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Football Season Preview: Tougher in 2011

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If head coach Steve Mullins could draw up an ideal formula for the 2011 Arkansas Tech football season, it would probably look something like this: more toughness + fewer turnovers = Great American Conference champions. With a new offensive philosophy, an adjusted attitude and the pain of a rare losing season fresh on their minds, the Wonder Boys will set out to reaffirm their identity as the top NCAA Division II football program in Arkansas during the 2011 season. For Mullins, that means a turn away from the pass-oriented attack employed by the Arkansas Tech offense in recent years and a return to the hard-nosed style of play that accounts for most of his school-record 89 wins as Tech head coach. “I thought at the end of last year we were too soft, not only physically, but mentally too,” said Mullins. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with finesse, but at times finesse just isn’t going to get it done. As we went through our weight lifting program last winter and spring practice, we tried to emphasize being physically and mentally tougher. I feel like we’ve made great strides. I’ve really liked our team’s attitude as we’ve fought through preseason camp.” The Wonder Boys hope their toughness will be reflected in a very tangible and important way --- fewer turnovers. Arkansas Tech committed 39 turnovers in 2010, tied for most among all 151 NCAA Division II football-playing members. “We can’t lead the nation in turnovers again,” said Mullins. “You just cannot have the success you want to have doing that. Hopefully we’ll do a good job of protecting the football and understanding how precious it is.” Those 39 turnovers were the No. 1 reason why the Wonder Boys finished with an overall record of 4-7. It was their first losing season since 2003. There is a parallel between then and now.

Tech changed offensive philosophies following that 2003 campaign and bounced back in 2004 with a 10-2 overall record and a berth in the NCAA Division II Playoffs. It was the beginning of a string of six consecutive non-losing seasons for the Wonder Boys, who made a return trip to the NCAA Division II postseason in 2009. This time around, the change in philosophy will be orchestrated by new offensive coordinator Dean Norsworthy. The Wonder Boys will still operate from a one-back set as their base formation, but the tight end will be re-introduced to the Tech offense and there will be a greater emphasis on the running game.

“There are some similarities and some differences in our passing game, but I think to the average fan it is going to look very similar,” said Mullins when asked to compare the Wonder Boys’ new offensive schemes to their old ones. “We will try to do a little more two-back stuff and more power stuff in our running game. The rushing attack is going to be very different.” Among the differences in the ground game will be the addition of junior running back Trayshun King. King amassed 810 all-purpose yards and scored 10 touchdowns during his sophomore season at East Mississippi Community College. He recorded three 100-yard rushing games along the way. King carried five times for 80 yards and two touchdowns in the Wonder Boys’ Green and Gold scrimmage on Aug. 23. Top returners for the Arkansas Tech offense include junior running back Tavin Davis, who rushed for 237 yards in 2010; junior wide receiver Roger Jackson, who made 50 receptions for 644 yards and eight touchdowns last year; and junior left tackle Daryl Ward, who is back for his third season as a regular contributor and second season as a starter on the Tech offensive line. Three different quarterbacks --- senior James Landry, sophomore Cody Jones and freshman Preston Conder --- competed for the starting job late into preseason camp. It remains unclear which one of them will begin the season as the Arkansas Tech starting quarterback. The Wonder Boys lose nine starters from a defense that was best in the Gulf South Conference against the run under defensive coordinator Jeff Byrd in 2010, allowing just 86.4 rushing yards per game. But what Arkansas Tech lost in experience on defense might be overcome by an infusion of talent, including new starting middle linebacker Chris Strong. A transfer from the University of Mississippi, Strong was named Mr. Football in Mississippi by the Clarion-Ledger newspaper and the No. 1 recruit in the state of Mississippi by following his senior season in 2006. He helped South Panola High School accumulate four Mississippi Class 5A state championships and a 60-0 overall record during his four seasons of prep football. The Wonder Boys’ top returnees on defense include senior linebacker Brandon Keaton, who made 38 tackles in 2010; senior cornerback Joe Means, who notched 27 tackles and two interceptions a year ago; and senior cornerback Joe Bryant, who broke up seven passes for Tech in 2009. “We lost a ton of experience, and every college coach in America frets the loss of actual game experience,” said Mullins when asked about his defense. “We had a heck of a defensive line a year ago, and not only did we have good defensive linemen, we had depth on the defensive line. As I look at our defense going into this year, that’s a big concern. Our secondary has a chance to be very athletic, but again depth is a concern. We’re going to have some youngsters back there, and mistakes will be made. Hopefully we can minimize that and protect ourselves with the way we call our defense.” Arkansas Tech is picked by league head coaches to finish tied for third in the Great American Conference in 2011. This will be the inaugural season for the NCAA Division II league, which was created by Tech and eight other charter members as a means of limiting missed class time and travel expenses. The University of Arkansas at Monticello, East Central University, Harding University, Henderson State University, Ouachita Baptist University, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Southern Arkansas University and Southwestern Oklahoma State University are the other charter members of the GAC. “It’s very exciting, not only for the sport of football, but for our athletic department in general,” said Mullins of the GAC. “We have a transition year in football. By agreeing with the Gulf South Conference to provide some games for their football-playing schools, we were able to break off clean in the other sports. The jumbled up football schedule is well worth accommodating the other sports. We’re looking forward to the conference and developing relationships with our neighbors in Oklahoma. I don’t see anything but it getting better and better as time goes on.” Arkansas Tech will begin its 2011 season with a GAC contest against the Arkansas-Monticello Boll Weevils on Saturday, Sept. 3. Kickoff at Convoy Leslie Cotton Boll Stadium in Monticello is set for 6 p.m.

Radio station KWKK 100.9 FM will broadcast the game in the Arkansas River Valley.

Click here to access an Internet stream of the broadcast.

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