Albert Monge, Contributing Writer (Courtesy photo/Bison Athletics)
The Oklahoma Baptist University football team is one of several athletic programs on campus that is relatively new. The Bison are completing just their sixth season since the program’s restart in 2012. In that time they have moved up from NAIA to full members of NCAA Division II.
In the last three seasons as Division II participants, the Bison football team has been home to a great deal of adversity, with quite a few coaching changes as part of that process. But, the team looks to this spring as an opportunity to make the necessary progress for being a big-time competitor for the 2018-2019 season in the Great American Conference (GAC).
Grant Gower will enter his third season calling the plays this year, as the program’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Gower, who is the all-time leader in wins in Deer Creek High School football history, came to the Bison in the spring of 2016 to take the driver’s seat on the offensive side of the ball.
Last year, the Bison saw quite a few opportunities in games where the score was relatively close at halftime, but then faltered somewhat after the intermission.
Gower stressed the need for consistency as the key to closing out games.
“One of the things we always look to do is maintain consistency,” Gower said. “That is, from season to season, from game to game, from half to half, from quarter to quarter and from series to series. That is what it really came down to.”
One cause of the lack of consistency in games stemmed from quarterback play, as a result the Bison offense saw the transition of starting quarterbacks last year, going from senior Dezmond Stegall, three-year starter from Searcy, Arkansas, to Preston Haire, a redshirt freshman from Trophy Club, Texas.
“The thing that was probably the best was the way that both of those men handled the situation,” Gower said.
Haire would emerge as the full-time starter in game six of the season, but the adversity would not stop there for the team. The Bison’s leading rusher, Isaiah Mallory, junior from Fort Worth, Texas, suffered a season-ending injury in game 10.
“Of course, with Isaiah being Isaiah Mallory, he is just unbelievably focused, [has a] work ethic, and [is] a vocal leader. He is just off the charts,” Gower said.
Gower spoke highly of both Haire and Mallory, who will be vital pieces to the returning offense, with high aspirations for both men.
Haire, who played high school football at Byron Nelson High School, took last year as a learning experience.
“It was definitely different, you know, being one of the youngest guys on the team,” Hair said. “Having integrity was one of the biggest things for me, but being a follower of Christ definitely helped with that.”
Haire said that being able to learn how to finish games is going to be the biggest thing for the Bison as a team to be successful. Haire said that he looks to the spring as an opportunity to build the comradery as a team, so that in the fall, they can focus on winning games, and less on becoming the team that they already are.
“Seeing how [Gower] leads both on and off the field is really inspiring for us, as a quarterback group, and as an offense;” Haire said. “I think even as a whole team, everyone can look up to him and be better based off of him, not only as a football team, but in life.”
Haire said that the biggest key for him was to not get complacent from the success he saw in his freshman year. He said that belief in each other and having faith in each other as a whole team would propel them to success.
Mallory, who played high school football at Aledo High School in Texas, is seeing this spring from a different perspective. Mallory is still in the process of rehabilitation, resulting from tearing both the ACL and MCL in his knee last year against Northwestern Oklahoma State University.
“It was a really hard time. Attribute here It was a time for me to realize the blessings I have in my life, and what God can give you, and take away,” Mallory said.
Mallory is adjusting to his new role as his injury will have him sidelined for the remainder of the spring. He said he is trying to take the positives out of the situation. He said this would be an opportunity for him try to encourage others through the leadership role that he holds.
Mallory, who has been the team’s leading rusher for the last two seasons, said he looks to keep the positivity flowing throughout the entirety of the spring season. Mallory also said he sees the character of the team changing, saying that everyone being more and more dependable as the semester progresses on.
“If we can keep each other accountable, it will translate into the fall,” Mallory said.
Mallory looks to keep himself accountable as well, saying that he plans to work hard to get back to the form that he was at before the injury, acknowledging that he is going to have some competition next fall.
Joining the quarterback and running back duo, the receiving core for the Bison will see quite a few returners that saw significant time last year, including Josh Pettijohn, Cagney Roberson, Noah McGraw, Nick Hinkley and Emmanuel Adesokan.
Joining Mallory in the backfield will be Darrien Moss, who shouldered quite a bit of the load following Mallory’s injury, as well as Reuben Thompson. Seth Glasscock and Reece Gilbert look to keep things strong behind the offensive line, both returning at the tight end position.
Up front, the offensive line will return Brian Cornell, Zachary Blevins, John Calhoun, Creede Wright and Jake Foshee.
