The Ouachita Tigers are set to face off against the NW Oklahoma Rangers at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
It may seem like the Ouachita Tigers captured the inaugural Great American Conference championship yesterday, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth, as the 2012 season is upon us. Head Coach Todd Knight and his squad enter the season with high expectations, as they return many of the pivotal pieces from their 2011 team. The Tigers kick off the season with a Thursday night match-up against provisional GAC member Northwestern Oklahoma State, who will be playing a full conference schedule this season but is not able to win the championship due to NCAA and conference restrictions.
THE TIGER AMBUSH BEGINS
The Tigers look to be set on offense, as they look to the leadership of reigning GAC Offensive Player of the Year, senior quarterback Casey Cooper. Cooper posted 1822 yards through the air in 2011, recording 10 touchdowns, but his most impressive numbers were produced with his feet, as he ran for a team high 957 yards and nine touchdowns during the year. Cooper has a few targets returning for 2012, most notable of which are seniors Brett Reece and Peyton Tolliver. Reece led the Tigers in receiving yards, racking up 489 yards and three touchdowns on 30 receptions. Tolliver, who recorded nine catches for 74 yards during 2011, is going to be utilized more often now that he is a senior. Coming out of the backfield for the Tigers is junior Chris Rycraw, who finished his 2011 campaign with 742 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Rycraw showed opponents his deadly combination of field vision, quickness and open field speed during 2011 and 2012 appears as though it will be no different. The Tigers were a very good possession team in 2011 and Knight expects nothing less as the 2012 season approaches.
“I expect us to hang on to the football and not have a bunch of missed assignments,” Knight said. “If we do that and play well in the kicking game, we have a great chance in the opener. Our focus is to play fast and mentally smart.”
YOUNG OFFENSIVE LINE TRIES TO PAVE THE WAY
After 2011, the Tigers lost three of their five starting offensive line, which leaves a large hole at the front of the Tiger offense. It looks as though Knight and offensive line coach Brett Shockley have filled the holes with players fit to do the job though, as returning starters Hunter Soper (senior) and Aaron Sprinkle (Redshirt Sophomore) lead their unit. Projected starters on the offensive line for the Tigers are senior Garrett Sykes at left guard, redshirt freshman Michael Rogers at right guard and freshman Javin Prunty at right tackle. Sykes has seen time on the field before, but has not had to take on a starting role before. Rogers and Prunty will both be seeing their first game action on Thursday, but based on preseason workouts, Knight thinks that they can step in and make an immediate impact.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
Although the Tigers lost a number of pieces on defense, they return one of the more battle-tested defensive lines in all of Division II. Seniors Sam Dunnam and Dennis Stratton, as well as sophomore Marquez Massey return for 2012, providing a solid front for the defensive unit. Kyle Lamothe is projected to fill the other hole on the defensive line after seeing limited playing time in 2011. In the second level, the Tigers look to have one of the stronger line-backing cores in recent years, returning juniors Rickey Brown, Antwion Patterson and senior Jackson Guerra. The secondary, although different than what the Tigers put on the field in 2011, has a few play makers of its own, returning junior cornerback Jeremy Small and sophomore defensive back Von Cousins, while putting junior transfers Etauj Allen and Avery Lynch in for their first action as Tigers.
Coach Knight praised his defense, saying, “Our transfers should help us a lot in the secondary and I’m excited about the progress of our secondary from last November to now. If you look at our defensive line and line-backing core, it’s been one of the strong points of our team and I feel like we are going to be an improved defense this year.”
SPECIAL TEAMS CHANGE GAMES
The Tigers see a very similar special teams unit to 2011, as senior kicker Jason Fowler and junior punter Clark Gaddis both return for 2012. Sophomore Eric Ashburn enters 2012 as the deep snapper for the Tigers special teams unit after seeing a fair amount of time on the field during his freshman season. Fowler, who converted on nine of his 15 field goal attempts in 2011, returns with an opportunity to break the all-time scoring record for Ouachita.
Trying to prepare for Northwestern Oklahoma to start 2012 was a difficult task, as they underwent a complete change among their coaching staff. Alan Hall steps in to take over the Rangers in 2012, but passing appears to be the team’s strength. Quarterback Kyle Jech returns for the Rangers after putting up 2017 yards and 16 touchdowns through the air in 2011. Jech doesn’t do much scrambling, so if the Tiger defensive line is able to create pressure, Jech may be in some trouble. Andrew King and Taylor Hooper look like they will be Jech’s primary targets, as they recorded 432 and 336 receiving yards respectively in 2011. Jared Jackson, who led the Rangers in rushing during the 2011 season, returns out of the backfield. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry during 2011 en route to 749 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
“They are going to throw the ball and they are a fast paced offense,” noted Knight. “That really keeps you on your heels, so we are trying to prepare for that.”
On defense, Northwestern’s Michael Harmon will lead the way, after recording 57 tackles during 2011. Northwestern is going to be using a lot of new players during 2012, which will really make things interesting with their 3-5-3 formation.
The Tigers will face off with the Rangers at A.U. Williams Field on the campus of Ouachita Baptist University on Wednesday. Kick-off is scheduled for 7 p.m