Weber State Wildcats running back Josh Booker (24) runs against Idaho State Bengals defensive back Christian Gines (49) during Big Sky play in Ogden Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Weber State Wildcats quarterback Mike Hoke (11) throws for a touchdown against Idaho State during Big Sky play in Ogden Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Weber State Wildcats defensive end Trevor Pletcher (46) blocks the punt by Idaho State Bengals punter David Harrington (16) and tries to recover it during Big Sky play in Ogden Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

OGDEN — After all the off-the-field heartache and frustration the Weber State football team endured during the offseason, whatever hardship might happen to the Wildcats on the field during the upcoming season shouldn't be a real big deal.

After all, during a four-month span from mid-April to mid-August, the WSU program:

Abruptly lost its head coach, John L. Smith, to a much more high-profile (and much higher-paying) job at the University of Arkansas.

Replaced Smith with Jody Sears, who had only been at Weber State for three months after being hired by Smith to serve as the Wildcats' defensive coordinator. Sears will be WSU's interim head coach this season.

Dealt with a devastating tragedy when assistant coach Ted Stanley's wife, Jocelyn, died of complications of childbirth a few days after delivering a healthy baby girl in June.

Lost offensive line coach Cecil Thomas, who left to take the head coaching job at Granger High in early August. He was replaced by longtime Division I coach Steve Morton.

Whew, that's a lot of turmoil to deal with during a short period of time, but Coach Sears figures what doesn't kill the 'Cats will only make them stronger.

"What I've learned is they're starting to learn how to handle adversity, change," he said. "As coaches, we're always looking for moments to teach, we're always looking for life lessons that we can use to teach. With Coach (John L. Smith) leaving, there's change. With Coach Stanley's wife passing away, there's terrible sadness. Then we had to replace our offensive line coach right when fall camp was getting under way. There's things that you can use in the offseason to teach and to learn from.

"... I think that these kids are learning how to work, I think that they're learning how to continue to move forward with the process, the plan, and working hard every day. It's not about what's happened to you; it's about what we do with our daily work and what we do with what's happened to us and learning from that and moving forward."

Sears' challenge has been aided by strong leadership from the Wildcats' four co-captains — senior quarterback Mike Hoke, who returns after having offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder; senior tight end Brian Jankowski, senior defensive end Trevor Pletcher and junior linebacker Anthony Morales.

They also have 11 players who earned Big Sky All-Conference honors last season, led by sophomore fullback Tevia Tolutau, who was named to the first team. Junior running back Josh Booker, senior offensive lineman Tytan Timoteo and Pletcher return after receiving second team All-Big Sky honors a year ago, when the Wildcats went 5-3 in conference play and 5-6 overall. Hoke, Jankowski, Morales, junior wide receiver Shaydon Kehano, junior safeties Tony Epperson and Willie Okwuonu and junior center Tyson Tiatia received all-league honorable mention last year.

"We're going to use Mike Hoke the way he is capable of playing; we're going to use his ability," WSU offensive coordinator Matt Hammer said. "He's able to run the football, so there will be more spread (formation) philosophy-wise."

And the Wildcats will certainly need Hoke and all of those other playmakers to step up and show the way when they embark on a tough early season schedule which gets under way with back-to-back games against a pair of Football Bowl Subdivision teams — at Fresno State in Saturday's season-opener and at BYU on Sept. 8.

"Our leadership is starting to move forward. I'm not going to get on a soapbox and say what we're gonna do those first couple of games; I don't know that until it happens," Sears said. "... When we go to Fresno, shoot, I think we'll like what we see.

"At the end of the day, we're going to face adversity — that's what this whole game is about — and if we're not teaching them how to handle adversity ... it's got to come from our inner core group of players."


Weber State at Fresno State

Saturday, 8 p.m. MDT

Bulldog Stadium, Fresno, Calif.

TV: None Radio: 1280 AM