The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets begin their third football season under head coach Braxton Harris at 1 p.m. Saturday at Austin College, with expectations of taking a major step forward following back-to-back 1-9 campaigns.
With a veteran roster featuring in the vicinity of 30 juniors and seniors, Harris feels the experienced pieces are in place for Howard Payne to climb the American Southwest Conference standings.
But are the Yellow Jackets ready for their lone non-conference outing of the season? That's a question that will be answered Saturday.
“The first game of the season you don't know that answer,” Harris said when asked if the Yellow Jackets are where they need to be heading into the season opener. “I like where we're at, but I think the thing that keeps you up at night is 'where are you?' We don't play Howard Payne, that's not on our schedule. We don't play against Howard Payne's offense or Howard Payne's defense, so that's the anxiety of a first game. You really don't know where you are in those spots.
“Am I pleased with our progress? Absolutely. Do I feel like we're more physical and more athletic and move developed? Absolutely. You look at our two-deep and it's a majority of juniors and seniors and that's the first time that's happened since we've been here. Does that give us confidence? Absolutely. The majority of the kids that are walking out on the field in the starting groups have played college football before, and that hasn't always happened in the past. To see that is exciting because it shows progress in our program, and our kids are physically in better condition than they've ever been.”
The Yellow Jacket offense is looking to improve on a 2018 campaign in which they averaged 16.5 points and 272 yards per game, with 26 turnovers.
The line will be anchored by sophomore Bryant Williams at left tackle, junior Tyler Howard at left guard, senior Robert Evans at center, junior Cameron Gutierrez at right guard and junior Hudson Smith at right tackle.
Harris listed the receiving corps — featuring returnees Jordan Bryant, Thomas Williams and DunTayviun Gross — as the strength of the offense prior to preseason camp, along with H-back Eric Haverstock.
Kaidrion Latson, a junior, returns to lead the backfield while sophomore Caleb Estes, second string last year, takes over at quarterback.
HPU will be facing an Austin College defense that gave up 30 points and 388 yards — 199 passing and 189 rushing – per outing in 2018, en route to a 2-8 overall mark.
“Their defense does a good job of moving guys around,” Harris said. “They're a smaller defensive line than what we usually see in the American Southwest Conference, but they stunt a lot and they go everywhere. We have to be able to handle those things, pick up on those things, and take what they give us, not try and pound our head against the wall.”
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets are trying to erase the memory of last year's 44 points and 542 yards — 284 passing and 258 rushing — surrendered per game.
The front four will feature junior Brady Wade and sophomore James Jakubowski at the ends, both 6-4, and sophomores Aaron Alderete and Michael Davis at the tackles.
Middle linebacker Britt Boler and weakside linebacker Austin Killgore, both seniors, are the heart of the defense, while sophomore Conner Day is back at the strongside spot.
The secondary features senior Trishawn Townes at free safety, sophomore Dylan Zeno at strong safety, and fellow sophomores Jarrett Brown and Zeno Barnum at the corners.
Austin College's offense produced just 18 points and 347 yards — 226 through the air and 212 on the ground — per game a year ago.
“Their quarterback makes them go,” Harris said. “He does a lot of things with the ball in his hand and he's hard to bring down once he gets in open space. They're going to try and get him into open spaces and that's a concern we have.
“Their guys on the perimeter, they like to get the ball out to them quickly and they'll challenge us to make good tackles in space. That's always a concern going into the first game, will you be a good tackling defense? Those are concerns we have to answer.”
While the final outcome of the season will ultimately provide all the answers the Yellow Jackets are seeking, Harris and company are determined to slowly unravel the results.
“This is the most important game because it's the one we have in front of us,” Harris said. “That's how we've challenged our kids. We're going to play 10 one-game seasons this year. All you've heard our kids talk about around the facility is finding a way to beat Austin College. Every decision we've made has been regarding what we can do to beat Austin College.”