Season Preview: Tech Looks to Defense in '10

After 13 seasons at Arkansas Tech University and a school-record 85 wins as the Wonder Boys’ head coach, Steve Mullins has learned that years like 2009 should be savored. Arkansas Tech begins its 2010 football season this week with 10 returning starters and 45 returning lettermen from a team that shattered school records on its way to one of the best seasons in school history last fall. “One thing you learn with age is that you need to enjoy the moment a little bit more,” said Mullins (photographed), who led the Wonder Boys to a 9-3 overall record and a berth in the second round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs in 2009. “I think in athletics we’re all guilty that as soon as one season is over you’ve got to start getting ready for the next one. I’ve just tried to get people to understand how special last year was; not that this year can’t be special, but it’s going to be in a different way.” The difference is that while the 2009 Wonder Boys made their hay on offense, the 2010 Wonder Boys are likely to be reliant on their defense.

Four senior All-Americans — quarterback Nick Graziano, wide receivers Frantz Simeon and Landon Turner and center Torrence Wright — led a 2009 Tech offense that set school single-season records for points scored (489), points per game (40.8), touchdowns (66), total offense (6,329 yards), passing yards (4,635) and touchdown passes (41) under the direction of offensive coordinator Scott Preston.

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Jeff Byrd spent 2009 — his first at Arkansas Tech — implementing an aggressive 3-4 defensive scheme. Byrd and six starters are back, and they know their performance will be a big key to any success the Wonder Boys enjoy in 2010.

“Our coaches have done a good job of recruiting over there, so we’ve got a little depth on defense,” said Mullins. “That’s where we have the most starters back and the most experience. I think we have an opportunity to be as good and as deep as we’ve ever been on defense. We may not be as big as some other teams, but I like our effort, our attitude and how hard those guys are playing.”

Applying pressure to the quarterback is a focal point for the Arkansas Tech defense, and Mullins believes his team has the personnel necessary to achieve that objective.

“Any great defense is going to start with the defensive line,” said Mullins. “The quarterback looks totally different when he has four seconds to throw as opposed to two-and-a-half. Hopefully those guys up front and the speed we have at linebacker will allow us to pressure the quarterback and play the style that Coach Byrd likes to play.”

Senior defensive backs Tario Dansby and RonDerrick Jackson are back after leading Tech with 73 tackles apiece last season.

Dansby and senior linebacker Brandon Wright were both named to the preseason 2010 All-Gulf South Conference team. Wright had 29 tackles — 10 of which were for a loss — in 2009.

Of the 11 defensive starters listed on the Wonder Boys’ preseason depth chart, 10 are seniors and one is a junior.

Only four starters return on offense for Arkansas Tech. The Wonder Boys’ returnees only accounted for 13 percent of their total offense in 2009, which means that a lot of new faces will have to make a lot of plays for Tech in 2010.

“You’re not ever going to know what you’re good at and what you can execute until you line up for a game,” said Mullins. “As we go through our first two games of the season, hopefully we can get settled offensively before the start of conference play. These first two weeks of the season are going to be critical for our offense.

“I’ve been around it for so long…you can’t say this is going to happen or that’s going to happen when you have inexperienced players,” continued Mullins. “We’re going to start a bunch of inexperienced players (on offense). Hopefully they’re going to grow up quickly.”

Mullins has said during the final days of preseason practice that he anticipates two quarterbacks — senior Robert Sagerian and junior James Landry — will both see time in the season opener against Lambuth University.

Sagerian appeared in eight games and was 11-of-18 passing for 186 yards and a touchdown as an understudy to Graziano in 2009. Landry is a transfer from Holmes Community College, where he accounted for 2,105 yards of total offense in 2008.

Tech’s top returning offensive performer is senior running back Cody Burns, who led the Wonder Boys in rushing with 479 yards last season. The top returning receiver is senior Scharvundrick Franklin. He made 32 receptions for 259 yards and a touchdown in 2009.

Tech is even less experienced on special teams, where it lost four-year letterman Travis Cockerham to graduation. Cockerham handled both the place kicking and punting duties for the Wonder Boys in 2009.

Indications are that junior punter/fullback Jake Denzer and freshman kicker/quarterback Cody Jones have earned the first opportunity to win the punting and place kicking jobs in 2010.

Arkansas Tech will begin its 96th football season by hosting Lambuth University on Thursday, Sept. 2. Kickoff at Thone Stadium at Buerkle Field is set for 7 p.m. Admission will be free for those with a valid Tech identification card.

Pre-game festivities will begin at 5 p.m. with the Party at the Plaza outside the stadium on Centennial Plaza.