There’s a 106 year difference between the start dates of Houston Baptist football and Central Arkansas. With HBU on that very young end — kicking off with a seven-game season in 2013 — let’s just say there’s a different sense of opening night.
And with two quarterbacks vying for the starting spot, both redshirt senior Tony Dawson and redshirt junior Max Staver are looking to create some legacy early for the Huskies.
“Preparing for Central Arkansas – it’s been amazing,” said Dawson. “All the guys are fired up. We have a lot of good players coming back.” HBU returns 10 starters on offense and nine on defense from a 2015 squad that went 2-9.
Staver shared Dawson’s sentiment on scheduling the Bears in in the opener.
“There is a little more urgency in getting ready. Last year we faced Bethany (NAIA) to open. There’s now a sense of urgency to get better and to get better quickly,” he said.
With either signal caller, the Huskies run a multiple-set offense, with their base formation a shotgun and their quarterback lining up at a five-yard depth.
At 6-6 and with a high throwing slot, Staver will bring the advantage of his elevated perspective to face the Central Arkansas defense (Dawson lists at 6-1). HBU has a trio of similarly statured targets – tight end Buddy Tuamasaga and wide receivers Wesley Lewis and Ricardo Barnett — that stand 6-5 or taller.
Staver saw the majority of the Huskies’ snaps in 2015 and passed for 1,010 yards. Both players struggled at times with interceptions, combining for 16 on the year.
When in the game, Dawson will use his mobility to extend plays, a need that could prove frequent against Central Arkansas. The Bears went 7-4 in 2015 and 7-2 in the Southland, including a 43-7 defeat of HBU. “My strengths are keeping the play alive, and I’m able to use my feet whenever I can. I have good arm strength — I can get the ball to receivers in space and let them work,” said Dawson.
In limited playing time last year, Dawson was 34-68 through the air, good for 360 yards. He added a 4.5-yard rushing average on the ground.
An invisible component of quarterback stats is the play of the offensive line. The Huskies’ unit should be vastly improved in 2016. “We have quite a few guys who have played in 20+ games,” said Staver. “The majority of guys have experience. We’re getting more depth, and those guys are getting older.”
Protecting HBU’s blindside is tackle Hunter Barron, a two-year letterman. The entire offensive line unit is comprised of juniors, each with two letters to their credit. In addition to gaining added protection time, both HBU quarterbacks alluded to the mental aspect of the game “slowing down” after thousands of game and practice reps.
“As a quarterback, you have an internal clock. As you get older, you know when to speed that clock up and when you have a little more time. It all comes from mentally being prepared, knowing you’re protected, and knowing where your throws are so you can get the ball out quickly,” said Staver.
HBU will break the huddle with either a set play call or flexible options based on the defensive alignment and post-snap reads.
First-year quarterback coach Charlie Reeve expanded on the Huskies’ offensive approach.
“The philosophy is to take what the defense gives and have the ability on any play to have an answer. You’re not going to call the perfect play every time,” said Reeve. “That’s our approach on offense; we want to attack the defense and leverage the numbers. When it comes down to it, defenses can’t cover everything so we want to attack space, wherever that may be.”
Reeve has an extensive résumé and is well suited for leading the HBU signal callers under head coach Vic Shealy. He had a successful JUCO quarterback career, like both Dawson and Staver, as an undergraduate and most recently was a tight ends coach at UTSA, a Conference USA program that began play in 2011.
His ability to direct players at the team’s most visible position while enduring the inherent, and dramatic, ups and downs of a new program will be tested.
“That’s a big part of the quarterback position, the mental aspect of it,” said Reeve. “I think if you haven’t played that position it may be hard to grasp the weight that these guys carry. A lot of times we get more credit than we deserve and probably get more criticism than we deserve. It’s the position that we play, and we embrace that,” said Reeve.
HBU’s overall athletic department has graduated up from the NAIA ranks to the NCAA’s Division I progressively, and quickly, since 2007. The Huskies’ football program knows that playing in Texas they are the most visible gauge of the success of that transition.
They also know they’re setting the groundwork for the program’s first 100 years.
“Some of the players were told when we came in that we have to drive this thing — that means culturally, that means performance, and that means our players are reaching out to our student body,” said Staver.
The Huskies haven’t declared a starter in advance of their opener, which speaks both to the tightness of the competition and the sound strategic notion of giving the Bears two quarterbacks, rather than one, to simulate with their scout teams.
“I will say that both guys have done a great job, and I feel that with either one we can be successful and run this offense. I’ve been pleased with both,” said Reeve. “I think we’ve grown from where we started to where we are now, and I’m excited to get the season started.”