Getting a fresh start
Mesa opens practice optimistic after playoff berth
Antonio Clark was about as miserable as a guy can be last November on the flight from Commerce, Texas, to Grand Junction.
One, the Colorado Mesa football team had lost a playoff game that to this day, the Mavericks feel they could have — should have — won.
Two, Clark’s right wrist was throbbing after he broke it during the game. He had surgery shortly after the Mavericks got home, one of several players who had offseason surgery.
Clark was about as happy as a guy can be on Monday, letting out a war whoop as he hopped down the levels of rock wall on the east side of the practice field at CMU, eager to get the 2017 season started.
“It works,” he said when asked how the wrist was feeling, showing the flexibility has returned. “I’m so ready to go, I can’t wait. I just wish we could hit right now.”
That will have to wait until Friday, and Saturday the Mavericks will have the first of three scrimmages in preparation for their Aug. 31 opener against Western State at Stocker Stadium.
Under even more stringent NCAA rules, two-a-days are history. Teams can have a conditioning session, which the Mavericks are doing at 6 a.m., with the actual practices in the afternoon once the freshmen are finished with a mandatory orientation class.
Coupled with cooler temperatures than usual and a cloudy day, it was hard not to get excited about the season.
“All you can ask for,” offensive lineman Austin Fleer said about the weather and the lighter schedule. “You get a lot of rest in between.”
The FieldTurf practice field was replaced in the offseason and more than one player commented they saw that as a reward for their hard work and success.
Success is something the Mavericks want to experience even more this fall after a 9-3 campaign and a first-round playoff game.
“I think this season … I feel we proved our doubters, it’s just reaffirming it and making it the real standard,” said Clark, a starting cornerback who scooped up two Dustin Rivas blocked kicks and returned them for touchdowns last season. “The last two years weren’t an aberration, proving what this school is about and the kind of team we’re going to be, building on that. I think we’ll go farther this year. We’ve got a lot of talent on this team, a lot of talent.
With the majority of the roster back, CMU has a couple of holes to fill along the offensive line, something they started looking at last spring.
“We’ve kind of got to adjust them to the football scheme from high school to college and get our transfers in line and figure out who can play for us and who can’t,” said Fleer, who will anchor the offensive line along with senior center Aaron Simons.
“They have to come in and learn the system and learn all the techniques and our plays in such a short time. We have to figure out who can do that and who can’t and fill some spots.”
Behind the line is junior quarterback Eystin Salum, who, along with four other quarterbacks, including two highly touted freshmen, Brevinn Tyler (Columbia, Missouri) and Hayden Bollinger (Las Vegas, Nevada) looked crisp in passing drills.
“I know he knows the offense so well, he’ll study and do whatever he can to make sure he knows it and he’s not ill-prepared,” Fleer said. “I know we can trust him back there because we have played with him and he works hard, so I know we can trust him back there to do the job.”
After a winter of working out, then spring camp, more lifting and shattering the weight room records they broke a year ago, the Mavericks hope they can keep the injuries to a minimum this season. Linebacker Tom Saager, who missed all of last season with a broken foot, was back on the field, but the Mavericks are bringing him along slowly after he missed spring camp.
Clark didn’t miss any time in the spring — once he got the cast off his arm, he was itching to work out.
“They wanted to hold me back in the spring, but I wanted to get out there,” he said. “I had to get some confidence back tackling people, know that it was going to hold up.”
Mesa’s coaches were just as eager to get back to work, with offensive coordinator Jeromy McDowell whooping and hollering as he ran onto the field, and defensive backs coach Mac Alexander bouncing around as he called out stretching drills.
Day 1 helped erase the sting of the final day of the 2016 season, and the Mavs were all smiles again, including Clark.
“It was rough, but I think it’s something that helped me get better,” he said of the injury. “It kind of taught me how to be tough a little bit. I think I’m a lot tougher now than I was.”