As the UTSA football team stepped onto the practice field for a mock game last Saturday, Texas State was in the locker room at Bobcat Stadium, less than an hour from kicking off the year against SMU.
Opening the season seven days before the Roadrunners, the Bobcats had the chance to work through the Week 1 jitters and identify shortcomings in a 31-24 loss. But Texas State also faces the disadvantage of putting a game on film, while UTSA has kept first-year coach Jeff Traylor’s system a mystery.
UTSA begins a season muddled by the coronavirus pandemic at 2:30 p.m. today at Texas State, navigating an array of challenges extending beyond this week’s X’s and O’s.
Traylor and his staff installed a new system without the benefit of spring practice, and despite limited contact with players through parts of the fall. The Roadrunners also won’t be at full strength, with Traylor saying this week that eight players will sit out the opener because of positive COVID-19 tests or contact tracing.
Texas State, meanwhile, is entering the second game of its second year under coach Jake Spavital. The Bobcats managed a handful of spring practices before the shutdown and opened fall camp a few days earlier than the Roadrunners.
“They definitely have the edge,” Traylor said. “They’ve been with coach Spavital longer than my kids have been with me, so there’s no doubt they have the edge. I would much rather have played a game and them have scouted me than I would not have played a game and have that advantage.”
UTSA defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix agreed that Texas State’s position is more favorable, citing the adage that teams make the biggest strides between their first and second games.
Spavital said he expects to see significant improvement from the Bobcats after a roster with more than 50 newcomers worked through opening week nerves.
Anticipating that every team will modify its system each year, UTSA offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. said the scouting edge might be more valuable than Texas State’s game experience.
“If I had to pick, I personally would probably rather have picked knowing what they were going to do in Week 1, so we have a chance to study them,” Lunney said. “They’ll still have some more wrinkles for us, but I think that was beneficial for us to be able to watch them play, to get a feel for who they are.”
Spavital said he is working to offset the tactical advantage by studying the schemes Traylor and his assistants implemented with previous programs.
But even with an idea of the base systems, Spavital said some elements remain difficult to identify. UTSA hasn’t named a starting quarterback, and Spavital said the extent to which the Roadrunners will use the signal-caller in the run game is unclear.
Texas State defensive coordinator Zac Spavital said the Bobcats focused on their own strengths in practice while mixing in a few “answers” to UTSA’s anticipated approach.
“With what I think they’re going to do offensively, I think it’s going to make them a lot better,” Zac Spavital said. “They were kind of a two-back, bleed you out, run the ball and play-action. And now I think they’re going to be a high-tempo, spread, more (run-pass option)-driven team.”
Many of the problem areas in a typical opener are expected to be amplified by the changes to the spring and offseason workout schedule. Traylor said conditioning and UTSA’s ability to take care of the football will be “the biggest unknowns in the game.”
The Roadrunners have been tracking player movement and speeds in practice to simulate game situations, but Lunney said “there’s just a difference between practice conditioning and game conditioning.” In that regard, Lunney said, Texas State has an edge.
Though the Roadrunners have had fewer live scrimmages than during a typical fall camp, Nix said he expects UTSA’s defenders to tackle well. Conditioning will be the “toughest part,” Nix said, making depth more critical.
“Ultimately, there’s nothing like going out there and doing it,” Nix said. “I’m sure we’ll miss some tackles. Hopefully, we won’t miss many.”
The Roadrunners know today’s opener was never guaranteed, with the pandemic leading other schools and conferences to postpone fall athletics.
Junior offensive lineman Spencer Burford said he faced moments of doubt about whether the season would happen but felt UTSA did everything necessary to earn the opportunity to play.
“We’re going to love it,” Burford said. “Everybody is going to be juiced up, yelling and screaming. Pads are going to be cracking. … I believe that my guys, we’re ready to play.”
Traylor is entering his first game as a college head coach, but he said the milestone has rarely crossed his mind.
The nine months since he’s taken the job have felt like years, he said, as the Roadrunners grappled with challenges including the pandemic and the national conversation surrounding racial injustice.
“There’s nothing new and fresh about 2020,” Traylor said. “It’s been a kick in the gut every day, and you just have to remind yourself how blessed you are to be out there on the field.”
Traylor said the status of UTSA’s roster will be a “day-to-day » situation, with the pandemic constantly threatening to sideline players.
No players tested positive Tuesday, Traylor said, and athletic director Lisa Campos said Thursday’s tests also came back negative. A final round of testing loomed Friday before the Roadrunners were cleared to kick off 2020.
“I know they’re eager, and they’re excited, and they’ve practiced hard, but those first games are always crazy, and we’ll know a whole lot more (today),” Traylor said. “But it won’t be for lack of preparation or lack of effort, I can promise you that. … Whoever is on the bus with us (today), we’re going to go out there and give it heck as long as we can.”
Greg Luca is the UTSA beat reporter and general assignment reporter for the San Antonio Express-News. In addition to UTSA, his coverage includes the University of Incarnate Word, the San Antonio Missions, the San Antonio Rampage and other San Antonio area colleges. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Florida and a native of Connecticut. He was the sports editor of the McAllen Monitor from 2014-18.
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