Texas State is looking to improve upon a 6-6 finish in 2013 that saw the Bobcats just miss out on an opportunity for the program's first bowl appearance. Last year's team was buoyed by a serviceable defense that kept the Bobcats in many of their games despite developing a true freshman quarterback that was protected by an untested offensive line. That defense was anchored by none other than one 6'1" 232 lb. linebacker and demolition man known as Mike Orakpo.
Unless you have been living under Enchanted Rock for the past decade you likely have heard of Mike's brother, Brian, but the younger Orakpo is not so quietly making a name for himself in San Marcos and around the country. He is the anchor to one of the strongest linebacking crews in the Sun Belt and has garnered preseason hype that includes a first team All-Sun Belt selection and being named to the Butkus Award watch list. Orakpo is, of course, far from the only player vital to the Bobcats' bowl hopes, so here is a look at some of his teammates that could be crucial to Texas State's overall success this season.
DE Michael Odiari, Sr.
All of Texas State's starters and one key backup are gone from 2013's defensive line, which is an issue for a team still wary of repeating 2012's disastrous defensive campaign that featured a weaker pass rush than many FCS teams. Making the defensive line situation even tougher for fourth year head coach Dennis Franchione was the double blow that two highly regarded JUCO d-line recruits in Toni Pulu and Roosevelt Pearson were lost to not qualifying and an ACL tear, respectively.
That puts an enormous amount of pressure on Odiari, who is the one remaining d-line player who saw significant action in 2013. He is undersized but speedy off the edge, and singlehandedly made trouble in the backfield in last year's season opener. Odiari was also able to rack up 5 tackles for loss last season, good for second on the team behind the indomitable Orakpo who finished with twice that many. If there is to be anything resembling a pass rush from the front 3 or 4 in 2014, it'll likely start with #55.
LB David Mayo, Sr.
Mike Orakpo will get most of the preseason hype this year, but Mayo is arguably just as valuable of a contributor to the defensive unit. Whereas Orakpo is an explosive pass rusher and enforcer, Mayo can play horizontally and use his speed to close rushing lanes in a hurry, as well as break up and intercept short to mid range passes. His diverse skill set makes it unsurprising that he led the team in interceptions (4) and solo tackles (63), and was third on the team in tackles for loss (4.5) behind the more pass rush oriented Orakpo and Odiari.
The biggest concern facing both Mayo and Orakpo this season is how much they can carry the team if the defensive line and/or secondary don't develop as quickly as needed. If the line can't develop a serviceable pass rush, expect to see Orakpo play some with the front four as a pass rusher and Mayo being asked to handle the majority of responsibility at the second level. Regardless of how the defense develops, it's clear that Mayo will be a key linchpin for the Bobcat defense in 2014.
WR Brandon Smith, Jr.
Two senior leaders in Andy Erickson and Isaiah Battle are gone, but the cupboard is far from bare at wide receiver. After last year's conservative offense that was focused more on developing QB Tyler Jones than producing big plays, the Bobcat offense will be opening up under a new, faster paced no huddle triple option playbook that will provide more opportunities to spread the field and win battles in space.
Although the receiving unit returns talented three star recruits Brice Gunter and Jafus Gaines, the reliable tight end Bradley Miller, and senior leader Ben Ijah, the most likely benefactor of this new strategy will likely be the athletic and electrifying 6'2" 170 lb. junior out of Prattville, Alabama. Smith has already distinguished himself with a pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns in the second half at Louisiana as well as an average of 29.9 yards per kickoff return for the year, but his quickness and superior athleticism gives him the ability to get open and make some excellent catches while covered. He may convert that raw potential into multiple trips to the end zone if the passing game can improve from last year.
QB Tyler Jones, So.
Critics may say it's cliche to go with the quarterback on a key players list when the offensive line plays just as much of a role in a team's offensive success or failure, but it's difficult to overstate Jones's importance to Texas State's overall success for next season. Despite some major growing pains Jones showed flashes of brilliance with both his arm and his legs and was responsible for converting on 4th and 24 against South Alabama to lead the game winning drive. However, the Bobcat offense ground to a screeching halt and Texas State dropped their last three games convincingly once Jones broke his throwing hand and teams put 8 in the box to stop Texas State's rushing attack.
If Jones can improve his throwing consistency, minimize his tendency to stare down receivers, and avoid some of the bigger hits he willingly took last season while on the run, he'll likely put up much improved numbers over his 1130 yard, 8 TD, 5 INT rookie season assuming the offensive line improves along with him.
Coach Fran tabbed Fred Nixon as the likely backup, but it's not clear that any of the backups would be remotely ready to step in if Jones goes down. So for better or worse, Texas State has settled on a quarterback sans controversy for the first time since 2009. They're going to need him.