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Weber State Wildcats football ready for improvement

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OGDEN — His 72nd birthday is fast approaching, but the start of a new collegiate football campaign makes Ron McBride feel young, excited and re-energized all over again.

The ever-enthusiastic McBride, who'll turn 72 years young in October, begins his seventh season as Weber State University's head coach with 13 returning starters off a squad which finished 6-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big Sky Conference last year. The Wildcats were picked to finish fifth and sixth, respectively, in the media and coaches' preseason polls.

WSU fans will certainly find something new to enjoy at Stewart Stadium this season, as the school has installed a new synthetic turf field — thanks to a generous donation from Robert and Annette Marquardt — which features plenty of Wildcat Purple.

And after watching record-setting quarterback Cameron Higgins run WSU's offense for the last four years, the Wildcats will have a new starting QB, junior Mike Hoke, calling signals for them this season.

Here are five things to watch for when Weber State begins its first full week of fall camp today:

1. Is junior quarterback Mike Hoke ready to step in and take control of this offense?

Cameron Higgins completed his collegiate career last year after four seasons as the Wildcats' starting QB. Higgins set school records for most career passing yards (12,274), most career touchdown passes (98, which is also a Big Sky record) most career total touchdowns (105), most career pass completions (935) and highest career passing efficiency rating (144.5).

"Those are some big shoes to fill," admitted Hoke, who, like Higgins, hails from Hawaii. "I try not to think about it, with all the records he set and everything. I don't think anyone will do what he did. So I'm just gonna try to be my own player and definitely take what he did and use all the things he gave me and just try to help my team win. "Last year, getting thrown in a little bit helped a lot. I've got a lot more confidence now, and being the starter this spring helped a lot, too."

Hoke has appeared in 16 games as a backup quarterback in his two seasons at Weber State, throwing for 419 yards and three touchdowns.

"Hoke is prepared, he's a hundred-percent prepared and he's a good player," said McBride. "... Hoke has been in the system here for three years, so he's prepared to play."

2. What are the team's biggest strengths, and it's biggest concerns?

"The offensive line is the strength of the team," McBride said, "because those guys all started last year and the backups are all good. They've all been though spring ball and they're a real cohesive group. And the tight ends are all experienced guys."

"You're always concerned as a coach. I want to know how good these corners are gonna be, so that's a concern. The linebackers are all good players. The linebackers can run — four of them are converted safeties — and they can all run and they're athletic. I was worried about the defensive line in the spring, but now we've got all these guys in here so now it becomes a pretty competitive position.

"At wide receiver, we've just to see who the wide receivers are gonna be," he said. "We've got to replace a couple of key players, but I think we have some real interesting guys out there."

3. At age 71, how well does Coach Mac relate to young men 50 or more years younger than him?

"He's the reason why I'm here," said 6-foot-4, 310-pound All-American and All-Big Sky offensive lineman J.C. Oram. "He recruited my brother at Utah and he got fired there, so my brother lost his scholarship. So I've known him pretty much my whole life. I'm glad I'm here. "He's a little senile, but he still has that spark, has that want-to win, so I'm glad to be here."

"The guy knows the game, inside and out," said senior linebacker Nick Webb, a preseason All-American. "He's been around. I watched him at the U. as a kid. ... He's definitely a family oriented guy; I remember the first time he met my mom, he gave her a big hug and a kiss and I was going 'What's this guy doing?' "But he's almost like a grandpa for me. He's definitely taught me a few things that I never thought I'd know and definitely holds a higher standard for those players that are willing to put in the time."

And as for McBride's unbelievable energy level? "If you gave him a Red Bull," Webb said, "he'd probably have a heart attack."

4. Will this team be motivated by its low ranking in the preseason polls and try to prove people wrong?

"I like being picked there," Hoke said. "In my redshirt year in '08, I think they did the same thing and picked us sixth, and that was the best year we've had yet. I prefer flying under the radar and being the underdog, I like that role a lot better than having everybody come after you."

Coach McBride sees it as an opportunity to fool the so-called experts.

"I wouldn't be standing here if I thought we were a middle of the road team," he said. "But you've got to prove yourself. That's kinda where, if I looked at where we are and the youth of our team and all that stuff, that's probably where we should be. "When I first got here, we were picked real low, and then started winning and we moved all the up near the top. Now we're kinda down in the middle of the pack, but if we start beating some people, we've got a real good opportunity. We try to schedule up all the time (with early season games against Wyoming and Utah State this year), and now we've got to start winning some of those games."

5. Being a young team with only 11 seniors, what's the Wildcats' confidence level like?

"I feel very confident about this year," said Oram. "Mike Hoke has done some really good things in the spring and he's only gonna get better as the season goes on. The offensive line, we're veterans and we know what we're doing, We know what to do, we know how to do it, we just have to do it. We've got some good receivers and our running backs are coming back, so we're ready.

"Our defense is looking good, we've got a couple of great players, so we're good there. I'm excited."

Webb, a 6-4, 245-pound senior out of East High, agrees with that assessment.

"This is the first season where I've been excited to come back after a hard summer workout and come to camp," he said. "But I'm excited to come back and work hard, because I know we have the team that can do things that other teams think we can't."

And McBride certainly likes what he's seen.

"This team, so far, is right on task on what they need to get done," the Wildcats' coach said. "The biggest thing is we had to fill in gaps with players in key spots, and we've filled those gaps and now we have to see how good those players are.

"It's a young team — we only have 11 seniors — but all these younger players have played. And I think the skill level of this freshman class is outstanding. "I like the way these guys go about their business," McBride said. "They're hungry to succeed and it's important to them. So I'm excited to get started."

Email: rhollis@desnews.com