By Alyssa Peña
LOGOS STAFF WRITER
On a typical fall Saturday night, the lights brighten the Cardinal statue at Gayle and Tom Benson Stadium, the crowd cheers with anticipation, and the football Cardinals take the field.
However, before all of the game’s excitement begins, you’ll find the players practicing their craft late Monday through Friday afternoons on the field.
“Work, work, work – push through with a purpose, trudge,” Assistant Coach Kyle Kennan shouted during drills last week after the Cardinals prepared to face Sacramento State on the road, just a few days after a season-opening 66-0 road loss at Fresno State. The Cardinals will play their third game on the road as well at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, in Nacogdoches where they’ll face Stephen F. Austin University’s Lumberjacks.
In the intense Texas heat, this band of brothers was working hard to make themselves better during every practice and every game. To say there is one factor that makes a team or simply a player successful would be an understatement. It takes heart, passion for the game, and the willingness to work harder than anyone.
“We have great emotion and great leadership,” Head Coach Larry Kennan said. “(This is) by far the most talented group we’ve ever had.”
The greatness of a team doesn’t start with its players but stems primarily from the coaching staff that leads them.
“This, I believe, is our best coaching staff ever,” Kennan said. “They are tremendous mentors and leaders. We have great camaraderie.”
Kennan said that he tells his players all the time, “If you want to know what you want to be like, look at your coach. If you can grow up and be like him, you’re really a fine man.”
When Kennan took over the Cardinals six seasons ago, they were simply a small independent Division II team and since then, they have grown into a strong Division I Southland Conference. This year, the Cardinals have been picked last in the conference’s preseason poll, but that won’t stop them.
“We have high expectations for this year,” Kennan said. “I think we’re better at every position – offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, kicking game,”
The fall schedule is brutal – starting off with three road games. Fresno State, for instance, was facing No. 1-seeded Alabama after beating the Cardinals.
“Defensively, we’ve changed in terms of philosophy and offensively, [we’ve] spread it out a lot more, [as opposed] to being very conservative in the past,” Kennan said.
The Cardinals have had two winning 6-5 seasons under Kennan, a former pro football coach with a Super Bowl ring while he was with the Los Angeles Raiders. During his UIW tenure, three former Cardinals – though undrafted – have signed pro contracts: linebacker Myke Tavarres who was briefly with the Philadelphia Eagles, tight end Cole Wick with the Detroit Lions and Alex Jenkins with the New Orleans Saints.
This fall, UIW returns seven starters on offense and seven starters from defense from last year’s 3-8 squad, which had back-to-back, season-ending victories against Lamar University and Houston Baptist University. For the season, the team averaged 26.3 points and 360.4 yards of total offense, including 242.5 yards a game through the air. Returning quarterback Taylor Laird, who’ll be sharing duties with transfer backup Sean Brophy of Scottsdale, Ariz., saw action in nine of 11 games.
Defensively the Cardinals surrendered 37.7 points and 447.4 yards a game, including 268.2 passing yards and 179.2 rushing yards per game last year. The returnees include linebacker Quandre Washington of Katy, who had had 64 tackles, three fumble recoveries, 2.0 tackles for loss and one forced fumble last year; cornerback Jamarkese Williams of Temple, who had 71 tackles, 12 pass breakups, 3.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a sack; and safety Tim McCoy of Holly Lake Ranch, Texas, who racked up 47 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and a sack.
Brophy, one of the newbies, is expected to start during the game against Sacramento.
Playing quarterback is a key role, he said, but stressed being a good QB isn’t just about him.
“It all depends on the offensive line upfront,” Brophy said. “That’s where it starts. Front plays, pass plays, everything. So we gotta count on those boys, and have a good running game. Then receivers have to do their job and get open to catch the passes. That’s why it’s the ultimate team
game. If one of the 10 guys, beside you, doesn’t get their job done, things don’t mesh like you want them to. It’s a total team effort.”
E-mail Pena at firstname.lastname@example.org