Some of these guys are playing for their fourth head coach in four years. You've got to put yourself in the players' shoes as well. And we do, as coaches, we try to imagine where they're coming from. I like the progression they've made; they're buying in. And the future's bright, I do know that. The future's bright. —Jay Hill
OGDEN — What's going on with Weber State's football program these days might remind folks of one of those good ol' Western movies from long ago.
You know, the one where a tough new sheriff comes into a town that's struggling through hard times, and he's got the difficult job of trying to clean things up.
Well, in the Wildcats' case, that new "sheriff" is Jay Hill, their first-year head football coach who was brought in last December with the challenge of turning around a struggling program that has sputtered to a 4-19 record over the past two seasons combined. Weber State won just two games in each of the 2012 and 2013 seasons and went a combined 3-13 in the Big Sky Conference during that span.
What's more, and worse, during one dreadful six-game stretch last season, the Wildcats were outscored by an embarrassing cumulative margin of 302-41.
Yes, that new "sheriff" will definitely have his hands full trying to clean up this mess. But he has full confidence that it can be done.
"Everything we're asking them to do, they're fighting like crazy to do it," Hill said of the newest edition of the Wildcats, who are busy with their final week of 2014 spring drills, which will culminate with the annual purple and white game Saturday at 1 p.m. in Stewart Stadium. "You're breaking bad habits, you're trying to instill better discipline and work and toughness. And that's what we're fighting through right now is trying to instill our system in these guys.
"Some of these guys are playing for their fourth head coach in four years. You've got to put yourself in the players' shoes as well. And we do, as coaches, we try to imagine where they're coming from. I like the progression they've made; they're buying in. And the future's bright, I do know that. The future's bright."
Coach Hill won't be trying to do this reclamation project all by himself. He has enlisted the help of a great group of "deputies" — assistant coaches who are eager for the challenge of trying to rebuild the Wildcats' football fortunes.
Guys like offensive coordinator Steve Clark and defensive coordinator Justin Ena, who each spent the last six seasons on the coaching staff at Weber State's Big Sky rival, Southern Utah University.
Guys like longtime offensive line coach Brent Myers, who's also WSU's associate head coach and has more than 30 years of coaching experience under his belt.
Guys like Jason Kaufusi and Quinton Ganther, a pair of former University of Utah stars who will now be responsible for coaching up the Wildcats' defensive ends and running backs, respectively.
Guys like Colton Swan, who's starting his 10th season on the Weber State staff, where he'll coach the tight ends and has now worked for five different head coaches during his time at WSU.
And guys like former Weber State and University of Utah player Kite Afeaki, who coaches the defensive tackles; wide receivers coach Fesi Sitake, who spent the previous three seasons coaching at Southern Utah; and Lance Hunsaker, who will direct the secondary and special teams.
Clark has been given the daunting task of overhauling an offense that scored less than 16 points a game last season, and put up more than 20 points only four times in 12 games. But he says the team's talent level is much better than that if the Wildcats can eliminate the turnovers that plagued the program last year.
"I was pleasantly surprised," Clark said. "A team goes 2-10, you'd expect a heck of a lot worse than what we have. We've got good players, a good, solid offensive line, some good running backs. We need some depth at some places, we need some depth at wide receiver.
"When we played them at Southern Utah, turnovers were the difference because we were not more talented. We just took better care of the ball and made less mistakes. It's not like the cupboard was bare here.
"It's been a lot of fun. The attitude of the players has been great. They work hard, they love football, so it's been fun working with them," Clark said. "The offensive line has been the biggest surprise, the biggest plus. You don't do anything — it doesn't matter who your quarterback, your receivers or your running backs are — it doesn't matter. It all starts with your offensive line. It doesn't matter what you have anywhere else, if you don't have an O-line. And Coach Myers is a good, experienced guy who has come in and got 'em in sync and he's done a really good job with them."
