|HBU’s Tony Dawson (11), Garrett Dolan (40), Mev Ajdin (32), and Cody Moncure (22) (Photo / HBU)
The Houston Baptist University Huskies’ football team completed its third full season as a program in the FCS’s Southland Conference in 2016. It’s a noteworthy development on the college football landscape. HBU plays in arguably the country’s strongest high school football state and in one of its major urban markets. Despite that, launching a football program at the Division I level is one of the hardest undertakings in college sports.
The Huskies are led by Vic Shealy, the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at the University of Kansas prior to his arrival. Included on his resume is an NAIA national championship as a head coach at Azusa Pacific (now NCAA Division II), and assistant roles at Richmond, UNLV, Air Force, Austin Peay, and Mars Hill.
I spoke with Shealy in late December about the progress of the Huskies to date, the challenges of the recruiting trail, and the development of two of his top players – linebacker Garrett Dolan and quarterback Tony Dawson. The interview was conducted via the phone and edited for length and clarity. – TF
Fieldhouse: When you look at the Southland football programs, you have to gauge the progress of the three new teams – HBU, Incarnate Word (UIW), and Abilene Christian (ACU)* – a little differently than some of the long-standing Southland teams.
Shealy: You do have to compartmentalize certain aspects of your program so that you can more effectively measure progress. The way that we looked at the season, we knew that playing the two Conference-USA teams, UTEP and Western Kentucky, would be tough.
So this year if you take those two and Sam [Houston State] and Central Arkansas out of the equation, we feel like we’re about a .500 team in terms of quality, and that we proved that to ourselves.
I feel like we got more physical. Our kids are bigger, there’s more girth, and so you can look at those kids and say they look more like what’s being played on Saturday.
Fieldhouse: You opened against Central Arkansas. We got a lot of HBU up here in Maryland, so I was able to watch that game live.
Shealy: We opened up the season against Central Arkansas and really did not come out and play with confidence to compete, and I was really kind of baffled because I knew we were better and I felt that we’d play them better than we did.
But I don’t know if it was the opening game on national TV or what. Plus Central Arkansas, especially the way they played that night, they’re a really good team.
But we came back and got a couple of wins. I really felt there were times against Sam in week four that would give us a chance to really see where we are, knowing that they were probably the most athletic team in the league.
In the last five or six minutes of the third quarter, we were down 31-16, but we’d scored 10 straight points earlier in the quarter, and we had the ball back at midfield with a lot of confidence that we’d been able to stop them for a couple of series and score.
And then we ended up turning the ball over, and they scored to get a run going on us and separate themselves.
But you could just see that our kids had begun to believe, even though things didn’t go well on the scoreboard against Sam and against Western Kentucky. Our guys didn’t have that look in their eye or were fearful of ‘my gosh, we’re not good enough.’
|Huskies’ Head Coach Vic Shealy (Photo / HBU)
So you’ve got to look back at the end of the season and see where some things are regarding the quality of players to compete in our league. In a capsule, I think the season is one that we look back on and feel like that the competitive gap is continuing to narrow and this year narrowed a little more quickly.
Fieldhouse: What was it like playing at the Sun Bowl [Stadium] against UTEP of the FBS? A lot of your guys are Texas guys so here’s a place that they’ve been watching on New Year’s Eve for years and then you’re stepping out on the field and playing in the Sun Bowl. There must have been some awe there for the first time.
Shealy: That’s a good question because it was there a little when our kids were preparing for Western Kentucky.
They [WKU] had played Vanderbilt the week before that and a couple weeks before that, Alabama. So those were the two of the most recent teams that Western Kentucky played. So you walk on a field and as you know, they’re immensely talented and have had a lot of success. And we played really well on offense that day, we moved the ball pretty consistently, particularly in the first half.
Defensively we had some miscues. I think we played at a respectable level on the day and our guys were probably a little bit wide-eyed before that game and seeing the people whom WKU had played.
So fast forward four weeks later, and now we’re playing at UTEP. Our guys, at least there were more relaxed – knowing they were playing a good football team certainly, the team that had beaten UTSA here in the state two weeks before in overtime.
Our guys weren’t fearful of competing against a Conference-USA team. Now in the trenches on their side of the ball, UTEP physically can smack the other team pretty good, and they have a very, very talented running back [Aaron Jones
], and we struggled. But it was a game in which you could sense that our players were growing up; Tony came on and certainly gave us a real play-maker at quarterback.
Fieldhouse: In a heavily recruited market with a lot of talent in Texas, how does HBU differentiate itself when you’re out there on the trail in your third or fourth year, and you’re not a brand new program? I know getting the player to that initial campus visit is important.
I think there are several areas that you sell that easily give you credibility. In this state, if you walk in and you’re a Southland Conference school, then the high school coaches and players have learned that that is a really, really high level of football. The state really supports our football brand, so you walk in with credibility instantly.
I think we’re fortunate, we’ve got a school that when you walk on campus, there’s a ‘happy’ culture for the lack of better words. When I first came here, I walked around thinking ‘Man, everybody sure smiles a lot around here.’ It’s kind of the culture here, and I do think that people do enjoy being around places where people choose to be happy. Academically the school supports our athletes incredibly well.
So you talk about these things, and then Houston is growing, and the economy is strong so you can sell the city and the job opportunities. HBU is a high academic institution – the academic credibility is there.
So I do agree with that comment you made about getting a kid on campus. We fight for the first official visit that a kid takes as it makes an impression of hopefully what a campus culture and a coaching staff should look like.
I work hard to hire coaches and develop coaches that are going to be positive in recruiting. We don’t bad mouth other programs. We want to be the staff that if you’re going to go to a place in the Southland, where those coaches are going to care about the kids, then you can’t go to a better place than HBU.
Fieldhouse: Talk a little about a couple of your top guys, [All-American] linebacker Garrett Dolan and quarterback Tony Dawson and any potential pro opportunities they might have.
In the right system, maybe a 3-4 system as an inside backer, I have no doubt that Garrett has the toughness and the grit. I do think that he will have an opportunity.
He shows you don’t have to be a playoff team to be selected to an All-American team and you don’t have to be an FBS school for a kid to get the opportunity to play in the League [NFL]. Those opportunities come to good players. I think that Garrett’s playing really well. He played well against Western Kentucky, he played well against UTEP.
Against a good level of talent, his quality showed. He’s a good student, he’s about a 3.0 student in business, and so he’ll probably be a grad student next year, so we’re expecting him to return.
I do think he’s going to be in a pro camp at some point, whether he’s drafted or whether he’s a free agent. I don’t think that’s a doubt any longer because of what he’s done.
Finishing tackles – I think that’s the biggest improvement that he’s made. He’s just continued to become more and more athletic – his fast twitch, his ability to play in space. So those are things that are truly helping him. If he continues to work and achieve in those areas on the field, I think he’ll really be marketable.
Tony is such a great athlete, I’m hoping he can get into a camp, maybe as a wide receiver. That’s kind of his hope, and I’m sure at his pro day he’s going to probably try to run routes. He is a fast kid – he will run a fast time. There’s only so much speed out there and if you run below a 4.5 or a 4.51 or 4.52 you’re going to have an opportunity in a camp somewhere.
He has enough elusiveness, too. He played so well and athletically against Western Kentucky which is a fast defense that that tape almost alone validates his athletic ability.
He can create a lot of offense. It’s really been wonderful just each week visiting with his coaches and listening to them talk about watching Tony develop. I can tell you by midseason the opposing coaches there were like ‘Where you’d get this kid? Where’s he from?’
They’re wondering how they missed him.
*note: ACU is new to Division I, while UIW and HBU are new football programs.