SAN ANTONIO – Heartened by their first bowl appearance last year, the UTSA Roadrunners will start their seventh season in school history and second under coach Frank Wilson with high expectations.
While the Roadrunners got some of their swag back last year after doubling their victory total from the previous season, their renewed confidence is tempered by a healthy dose of humility. They did, after all, finish 6-7 after losing to New Mexico in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
But a 5-3 runner-up finish to Louisiana Tech in Conference USA’s West Division has UTSA thinking it has a realistic chance of challenging for the league title.
Wilson expressed confidence Monday that the Roadrunners will be able to handle the mental and physical challenges of taking their game to a higher level.
“I think there’s no greater pressure than the pressure we put on ourselves,” Wilson said. “Our expectation is higher as a (coaching) staff, as individual players, as a support system. We expect to be better than we were a year ago. It starts at home first. On the outside, I’m not sure what those expectations are. But even from within, we’re going to put it on ourselves.”
Day One of the season started Monday when more than 100 players reported to fall camp. UTSA begins workouts Tuesday morning and kicks off its season against Houston on Sept. 2 at the Alamodome.
“I’d say expectations are higher,” junior running back Jalen Rhodes said. “We had a good season last year. We’re ready to build some good team chemistry and get after it.”
The Roadrunners return 44 lettermen, including 15 starters (7 defense/6 defense/2 kickers). They were picked this summer to finish second to Louisiana Tech in the West again in a preseason poll of media members who cover the league.
With Jarveon Williams competing for a job with the Cincinnati Bengals now, Rhodes will be the team’s starting running back this season. Williams finished his career as the all-time leading rusher in the program’s brief history, gaining 2,353 yards in four seasons, including 900 last year.
Rhodes ran for 827 yards on 157 carries for a 5.3 average last year, and set a school single-season record for rushing touchdowns with nine. He had his best game against Southern Miss, rushing for a career-high 165 yards on only 14 carries and tying the UTSA record with three TDs.
“He’s bigger than he’s ever been,” Wilson said of Rhodes, who is listed as being 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds on the team’s roster. “He’s run better than he’s ever ran. I think this is a moment that he’s waited for, that he’s prepared himself for. I’m very excited about the opportunity before him. I think he’ll have a breakout year. I think this will be a big year for him.”
Four UTSA players – deep snapper Matt Bayliss, defensive end Marcus Davenport, offensive lineman Austin Pratt and linebacker Josiah Tauaefa – all were named to the Preseason All-Conference USA team. All are seniors except Tauaefa, a sophomore who had a stellar freshman season last year.
A Stevens High School graduate, Davenport earned second-team all-conference honors last season after leading the Roadrunners’ defensive linemen with 68 tackles (31 solo/37 assists), including 10 for loss. He also led the team with 6.5 sacks and set a program record with eight QB hurries.
“I’ve been waiting for this all summer, since the spring, since the last game,” Davenport said.
To build on last year’s six-win bowl season, Davenport said, the Roadrunners must guard against feeling entitled. “We didn’t stop working,” he said. “It’s a constant grind.”
Senior quarterback Dalton Sturm, who began his career at UTSA as a walk-on, has started the Roadrunners’ last 20 games since stepping in for injured Blake Bogenschutz in 2015. Sturm passed for 2,170 yards and 20 TDs last year. He completed 169 of 299 attempts (56.5 percent) and was intercepted six times. Sturm also rushed for 313 yards and four TDs.
“It’s been a great summer,” said Sturm, who is from Goliad. “We’ve coordinated a lot of 7-on-7’s. We’ve gotten out there for a lot of throwing sessions with the defense or without the defense. Just trying to get some timing down with all of our guys and I think we’ve done a great job of that.”
Sturm is on the 2017 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award preseason watch list. The award is given annually to the country’s top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback.
The highlight of Sturm’s summer was attending the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana. Sturm was among quarterbacks from across the country who learned from some of the best passers to ever play the game – Archie Manning and his two sons, Super Bowl winners Peyton and Eli – during a four-day camp in June.
“That was a great experience,” Sturm said. “Just got to meet a bunch of great quarterbacks and work out with them. I got to learn some pointers from Peyton and Eli.”
Asked what he learned from Peyton specifically, Sturm said: “We got to pick his brain about everything, whether it was talking defenses, talking coverages or protections. Whatever we wanted to ask him, he was open to all kinds of questions. That was a really a great opportunity for me.”
College teams across the country are starting preseason practice earlier this year because the NCAA voted in the spring to end two-a-day workouts. Teams still will have the same number of workouts they’ve had in the past before opening their season, but the elimination of two-a-day practices made it necessary to move up the start of camp.
“We had already kind of started evolving into that,” Wilson said. “We may have done two or three two-a-days last year. I didn’t see a need for it as much as it was in the days when I played football, because you’re able to get enough efficient work in in the time that they give us.
“It’s not a big deal for us. We were already headed in that direction anyway. We’re fine with it. It doesn’t affect us at all. One (practice) a day is more than sufficient, especially when spanned out over 29 days.”
Rhodes, for one, is happy that he won’t have to endure two workouts in one day in the oppressive San Antonio heat.
“It’s a blessing,” Rhodes said, when he was asked about the elimination of two-a-days. “I ain’t going to lie to you. Being out in that sun, it does things to you.”