It's a day that's been 16 years in the making. But Thursday night, Jerry Graybeal finally gets his shot at coaching a college football team.

After spending 16 years as an assistant coach at Eastern Washington, Graybeal removes the `assistant' title from his business card and marches Weber State onto the Stewart Stadium field as a head coach.And after being a part of the Big Sky championship team last year, Gray-beal wants nothing more than to guide the Wildcats into the I-AA playoffs.

"There's no reason we can't compete for the conference title this year," Graybeal says matter-of-factly. "And we intend to do it."

One things is for certain - the Wildcats have plenty of talent returning as they begin the season.

Scott Shields is easily the school's marquee player.

Having earned all-American honors in the all-around player category, Shields returns as the Big Sky's top place kicker, punter and safety. He's already the school's all-time leader in scoring and interceptions and could make a dent in the Big Sky record book if he has a season similar to his previous two in Ogden.

Shields has burst onto the national scene over the past two seasons as he has intercepted 17 passes, made 172 tackles and scored 176 points.

Oh yeah, he also punts at an average of 42.6 yards a boot.

"We have a great weapon in Scotty," Graybeal said. "He's the man you want out there to win a game in the last seconds. I know, two years ago when we were at Eastern Washington, we were on the unfortunate end of one of those kicks, so I hope he returns the favor for us somewhere down the line this season."

Shields is moving from his home at free safety to strong safety for his senior year and Graybeal is hoping the move will help the Wildcat defense be even more effective in creating turnovers.

With Shields' on-field presence and off-field leadership, Graybeal is hoping he can pull some of the residual coaching experience from his Big Sky title at EWU and turn it into something the Wildcats have never experienced - a conference championship.

The Cats have tied for Big Sky titles, gone to the I-AA tournament, produced plenty of all-Americans and finished several seasons ranked in the top 20. They have not, however, been able to call a conference trophy all by them-selves.

The drive for that elusive title may be a bit easier since Graybeal brought four Eastern Washington assistants with him to Ogden, including J.D. Sollars who orchestrated the high-powered Eagle offense.

Steve Buck, a UCLA transfer who started eight games at quarterback as a junior last season, is back and pegged to be the starter again this year. A year ago, Buck passed for 2,393 yards and 15 touchdowns.

He's got a handful of offensive linemen counted among the seven returning starters on offense but little of anything returning in the skill positions.

All-American Cam Quayle is gone from the tight end position as is receiver Taurus McGhee. The leading returning receiver is Richard Clarke who hauled in 388 yards worth of passes, but no one else is bringing back more than 80 receiving yards.

Derek Poole rushed for 541 yards a year ago and figures to get even more carries this year as Graybeal has said he wants to run the ball more often while the passing game matures.

"We obviously have to regroup our receiver corps, and some of our new players will be asked to step in and contribute immediately," Graybeal said. Poole has seen a lot of action in Sollars' offensive scheme and has been mentioned as a potential all-Big Sky running back.

The offensive line is looking more like a Delta High School reunion than anything else. Four of the five projected starters hail from the south-central Utah town. Center Kris Jackson, however, may not get as much action as he would like. The injury-plagued player was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA because of prior injuries but broke his right hand and may not be able to snap the ball effectively when the season opens Thursday.

The defense features Shields as the key returning player but also has leading tackler David Stroshine, as well as Adam Castro, returning in the linebacker positions. That duo combined for 208 tackles.

"David is one of those players who always gets overlooked but can just kill you with his speed and ability to get to the football," Graybeal said. "He will be a key player in our defensive success this fall."

Wade Davis, Anthony Parker and Keenan Gordon are back as starters in the secondary and will be there to capitalize on the havoc created by Shields.

In practices this fall, Graybeal has been emphasizing creating turn-overs. A year ago, Weber State created just 23 turnovers while committing 24 and Graybeal would like nothing better than to turn that ratio around and into a significant advantage for the Wildcats.

"We're fortunate that we have a balance of returning players," Graybeal said. "Coach Arslenian did not leave the cupboards bare. There's plenty of talent here."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Report card

Graded against teams in their own conference

... Weber State (Big Sky)

Quarterbacks B-

Running backs C+

Receivers B-

Offensive line B

Defensive line B-

Linebackers B+

Defensive backs A

Special teams A-

Note: Grades are in relation to other Big Sky schools.