Tarleton State University’s football team now has everyone’s attention.
The 2018 Texans recorded their most successful season ever — winning the first 12 games last year and reaching the third round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
The Texans were only picked to finish fifth among the nine Lone Star Conference teams a year ago, coming off a 6-6 season.
Coach Todd Whitten’s crew caught fire to win TSU’s first outright LSC football crown and reached the NCAA Division II quarterfinal playoff round, peaking at No. 6 in the national rankings. The Texans even led top-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato 10-0 going into the fourth quarter of that snowbound Super Region 4 Championship matchup.
With a second-half snowstorm bogging down the Texans’ balanced but high-octane offense, Minnesota State plowed ahead and posted a 13-10 triumph.
Whitten said he had been confident last year’s team was better than that preseason sixth-place prediction.
“I think as a coaching staff, we knew this time of year going into camp that we had a chance to be really good,” Whitten told the E-T recently. “Now, we had no idea what kind of quarterback play we were going to get. Ben (quarterback Ben Holmes) was a really nice surprise, the way that he showed up and played well through camp and just had a great season.
“We really thought we could be really solid on defense and we were. And we thought all the other pieces were sort of in place on the offensive side.”
TSU closed out the 2018 season with its best football record ever, at 12-1.
“It’s one of the best years I’ve been a part of as a coach,” Whitten said. “I was so proud of our seniors, all of our players, coaches alike, everybody. They played well every Saturday, really. We didn’t have a letdown all year. To go through the Lone Star Conference undefeated is just about unheard of.”
Boosted by that 2018 performance, the Texans are No. 4 in the nation in the 2019 preseason rankings published by D2Sports.
And when the dust cleared in this year’s preseason LSC voting, TSU was picked to win the 2019 conference championship.
There are 47 returning lettermen for the Texans, and Whitten sees relatively few problem areas entering this season.
“We had a really good senior and junior class a year ago,” he said. “We have a lot of returning starters, so that would lend itself to us, I think, the main reason we were picked to win the conference. This team is a fast team. We’ll see how well we come together and how well we play, but we have plenty of speed. And that’s a good place to start.”
Replacing four key starting offensive linemen will be one of the most pressing tasks.
“That’s the piece of the puzzle that’s going to need the most attention,” Whitten said. “We had four seniors graduate a year ago, so we’ve got some holes to fill there. We made some progress during spring ball, but all of those jobs are up for grabs.”
The Texans scored an average of 45 points a game last season, sixth-best among all of Division II. They were fifth in average total offensive yards per contest, at 516.
The key returning core players on offense includes, among many others, Holmes, plus 1,000-yard rusher Daniel McCants along with wideout Zimari Manning, who led the LSC with 12 TD receptions.
Manning paced the team with 947 yards receiving on 44 catches.
Holmes threw 28 touchdown passes last season, completing 58 percent of his passes for 2,59 yards.
Last season’s running back combination of Xavier Turner and McCants gave the Texans the nation’s third-best team rushing total. The 2018 campaign marked the first time in school history the Texans have had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season. Turner led the team with 1,469 yards on 228 carries, and a team-leading 22 rushing touchdowns as a senior.
Turner had signed as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals, but was later waived. He was signed in early August by the Seattle Seahawks.
McCants was second on TSU’s squad with 1,141 yards a year ago, but his average on his 157 carries gave him a team-high 7.3 yards per carry. He scored eight TDs.
“That was cool. I loved playing with Xavier,” McCants said. “We kept each other going. It (last season’s success) really makes me want to work harder. There’s no pressure, just keep working.”
McCants, a senior out of Killeen High School, may be the Texans’ fastest current player. He posted a personal-best time of 4.32 seconds in the 40 when he was in high school. His best time recorded while at TSU was 4.37.
Not only is McCants a key weapon, one all-time Texans record may be within his reach this season, but not in rushing yardage. He is nearing TSU’s all-time career mark for total kick return yards.
“It (that record) would be cool to have, but I never really talk about stats and records,” said the 5-8, 175-pound McCants.
The defense is fully loaded, featuring All-America defensive backs Devin Hafford and safety Jai Edwards, and all-region cornerback Prince Edwards.
“We’re really fast,” Whitten said of the defense. “We’ve got a lot of foot speed, and fast defenses usually play well. We’ve got three all-conference performers coming back in the secondary. We’ve got really good linebackers coming back. Ronnell (Wilson) will be a three-year starter.
“There’s just really no weakness, and that coupled with the fact we’ve got a lot of team speed on defense makes us have high expectations. We stopped the run last year, really well. If we are going to be as good, we need to continue that trend.”