Jason Bachtel finally getting his chance to lead Howard Payne's football program

Mike Lee
Special to the Bulletin
Howard Payne University head football coach Jason Bachtel walks on the field before a game during the Yellow Jackets' 2021 spring season.

The changes COVID-19 brought to NCAA Division III football this spring forced a three-month delay for new Howard Payne University head football coach Jason Bachtel to implement his offense and defense.

The American Southwest Conference opted not to play a 2020 fall football season. Instead, the ASC played a shortened spring season. Howard Payne played five games between Feb. 6 and March 27. Bachtel wasn’t hired until early January after the sudden departure of Braxton Harris, the Yellow Jackets’ previous head coach.

“My introductory press conference was Jan. 7, and at the same time, the players were moving into the dorms,” Bachtel said this week. “Our first practice was Jan. 8, and it was one month until our first game.”

Starting just four weeks before the spring season, Bachtel didn’t have time to install his new offensive and defensive schemes. So he oversaw and observed as HPU finished 2-3 with wins over Sul Ross State (53-34) and McMurry (24-3), a one-point loss to Texas Lutheran, and double-digit losses to Hardin-Simmons and Belhaven.

“I took a CEO mindset,” Bachtel said. “I took care of the daily operations like making sure practices were set up. I told the coordinators, ‘You guys have got this.’ I didn’t get involved a lot in the offense or defense. They’d had 25 practices in the fall, working on their schemes. There wasn’t time to change everything they had practiced in the fall.”

Bachtel had to wait until April to implement his offense and defense, and he recently hired two new coordinators. Stoney Patton, who has coached at five East and Northeast Texas high schools, will coordinate the Jackets’ offense. Kevin Bachtel, the HPU head coach’s cousin, will coordinate the defense.

“Offensively, we want to play with major tempo,” Jason Bachtel said. “We want to play fast and put pressure on the defense. We’ll be in the spread with a power running game and a vertical passing game.

“Some people say that, in the spread, you lose your physicality, but I disagree. You’ve got to become tough-minded. We want to establish the run and use the pass to set up the run.”

Howard Payne quarterback Landon McKinney (10) gets set to throw during Saturday’s game against Hardin-Simmons at Shelton Stadium on March 13, 2021. The Cowboys improved to 3-0 with the 41-14 win.

Bachtel expects to return two key playmakers for his new offense this fall in quarterback Landon McKinney, the ASC Freshman of the Year this spring, and receiver Jake Parker, who led Division III in receiving yards with 754 in the spring.

McKinney passed for 262 yards per start with nine touchdowns and no interceptions in five games this spring. Ironically, Bachtel will get to coach McKinney after not being able to recruit the Sabine High School product away from HPU after the 2019 season.

“When I was at East Texas Baptist, Landon was one of our top quarterback recruits,” Bachtel said. “He visited with me and came to our campus, but he ended up committing to Howard Payne that same week. He had a great high school career. I’m excited about having him for the next four years.”

Parker, who caught six touchdown passes in five games this spring, was a senior during the 2020-2021 school year. But the NCAA granted all student-athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the unusual circumstances caused by COVID-19.

“Jake is coming back this fall, and that’s a bonus because he’s so dynamic,” Bachtel said. “He should have been the Offensive Player of the Year in the ASC this spring. He ended up being first-team all-conference. He’s on a mission. He wants to be the best in our conference this fall.”

Howard Payne receiver Jake Parker (3) is tackled by Hardin-Simmons’ Colton Grimes (93) during Saturday’s game against at Shelton Stadium on March 13, 2021. The Cowboys improved to 3-0 with the 41-14 win.

Defensively, Bachtel’s scheme calls for an odd-man front with five defensive backs that allows for eight players in the box to stop the run or eight players dropping back into pass coverage.

HPU’s defense has two cornerstone players returning in junior secondary back Kyle Bell and freshman linebacker Peyton Lowe. Bell led the Jackets with 56 tackles in the spring while Lowe was next with 40 stops.

Bachtel faces the same challenge as the previous three HPU head coaches — closing the considerable gap between where the Jackets are and perennial powers Mary Hardin-Baylor and Hardin-Simmons at the top of the conference. HPU lost to Hardin-Simmons 41-14 this spring, and the Jackets fell 65-0 the last time they played Mary Hardin-Baylor in 2019.

“The No. 1 thing we have to do is retain our players and build up some experience,” Bachtel said. “We had 10 seniors in the spring, but they were all offensive players. That’s why we struggled on defense (allowing 39 points in the three losses). We’d like to have 15 to 25 seniors every year.

“You do that by building relationships, being the hardest workers in the conference and becoming physically dominant. And we have to overcome a problem that affects our entire society today in that we have to unite our locker room. We have to have real conversations with our players and all have the same goal.”

Bachtel is trying to convince as many players as possible to stay on campus this summer and work out together.

HPU’s new head coach lettered at quarterback three years for the Jackets, ending in 2001. He stayed on in 2002 as an assistant coach to Vance Gibson, who went 89-42 as the Jackets’ head coach from 1992-2004.

Bachtel coached at multiple high schools in northeast Texas, plus a two-year stint at ASC member East Texas Baptist, before returning to HPU. In 2019, Texas Football magazine named him one of the state’s top 40 coaches under the age of 40.

“My dad (Mark Bachtel) and my uncle (Kent Bachtel) are both in the HPU Sports Hall of Fame,” Jason Bachtel said. “I had two cousins play here who were All-Americans. I graduated from here, and I met my wife here. We’ve always considered Howard Payne to be home. Any coach who says he doesn’t want to be the head coach at his alma mater isn’t telling you the truth.”

The new coach took time to credit Harris, his predecessor, with getting the HPU program turned in the right direction. After struggling to a 7-23 record in his first three seasons at HPU from 2016-2018, Harris guided the Jackets to a 5-5 record in 2019 before resigning in December 2020.

“Coach Harris created the mindset of not being below average anymore,” Bachtel said. “I get to jump on the tail end of that.”

Bachtel said he has no timetable for putting the Jackets at or near the top of the ASC. But he did say, “We need to at least go 5-5 this fall.”