have heard that there will be a new clock rule in place for the 2008 season, but that won't be the only new rule for the upcoming season. After the scrimmage, Thomsen and his coaching staff sat down with two LSC game officials and went over the new rules (and their interpretations of the rules) in a 45-minute question-and-answer session.

Some of the new rules for 2008 that you'll need to know are these:
> For the first time, the NCAA has adopted the use of a 40-second clock, as well as a 25-second clock.

When an official signals the ball is dead (either in bounds or out of bounds), the 40-second play clock will begin. If the 40-second clock is interrupted for reasons beyond the controle of the officials or the play-clock operator (clock malfunction, etc.), the referee will stop the game clock and signal that the play clock should be re-set to 40 seconds and started immediately.

In the event that the 40-second clock is running and the ball is not ready to be snapped after 20 seconds into the count, the referee shall declare an official timeout and signal that the play clock be set at 25 seconds.

25-second clock: If the officials signal the game clock to be stopped for any of the following reasons, the referee shall signal that the clock should be set at 25 seconds:
* penalty
* team timeout
* media timeout
* injury timeout
* measurement
* change of possession
* after a score
* start of each quarter
* start of each series in overtime
* other administrative stoppage

> The receiving team on a kickoff has the option to take the ball its own 40-yard line on a kickoff out of bounds.
> The horse-collar tackle has been prohibited. However, if a quarterback is sacked in the pocket via the horse-collar it is a legal play. And, according to the LSC officials, the only time a horse-collar tackle will be called will be when the runner immediately goes down.
> The five-yard facemask penalty has been eliminated. The only facemask penalty now is a 15-yard personal foul penalty that will also carry with it an automatic first down. A defensive player may put his hand on the facemask, and as long as there is no twisting or pulling on the facemask, he will not be penalized.
> There will no longer be a sideline warning. The first time a team is outside the zone and a flag is thrown it will be a 5-yard penalty. Same for the second time. From the third time on it will be a 15-yard penalty.

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