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Weber State’s football team left itself much room to improve

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WSU coach Jerry Graybeal is counting on his veterans to turn program around.

WSU coach Jerry Graybeal is counting on his veterans to turn program around.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A bad dream? A motivating factor? A painful memory?

Call last season's performance what you want, the Weber State Wildcats just want this season to be better. Much better.

Technically, the Wildcats finished 1999 with a 4-7 record after being awarded a forfeit win over Northern Arizona, which was ruled to have used an ineligible player. On the field though, Weber State won just three games, and dropped its final six contests of the season.

Defensively, the Wildcats went from the top of the league to close to the bottom, allowing nearly 36 points and 470 yards per game. Meanwhile, the offense was dead last in the Big Sky Conference in scoring at just 22.8 points per game. This season, however, Weber returns 18 starters who have some good experience under their belts. While it may not be enough to win the conference title, it should be enough to help the Wildcats finish the season above .500.

On the offensive side, Cole Cooper brings some stability to the quarterback position this season. The senior started in all but one game last season, completing 132 of 247 passes for 1,829 yards, 13 TDs and 10 interceptions. Cooper has had a strong preseason camp and was impressive in Weber's red-zone drills in last week's scrimmage.

"I think (Cole) is making better decisions this year obviously after a year under his belt," said Graybeal.

The Lehi native became even more important to the Wildcats after last year's backup, Dusty Harris, quit the team in late July. Sophomore Tyler Gladwell, a Bonneville High graduate, will be the primary backup.

The Wildcats lost their top two rushers from last season but might actually be better in that position this year. Both the coaches and fans are excited about the prospects of junior college transfer Johnnie Gray, who will get most of the reps in the Wildcats' one-back offense. Gray was the 1999 California JC Player of the Year, rushing for more than 2,100 yards and adding 500 receiving yards to his season totals.

Gray will split his time in the backfield with another speedster in redshirt freshman Jordan Miller. Freshman Nick Chournos out of Bear River High had a pair of strong outings in Weber's two scrimmages.

Graybeal is hoping that he will have his top two receivers from last year in the lineup against Western State. Junior Damon Greenberry (31 catches for 427 yards, 2 TDs) sat out most of the preseason drills because he was academically ineligible but regained his playing status last week. Senior Jon Jefferson (21 catches, 240 yards, 5 TDs) has also missed fall camp because of ineligibility.

Senior Josh Andrews will see plenty of playing time after a strong fall camp, while tight ends Ryan Prince and Mark Larsen have also performed well.

The Wildcats have also moved a pair of defensive backs (freshmen Kevan Hemmings and Randy Smith) to the receiving unit as the "no-back" offense will be used often.

The offensive line should be the best unit on the field for Weber. A senior-filled starting line with loads of playing experience and depth to back it up should give Cooper plenty of time to find his receivers. Surgery last week on senior guard Russ Judd to repair a hip injury will put the three-year starter on the shelf for about four weeks. "The Delta Dogs are tough hombres," joked Graybeal about his three offensive linemen from Delta High — twins Russ and Rick Judd, and tackle Carl Wright.

"If they said four weeks, don't be surprised if (Russ) comes back in two."

Defensively, it can't get much worse for the Wildcats than it was in 1999.

Weber ranked eighth in the conference in total defense and allowed Montana to score 81 points in a midseason loss to the Grizzlies.

Experience will be the key factor in Weber's defensive improvement this season, and the defense already looked sharp in the Wildcats' final preseason scrimmage. Weber added a new defensive line coach in Tom Everson, this year.

The defensive line will feature seniors Joel Barrow and Jason Miller at tackle, while senior Aaron Pelch and sophomore Randy Spencer will be the main ends. Nickie Feigner, a junior transfer from the University of Washington, should also make a big impact at the position.

Graybeal has said that this is his best group of linebackers ever, led by senior Jason Allen. At 6-4, 220 pounds, Allen led the Wildcats last year in tackles (112) and also had four interceptions. Brad Rekuc is expected to resume his starting middle linebacker duties after sitting all of last season for disciplinary reasons. Sophomore Eric Lohnes looks to start at strong side linebacker, but redshirt freshman Matt McFadden, a walk-on from Kanab, has had a strong fall camp and will see plenty of action. "(Matt McFadden) is a good player. He is going to make a lot of plays for us," said Graybeal.

The defensive backfield is a mixed bag of talent and experience. Senior Keenan Gordon returns at strong safety, and will be backed up by the vastly improved Spencer Sigoda. Michael Thompson and Cardedrick Foreman will split time at free safety, while Juron Junior and Sylvester Daniels will start at cornerback. Junior missed all but the first game last season after violating team rules.

Senior placekicker Mike Minnoch should be solid again for the Wildcats on PATs, field goals and kickoffs, even though he did struggle a bit in preseason scrimmages. Minnoch was perfect on PATs last season, and hit 13 of 17 field goal tries.

The punting situation could be a problem area for Weber, which will use freshman receiver Shane Theobald at punter. The punt team had two punts blocked during last Wednesday's scrimmage, and Graybeal knows it needs improvement.

"We practice special teams in the middle of our practice because there is a point of emphasis there," he said.

Josh Andrews will be the return man on punts for Weber, while Johnnie Gray will assume that role on kickoffs.

E-MAIL: cliff@desnews.com