The life cycle for a college coach is particularly cruel; the end could be just around the corner, and you might not know it until there is nothing you can do to stop it. Sam Winters knows this quite well at this point. Two years ago, the Eastern State coach was regarded as one of, if not the best, football coaches in the country. He built a successful program out of nothing in northern Florida, nearly took the Timberwolves to a couple of national titles, deflected an NFL offer, and, heading into a new decade, readied a team as well-positioned as any to compete in this college football landscape.
Two years, 10 wins, and two postseasons at home later, Winters resides on possibly the hottest seat in college football. A lack of both discipline and playmakers has left the Timberwolves' program at a bit of a crossroads.
Winters got 72,000 people to regularly attend Wolf Den Stadium on Saturdays, and those 72,000 didn't invest in 5-6 seasons. They need to win big this fall, but if at least one newcomer can come through, ESU may be in position to do just that.
To say the least, last season did not go as planned. Led by sophomore quarterback Joe Kane, a tortured gunslinger and local boy, the Timberwolves were expected to have the best offense, and overall team, in the ACC.
But as the season progressed, it was easy to realize that far too much was placed on Kane's shoulders. ESU lacked severely at the skill positions, and, forced to create plays out of whole cloth, Kane took too many hits and wore down significantly as the season advanced. Back-to-back losses, including a last-second heartbreaker at Georgia Tech, dropped ESU from a disappointing 5-4 to a devastating 5-6. The defense was steady, if lacking in the pass rush, but Kane simply needed more weapons around him than he had.
Ah, the life of a blue-chip quarterback. Joe Kane enters his junior season both a disappointment and a Heisman candidate. Not unlike someone like former Florida State quarterback Chris Rix, Kane has all the physical tools necessary to succeed (other than perhaps a bit of a slight stature), but he has neither completely harnessed them nor received the help necessary to rebuild a winner in north Florida. The junior has struggled with both lingering injuries and, potentially, some other personal issues as well; but along with Michigan quarterback Tim Waymen, he enters the season one of the two top names in the early Heisman race.
Kane's Heisman candidacy could potentially be as much in the shaky hands of a freshman as his own. ESU has lacked severely at the running back position in Kane's time behind center, and with rebuilding a once-explosive run game a major priority of the offseason, all eyes shift to five-star freshman Darnell Jefferson. Once thought to be a qualification risk, Jefferson is eligible and ready to do damage … if he can hold onto the ball, at least. Word from campus is that he has struggled with fumbleitis a bit, which is often common among blue-chip backs who have never had to worry about high school defenders getting close enough to strip the ball. If Jefferson can displace starter Ray Griffen, ESU's ceiling will likely get quite a bit higher. Griffen is a workhorse back, but he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry (minus-11.4 Adj. POE) last fall.
Whoever wins the starting job at running back, however, can count on carrying the ball in quite a few different ways. Lacking in big-play receivers, ESU has leaned on running backs to not only carry the ball between the tackles but get downfield in passing routes as well. Though they quite often operate out of the old-school I-formation, the ESU offense requires a bit of a spread skill set. Jefferson is talented enough to thrive in this offense; the question is how quickly he can adapt to life in the ACC. The sooner, the better, of course.
The receiver position is, to say the least, lacking. Flee Ward has shown some potential, but his low catch rates suggest that the junior from Pahokee is lacking the consistency to become a true No. 1 target. Beyond him, however, are a series of decent possession guys with little to no explosiveness -- neither Armand Powell, Bryce McLaglen, nor Justin Probert averaged even 6.0 adjusted yards per target last fall, while tight ends Jake Mercer and Robbie Brenner are decent third-and-5 guys, but little more. A deep line led by all-conference tackle Bud Kaminski and three other returning starters can give Kane time, but eventually someone still has to come open. Otherwise, he will end up banged up again, and backup quarterback Bobby Collins could see more time than intended.
From Winters' first recruiting class to the present, ESU has emphasized extreme athleticism on the defensive side of the ball. The Timberwolves have produced more defensive All-Americans than anybody in the last decade, mining the Florida high school ranks successfully. Winters' methods have often been questioned -- their use of General Studies majors and questionable tactics for getting players eligible have certainly not decreased cynicism among academics about college sports and the "student" side of student-athletes.
That said, the product has certainly been outstanding. But as with the offensive side of the ball, the overall depth seems to have suffered in recent years. Weakside linebacker Alvin Mack is perhaps the single best defender Winters has brought to ESU, but he needs more help than he received last year.
In all, the linebacking corps is certainly loaded. Mack is a sure-fire All-American and likely top-10 pick in next April's NFL Draft. He is the rarest of commodities: a "tackling machine" type who also spends an inordinate amount of time behind the line of scrimmage. Mack finished last season with 116.0 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 10.0 sacks and eight passes defended. With Mack roaming, fellow linebackers Andrew Ellsworth and Jordan Jones were asked mostly to drop into coverage and react, and they did a reasonably fine job of that. But as good as the linebackers were, it would help if Mack and company didn't have to make as many big plays.
The ESU line got pushed around a bit more than normal last year (58th in Adj. Sack Rate, 72nd in Adj. Line Yards), and recruiting didn't seem to address this deficiency very clearly. Career reserve end Steve Lattimer appears to have dedicated himself in the weight room this past winter -- 240 pounds last fall, he is now listed at 275 -- and it appears that if the Timberwolves' line play is to improve, it will be because he and likely starting tackles Anthony Molter and Ryan Shea improved individually.
The secondary was neither elite nor terrible last year, but they will have to replace two starters. Safety Shaun Klopp and corner John Clark return, but among the likes of returnees Tommy Dugay and Jeremy Gelb and junior college transfers Anthony Henderson and Shad Hendricks, two solid starters must emerge.
One has to say this for ESU: they do not believe in cupcakes. Even a drastically improved ESU squad may only finish about 8-3 with the slate they face this fall.
They could still emerge as a favorite to win the ACC, but a non-conference slate of Mississippi State, Texas and Michigan at home, mixed with a late trip to Iowa, could limit the upside of the season as a whole. After two consecutive no-bowl seasons, success could be defined simply by whether the Timberwolves play after Thanksgiving weekend; that said, this is Eastern State. If Winters wants to be comfortable in his job security, his squad should probably at least make a run at an ACC title as well.
It is easy to talk yourself into Eastern State. Prognosticators do it every year. With the recruiting rankings and star power, it seems like ESU should be great again this fall, just like it seemed they would in each of the last two years. But for them to live up to annual hype, they will have to uncover a couple of playmakers, be it a newcomer like Jefferson or a rededicated veteran like Lattimer. I will foolishly predict them to win the ACC, just like I did the last two years. Is Winters' program truly on the downslide, or have the last two years been simply a sustained glitch? We will find out soon enough.
Happy April Fools Day.