The starting quarterback job is a two-man dogfight between incumbent Austin Chipoletti and newcomer Jadrian Clark, while Bo Bolen, San Diego State transfer De’Saan Hardwick, Zach Smith and Karl Finai give the Wildcats a solid group at running back.
But the 'Cats are thin at tight end, where they're down to just two players after a rash of injuries, and at wide receiver, too.
"We really only have five healthy bodies at wide receiver right now," Clark said. "Those guys are being ran, I mean, their practices are brutal. They'd might as well just go run the Boston Marathon. They are running constantly. And it's the same with the tight ends because they're down to two."
Over on defense, Coach Ena sees much the same thing — a solid core of players that's already in place to build around.
Weber State's secondary, particularly the cornerback group, appears to be the strength of the defense, with a solid group of linebackers and ends, but a severe lack of depth at the tackle positions.
"We've got some good kids on defense. They play hard," Ena said. "The previous staff did a good job of recruiting and getting the right kind of guys here.
"We just need to figure out how to make them play a little bit more as a team and have fun. The game is all about having fun. When you're having fun, you're playing hard and it usually equates to winning as well. We've got to go out there and give it our best every single rep.
"I don't think there's going to be a rebuilding couple of years or so," he said. "I think we can hit the ground running and attack this. We need to attack this hard as coaches, but again, we need to sell this to our players to attack it even harder than us. And when they buy in — and they're doing that right now — we'll be successful."
WSU's new defensive coordinator knows how much the Wildcats struggled on that side of the ball last season, when they allowed more than 41 points a game. But he has confidence that this year's group will be much improved.
"I love our defensive backs; I think they're right where they need to be," he said. "They've done a really good job and I think the previous coaches have done a really good job of recruiting and finding the right kind of guys that love to play the game.
"Our 'backers, we're pretty deep at 'backer as well and I feel like we can do a lot of different things with the bodies that we have there as well. Our D-line is — I like our D-ends, I think we've got four solid D-ends — but our D-tackles, we've got to get some more bodies, more big bodies.
"I'd say our strength, for sure, is the back end, especially the corners," Ena said. "I think our linebackers and our D-line, our front seven, have something to prove. I'm a (former BYU) linebacker and a linebacker coach as well, so I have something to prove, too.
"If the kids are willing to buy in — and they're definitely doing that, they've done a really good job — we can turn it around. I really believe so."
Coach Hill is well aware that the Wildcats' program has been pretty lousy for the past couple of seasons, and that there's no quick-fix solution to their problems. But for the most part, he likes what he's seen so far.
"We're thin at a lot of areas, but nothing that good recruiting over the next couple of years can't fix," he said. "But we are thin at some areas so we've got to stay healthy. ... The depth is a little concerning. We've got good enough starters to win with, there's no doubt, but we've got to continue to develop those twos and threes.
"I like our starting O-line. I think that will be a good strength of ours, assuming they can stay healthy, because the backups right now have got to get better. I like our running back group right now. I think they're a pretty solid group. Bolen, Hardwick, Smith and Finai — those four guys, I think, are very good football players.
"Our cornerback group is very solid. Three or four of those guys I really think we can win with," Hill said. "I like a couple of our young linebackers — Alema Key is a very good player, Spencer Unga and Luke King — that's developing into a very solid group. Defensively I think we'll be pretty good. We're a little undersized, like on the D-front we're not real big. But there's some guys that can fly around and make plays. And I think it's a solid group."
Hill feels very strongly that there's plenty of potential to turn Weber State football into something that fans will become very proud of someday.
"We can change the perception of what this place is, and we can create something super special here," he said. "I know we can recruit well here. The goal is to turn this into a place that no one wants to play you. And we can do that.
"You've got to stay the course and you've got to have a vision of what this can become. I'm excited because I watched it happen at Utah and I know the steps we've got to take. It doesn't happen overnight, no, but we'll get there. We've got a chance to turn this into something special, I know it."