Dixie State football looks to continue rise in McClure era

File photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Last year, Dixie State began a new era with the hiring of Shay McClure as the head football coach, plus the switch from the Great Northwest Athletic Conference to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Add to that the announcement of major renovations to Legend Solar Stadium and there is plenty to celebrate moving for for the Trailblazers.

“We had a lot of success last year,” McClure said. “We were picked to finish ninth in the RMAC in the preseason polls. I think it is fair to say we exceeded everyone’s expectations except our own.”

The Trailblazers finished fifth in the RMAC, ended the year with the first winning season in Dixie State’s NCAA Division II era, and defeated a nationally-ranked team for the first time. Aside from that, the team also achieved success by strengthening an important intangible. Dixie State crowds were the largest they had been in years, including a sizable student contingent.

Dixie State University vs. Colorado School of Mines, Football, St. George, Utah, Oct. 22, 2016, | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

“There were a lot of factors that fed into the increase in crowd size,” said Dixie State athletic director Jason Boothe. “Our enrollment has grown. Our media department has done a good job through advertisement and media apps to invite our students to the game. But winning is always a big factor in creating a loyal fan base.”

Early on, it appeared that the Trailblazers were headed for another losing season when they dropped three in-a-row after winning the season opener. Two of those losses came by one score or less. But then DSU won the next three, including the win over ranked Colorado Mesa. A 2-2 finish gave the Trailblazers a 6-5 record.

This year, Dixie State jumped in the preseason RMAC rankings to fourth, just behind the three nationally-ranked teams (Colorado Mesa, CSU-Pueblo, Colorado Mines) from last year. McClure had a guarded reaction to the poll.

“We certainly don’t want to temper our fan-base enthusiasm, but we are not even close as a program to compete on a yearly basis with nationally-ranked teams,” he said. “Last year was a good stepping stone for us. We began last year with a four-year plan to get us to the point where we will compete with the better teams. We will get there. But right now we are in year two.”

OFFENSE

Dixie State’s Sei-J Lauago (25), Dixie State University vs. Fort Lewis University, St. George, Utah, Nov. 12, 2016, | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

In 2016, the offense averaged 218 yards on the ground (sixth in RMAC) and 166 through the air (10th in RMAC). DSU’s total average of 384 yards was good enough for eighth in the conference. The Trailblazers want to run the ball to establish the pass, but McClure was also very clear that he wanted to have better balance in his offense. The run-pass ratio for Dixie State’s offense was greater than 2-1. Most of that had to do with personnel issues such as injuries and experience.

Last year, it only took two weeks to get to Dixie State’s fourth-string quarterback, true freshman Josh Thompson. Thompson took over for Tyson Blackner, who went down at home against South Dakota Mines. Thompson would start eight of the remaining nine games.

This year, the role has been handed to senior Malik Watson. The San Jose State transfer competed and won the position in the spring. Watson is a drop-back passer, but also brings speed to the position.

Watson will be joined by newcomers in the backfield as well. Gone are DeJon Coleman and Clifford Simms. Sei J Luaugo returns. As a freshman, he carried the ball 34 times for 150 yards. Newcomers Jeffery “Juju” Coprich (transfer from UC-Berkeley) and Olita Palmer (incoming freshman) will start and/or get extended time running the ball.

At the receiver positions, offensive coordinator Reilly Murphy plans to platoon several players. Orlando Wallace (38 catches, 431 yards) is firmly entrenched at the slotback position. Blake Barney, who saw time at quarterback last year, along with Dejuan Dantzler (11-191), Taj Broomfield (4-35) and Brad Duran (2-17) return. Transfer Kasey Allison will also be in the mix.

The offensive line battles have not been settled. Ten different players are vying for the five spots. But it would be hard to imagine Preseason All-RMAC Timothy Ah Hee and two-year letter winner Braden Peterson not starting.

DEFENSE

Defensively, the Trailblazers lost only a few to graduation – But adding to the players not returning is leading tackler and defensive team captain Colton Olsen. He would have been a senior, but has not recovered from an injury suffered late last year and is not expected to see the field this year.

“That was a big blow, but not entirely unexpected,” McClure said. “He was out during the spring and decided to take a year off to recover. We hope that he will and if he wants to continue his football career, that he can.”

Dixie State University vs. Fort Lewis University, St. George, Utah, Nov. 12, 2016, | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

The backfield returns two great talents at the corner position. Preseason All-RMAC selection Tyneil Cooper (33 tackles, 9 QB hits) will be at one spot. Cooper also had the honor of being selected as the face of the Trailblazers with his image on front of the banner hanging from the stadium bleachers. Last year’s RMAC defensive freshman of the year, Jaylen Moore (44 tackles, 1 INT, 8 QBH, 1 forced fumble), will man the other corner position. At the safety spots, there are four players vying for the two positions.

The linebacker positions also feature many battles.

“We are pretty much locked in with Tane Tuifua (20 tackles) at the “Mike” linebacker,” McClure said. At the other linebacker spots there are 2-3 battling for each spot.”

One player who started and saw extended action last year was Shiloh Pritchard (55 tackles, 3 sacks).

On the defensive line, McClure made it clear that starting did not necessarily mean getting the most playing time.

“We have 10 guys that we are going to platoon in and out,” said McClure. “It is a position that requires different personnel in different situations, but also requires rotation to keep our defensive line fresh through the entire game.”

Defensive linemen that saw extended play last year were Remington Kelly (37 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks), Tyson Roberts and Donovan Williams.

Dixie State will kick off the year this Thursday night against New Mexico Highlands in Las Vegas, N.M. Game time is set for 5 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN Radio 97.7 FM.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

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