On the other side of the ball, the defense saw a leadership change mid-season last year, after the resignation of Defensive Coordinator Paul Smith, with Brandon Morris being promoted to the Defensive Coordinator position. In his first full semester on the job, Morris said that this transition has been a huge learning experience, but is excited for what is to come.
“We are pretty young when it comes to on-field experience,” Morris said. “But at the same time, being young can help when it comes to changing the mindset and the culture of the defense.”
This ‘young’ defense that Morris talked about saw the loss of quite a few key contributing seniors who played significant time in games last year.
The list would include Dante Foster and Chris Hosanna in the defensive backfield, and Houston Tyler, Daniel Moniz, and Dennis Nguyen all graduating on the defensive line.
But, Morris said he chose to look at this from an opportunistic perspective, also saying that there would be a lot of competition this year at every position.
He said that one of the main keys of the spring session was to make sure that all facets of the defense are understood by everyone. This would include two key returners from last year’s squad, redshirt sophomore Josh Arnold and senior defensive lineman Ashton Vickers.
“Josh Arnold is a key component in what we do,” Morris said. “He’s taken to this defense like a fish to water, and he does everything that we ask him to do. He’s a leader both on and off the field, and I have the utmost confidence in Josh.”
Arnold, who was a redshirt freshman last year, played in all 11 games at the linebacker position, and has the support of Morris behind him to be at the helm this spring, and next year.
Morris also talked about Ashton Vickers, one of the few returning seniors for the Bison defense next year.
“Ashton has made strides that are pretty remarkable,” Morris said. “I’m excited about the guys that I’ve seen make plays on Saturday, and Vickers is definitely in that category.”
Morris noted that the biggest driving force to take from this spring into the fall of the 2018-2019 season is a culture of a success. He said that the guys must use their talents to go out and make plays and breed success through that culture.
Josh Arnold, a redshirt freshman from Collinsville, Oklahoma, said he saw playing in all 11 games last year as a learning opportunity.
“I felt a little bit of pressure the first couple of games, but after that it felt like I was where I supposed to be.”
Arnold said that he viewed this spring as the most productive spring since he’s been on campus.
He acknowledged the loss of a few key defensive players in the seniors that graduated, but he said that it would be a good opportunity for the younger guys to step up and play a big role.
Arnold also said he recognizes the new components of the defense come with the coaching changes, as well as integrating the new guys into the scheme of the defense. He said in the first few days of spring practice, things were a little bit difficult, but after the initial introduction, things have gone fairly smoothly.
“The biggest thing going from the spring to the fall is the mindset that the coaches are trying to instill in us,” Arnold said. “You have to establish a winning culture in the way you do everything.”
Leading the charge in front of Arnold will be Vickers, from Vian, Oklahoma. Vickers, who played both offense and defense in high school, was recruited to OBU as an offensive lineman, and made the transition to the defensive side of the ball not long after he got here.
“We have a lot of young players, and a lot of guys coming back. I think we have what we need. We just need to put games together,” Vickers said.
Vickers said that despite the result of last season, he feels hopeful for what is to come in the next year. Vickers started eight games last year for the Bison and played alongside the group of graduating seniors during that time.
“I think myself and some of the other seniors have big roles to fill. But, I think it’s crucial for us to have senior leaders on the team. When things get tough, we have to be the guys to look to, and to lean on,” Vickers said.
Vickers was quick to mention other senior leaders, and said that this group of guys will be the ones to lead the charge. Despite the senior leadership, Vickers acknowledged the younger look of the defense, noting that there would be some guys who would be seeing playing time that they hadn’t seen before. He said his biggest advice for those guys would be to play with confidence and not nervousness.
For many university football teams, spring is used as a time for transition and team bonding.
“I think it’s a time for us to build the chemistry [of the team],” Vickers said. “I’d say I’m a lot closer with the offensive guys than I have been in the past. I think that’s important because it’s not just offense and defense, it’s the whole team.”
Vickers said he thinks the biggest key for seeing success in the future of next season is building on the momentum of the last three games of the 2017-2018 season. The Bison won two out of the last three games they played last season, and Vickers noted that it is important for the team to build on that starting in the spring, to take into next fall.
“Enjoy the moment, because it will be here and gone before we know it.”
The Bison will conclude their spring session with their spring game on May 5th at 1 p.m., at Crain Stadium at OBU’s Hurt Complex.
The Bison will return to practice in August to prepare for their first game of the 2018-2019 season August 30 in Ada, Oklahoma versus the Tigers of East Central University.