Seeking their first victory since Halloween 2015, the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets make their debut under new head coach Braxton Harris at 7 p.m. Saturday against the Southwestern Assemblies of God Lions at Lumpkins Stadium in Waxahachie.
Halting Howard Payne’s 12-game skid would be an ideal start to the Harris era, but the new head coach stated the result of the season opener — regardless of what it may be — is the only first of several steps the Yellow Jackets will take in an attempt to revitalize the program.
“Obviously winning this game is our goal, no question about it, but by no means does a win or loss make or break anything,” said Harris, who spent the last three seasons as assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator at Texas Lutheran. “We came into this saying we were going to build this program brick by brick, step by step and this is just the next step in the process. We’re working our tails off and it would be good for our program if we win, but win or lose it’s still on to the next step in the process for us. That’s what we’re committed to doing. We’re not going to get into a situation where if things don’t go well, or if they do go well, that we change who we are. We’re committed to the process through the long haul.”
Heading into his first game as a head coach, there are aspects of the Yellow Jackets’ squad Harris feels more comfortable with than others.
“The thing I like about our kids is we’ve done things since we’ve been here in January to be able to prepare ourselves for opportunities to go win football games,” Harris said. “From boot camp to our offseason training to our fall camp schedule, in all those things there’s a winner and there’s a loser in everything that we do. I’m probably most confident in who our kids are, what the leadership on this football team is and who they are as a person. I feel like that’s going to be able to help us go win a ball game in the fourth quarter. I’ve got great confidence in our kids being able to go out there and perform at a high level.
“Things that concern you any time you are young is there are guys who will be making their first college appearance on Saturday night. It’s not that they aren’t talented, because they are, the concern is their ability to go do it on the stage in that environment. It doesn’t matter if you play at a 6A high school or six-man, it’s faster in college than where they were at. So the biggest concern is just our youth.”
Since preseason practices began earlier this month, the areas of most significant improvement have been developing a vertical passing attack on offense, while finding the right players for certain positions in the Yellow Jackets multiple formation approach on defense.
“We want to be able to threaten a team vertically and have some guys on the perimeter offensively that have some speed that could run, and I think we’ve found some of those guys,” Harris said. “We’ve moved some guys around to new positions and they’ve done a great job adjusting to those spots.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we’ve got kids in the right places and have a better understanding of what we can do and what our kids can do. That’s the biggest thing. Some of these kids have been with these coaches for three weeks. Three weeks is not very long to understand what a kid does well and that’s something we always want to do, understand what our kids do well, not necessarily what our is scheme.”
Southwestern Assemblies of God is coming off a 4-6 campaign, which included a 27-21 triumph over HPU at Gordon Wood Stadium in last year’s opener — one of three games the Yellow Jackets dropped by six points or less to start the season.
“Defensively, they have some dudes up front that are some big ol’ guys,” Harris said of SAGU. “Their interior D-linemen are really big, the ends are really long, lengthy guys that come off the ball well. In the secondary they’re very athletic. Those guys run around and do a good job. We’re going to have our hands full being able to attack those guys.
“Offensively, they have a quarterback (C.J. Collins) that’s a three-year starter, since he was a freshman, but he got hurt and this will be his first game back since the Howard Payne game last year. You can see watching him on film that he’s a mature quarterback. He’s a big guy that gets back there and throws the ball really well. Their offensive line is big up front, they have a running back that is a guy that doesn’t get tackled on the first try, and they have a tall receiver that gives them a vertical threat. We’ve got our hands full, no question about it. They’re a good football team.”
The Yellow Jackets will be looking to improve on the 18 points and 288 yards — 151 passing and 137 rushing — produced, and 44 points and 478 yards — 313 through the air and 165 on the ground — surrendered per game in 2016.
“Getting guys like (offensive linemen) Cyle Johnson and Travis Folmar back, guys that didn’t scrimmage against Cisco, guys who have played on Saturday, will help a lot,” Harris said. “We moved Cyle to a guard position and that helps our run game drastically, being able to double a three technique and get movement on those guys. Our running back by committee, four freshmen, have gotten a lot better in the last two weeks, and I’m excited to see them to get their opportunity. Tariq Gray is a freshman receiver that’s really come on strong the last couple of weeks as far as being a guy that can make a play with the ball in his hands. And quarterback Caisson Montieth is the guy that will make it go for us. He’s consistently gotten better every week and that’s what we’re looking for from him.
“The whole plan is to be able to attack them outside and inside, then add the vertical passing game. The personnel probably won’t change very much, but the formations will from two backs to spread and even being able to get in a three-back set as well, which is something we have the capabilities to do.”
Defensive stalwarts thus far for Howard Payne have been Abner Reyes and Justin Willis up front, Britt Boler at middle linebacker and Patrick Hunter, Zach Reed and Darius Edwards in the secondary.
“Defensively, we’re a 4-2-5 and we have the capabilities of getting in a three-man front, so that’s another area where we want to be multiple,” Harris said. “Defensively, we have to win first and second down. If we can get them into third and long I like our chances and the match ups we can create in third and long. First and second down are the critical downs. Third and one or two, there aren’t many good calls on the sheet. Third and eight or 10, that’s good stuff for us, so we have to be able to get them in those spots.”
As for the keys to the game, Harris said, “We have to be able to minimize their opportunities, be able to create some turnovers, be able to take care of the football, and then maximize our opportunities. If you look at any game turnovers are a big part of it. We also have to be able to run the football offensively and to do that a lot of things go into that. But we’re going to be committed to running the football.
“The biggest key for us is we’re going to have to weather storm early in the ball game. There’s going to be something happen that will be bad, that’s one thing I can promise you from every football game I’ve been a part of. There’s always something good and something bad that happens, the difference is can you get to the good and overcome the bad. They have to weather that early storm and have confidence in their preparation for this opportunity and this particular purpose.”