Tarleton State may still be more than five months away from kicking off its 2011 football season, but the preparations for the upcoming year on the gridiron take a leap in intensity Wednesday.

Almost 90 Texans will be on the turf when Tarleton begins spring football for the second time under head coach Cary Fowler.

The Texans, who were 3-8 in Fowler's first season, welcome back a bevy of underclassmen, including as many as 28 true or redshirt freshmen that made travel rosters last year.

Fowler also welcomes in a new face he is as excited to have on board this spring as any - offensive coordinator Lee Hays.

"It's going to be exciting to watch our offense develop under Coach Hays," Fowler said, listing that as one of the things he looks forward to most about spring ball. "He's telling me there will be balls in the air non-stop on the offensive end."

Hays' version of the "Air Raid" offense is taking over at Tarleton, even though returning starting quarterback Nick Stephens is sitting out spring ball to return his final semester of eligibility for this fall.

"Nick's out, but he was in a system similar to this in high school," said Fowler. "So were some of the quarterbacks we will have out there."

Quarterbacks Aaron Doyle, Jake Fenske and Henry Hunter are all familiar with the basics of the Air Raid, and will have the opportunity to become especially versed in the wide-open attack with Stephens out.

"I'm excited to see how those guys and our receivers handle the change of pace," Fowler said. "If you're going to play at the tempo (Hays) wants, you have to practice at that tempo. It's going to be a real challenge for some of them to keep up at first, because it's going to be a lot of fast-paced action."

Running back is another position that will be affected by the absence of a veteran. Returning starter Evan Robertson is out with an injury, allowing even more time for Jerome Regal and Brandon Lowery, who were both productive in limited roles as true freshmen last fall.

Fowler says the confidence of having Hays - who has been offensive coordinator at West Texas A&M and Baylor and also coached at Houston, Sam Houston State and Texas A&M-Kingsville - allows him to become even more enveloped in the duties of being a head coach.

"Knowing that area is taken care of allows me to be even more involved defensively and especially with the kicking game," Fowler said. "I'm looking forward to what (Hays) is going to be implementing the next few weeks as far as X's and O's, but I'm even more looking forward to what he brings as far as experience to our staff. He's going to open me up to become more involved in a lot of areas."

One word repeatedly comes out of Fowler's mouth concerning the off-season program to this point - brutal.

"It's been brutal - we've been running them at 6 a.m. and they've been working hard in the weight room," Fowler said. "You'll notice a difference physically. Some of our young guys have gained a tremendous amount of weight and strength and our skill guys are stronger and faster. That's a testament to Coach (Rod) Cole and our strength and conditioning program, and to the work all these guys have put in this off-season."

The first spring practice is set for 3 p.m. today. Spring ball concludes with the annual Purple vs. White game April 1.

The spring game is part of Tarleton Football Weekend. The annual Bobby Fox Memorial Golf Tournament - a scramble that raises money for the football program each year - is April 2 at Harbor Lakes Golf Course in Granbury.

"This is a fun time of year," Fowler said. "We have a lot of freshmen who have never been through a college off-season or college spring ball before. It's fun to watch those guys grow and mature. And for the guys back who are veterans at this, it's fun to watch them take on leadership roles."