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OGDEN — Weber State football coach Jay Hill is increasingly turning the roster into his roster.
A head coach is responsible for each and every player, coach, staffer and trainer in the program, and one of the toughest parts of taking over a losing program is having players that weren’t recruited by a coach suddenly have to become part of his plans to win.
That isn’t easy, and Hill is slowly doing it at Weber State.
The Wildcats had a solid recruiting class last year, including players like receiver Daryl Denby who became contributors on the field. This season, Weber signed 32 players, a majority of them from the state of Utah with a mix of other states.
All of it is part of Hill’s plan to turn the Wildcats around, and even the returners from last season’s 2-10 squad are changing and evolving, the second-year coach said.
“One thing I’ve seen is the personality of the team is much more confident this year,” he said. “In what I expect from, and what it takes to get to the next level, they’re much more confident in that. I wish I had a video camera and could show the difference in the weight room between last year and this year; they’re stronger; they’re more confident; they’re a closer-knit group.”
Hill and his coaching staff have accomplished their first goal of changing the culture around Wildcat football in their first full season. Now, the second goal is to continue upgrading the talent level in the program.
"I see us for sure moving in the right direction," said Weber State coach Jay Hill.
When Weber recruits players, it tries to get its cake and eat it too. It wants all-around good athletes who play multiple sports, but the Wildcats also want football fanatics. Besides that, the Wildcats are looking for the best all-around players they can find to play as early as possible, while simultaneously searching for prospects they can develop.
Hill said recruiting all of them is different.
“At this level, if we’re going to get big-time NFL guys, some of them are going to be projects,” he said. “We’ve got to find guys who are a little bit smaller, and we’re going to have to grow them into what they become. We’re going to have to look at projection guys, at underdeveloped kids who maybe haven’t reached their potential.
“At the same time, we need the best football players out there, and sometimes the best football players get overlooked because people perceive them being a step slow, but they’re just so stinking instinctive; we need those guys.”
Weber State is a unique sell to high school football players on the Wasatch Front. The program has good FCS facilities, but they pale in comparison to facilities at FBS schools in the area. For that reason, Hill said he and his staff sell different things at Weber than other schools, starting with academics.
“If you’ve got an academic plan in place where you feel you can ensure success,” he said, “and you’ve got the budget and support to get people through the hoops; that’s one thing we do have is we’ve got as good a academic support staff here at Weber as any FCS school that’s out there, and a lot of lower FBS schools.
“(Weber State is) super strong in certain degrees so that allows to get those kids that want to go into those degrees, like business or (STEM career fields).”
Of course, since FCS schools recruit a different level of talent, lower-tier FBS players have the opportunity to get significant playing time if they so choose — a fact Weber State uses to its advantage.
“It’s going to be a little bit easier for some of these kids to come in and play a little bit early in their careers at Weber State, than it would be at BYU,” he said.
Getting talent is important and keeping talent is even more important. The Wildcats lost a big coaching talent when defensive coordinator Justin Ena accepted a position at the University of Utah. Ena was a well-respected coach, both by current players and assistant coaches and had credibility with recruits.
While Hill noted Ena’s departure didn’t lead to any recruits leaving the program, Hill said the time to find a quality replacement is extensive.
“That’s time where I’m in looking at resumes, talking to people, and calling other coaches on them to do background checks. I’m doing all these things like that instead of sitting in the film room, watching film and trying to figure out how to get better,” he said.
With recruiting of the 2015 class over, recruitment of the 2016 class will ramp up over the spring. However, the Wildcats’ first priority is preparing for spring practice, which begins the third week of March.
“We spend the big majority of our mornings watching film, watching last year’s cut-ups, getting our playbooks organized — all the details are handled,” he said. “In the afternoon, they’re in the weight room with their guys when they are lifting; they’re doing academic meetings; they’re doing transcript evaluations on recruits we have. The afternoons are spent doing that. The mornings are spent getting better with football.”
All in all, as Weber prepares for the second year of the rebuilding project, Hill said he likes where foundation the team is building on.
“I loved our signing class last year, and I knew we needed to get them infused into the program,” he said. “What they were going to do was push the starters, and they did. Last year, our fastest (players) were all true freshmen. That’s what we’re trying to do with this class. We’re trying to infuse that much more talent into here, and by doing so, the veteran players are going to have to step up their game.
“I see us for sure moving in the right direction. Are we there yet? No, but I fully expect us to be.”