ALVA, Okla. — Northwestern Oklahoma State University returns plenty of talent, experience, and motivation for the 2019 season.
The question is, how can the Rangers push past the five-win mark, the most since joining Division II, and end the year with a winning record?
“We have to play consistently with self-discipline,” said Rangers head coach Matt Walter. “If we can do those two things, and you got a chance. You can’t beat yourself … If you don’t beat yourself, then it comes down to execution.”
That starts on offense, where the Rangers will see a change at offensive coordinator with Anthony Weeden, who will also coach quarterbacks.
Weeden, who was originally the Rangers’ recruiting coordinator in 2015, returns to Northwestern after serving as the passing coordinator at Dixie State University (Calif.).
After a 4-7 finished last season, Walter said he knew the offense needed a change.
“Overall, I wasn’t happy with how we were performing offensively,” he said.
Northwestern finished 8th in scoring offense last season in the Great American Conference averaging 23.2 points per game.
The Rangers finished seventh in both total offense (363.6 yards per game) and passing offense (203.5), and 10th in red-zone offense.
“I knew some changes needed to be made,” Watler said. “There are a hundred different factors that go into that. We needed a jolt of energy and bringing in Coach Weeden to help do that just felt like the right thing to do and it’s paid off. It really has.”
Last season, Dixie State was the No. 5 passing offense in the country. While the offensive system will remain the same, Weeden will bring a range of play selections to the Ranger offense.
“We really don’t care how a defense lines up on us,” Weeden said. “We want to be able to beat them through the air, run the ball or with gadget plays, screens and things of that nature. We try to do everything under the sun.”
Weeden aims for his offense to carry an 80 percent red-zone scoring rate and a 45 percent conversion rate on third-down.
“That will put you in the top 25 in the country,” he said of his third-down conversion goal. “If you’re doing that and staying on the field … then you put together a good team.”
Despite graduating three starters, Northwestern will still have an experienced offensive line.
“They’ve had a lot of reps and (played) together, too,” Walter said. “We got good chemistry there.”
Redshirt senior Jacob Peyton returns to the backfield after missing a chunk of the season due to a dislocated elbow. The big back will be joined by fellow sophomore tailbacks Calion Baker and Kenny Miller. Both sophomores have speed and quickness, which will complement Peyton’s hard-style of play.
Baker and Miller will take over the kick and punt return responsibilities with leading returner Horacio Smith graduated. Smith was a leading returner in the GAC and scored one of the two kickoff return touchdowns last year.
Northwestern will see a new quarterback after graduating Isaiah Weed and seeing Cesar De Leon transfer to a Division II program.
While no starter has been chosen yet, the Rangers offense will either see either redshirt sophomore Trent Easley or Missouri Western transfer Tanner Clarkson.
Weeden and Walter described the quarterbacks as being very similar. Both Easley and Clarkson have arm strength and accuracy. But it will come down to which quarterback holds better control and poise under center, Walter said.
Like the offense, the Rangers defense will return plenty of starters, starting with the defensive line.
“Everybody wants to talk about our linebackers but our d-line is going to be what makes it go,” Defensive coordinator Ken Gordon said.
“They’re what allows (senior linebackers) Maurice Wright and Dakota Driskill to do what they do.”
Northwestern was third in sacks last season with 23 and second in the conference in third-down stops.
“You have defenses that go for broke and try to get turnovers every time,” Gordon said. “We’re going to try and get the three-and-out turnover.”
At linebacker, Northwestern will see its two leading tacklers return in Driskill and Wright. Driskill, an All-GAC honorable mention, was second in the conference with 120 tackles while Wright, a first-team All-GAC selection, was fourth with 113. Joining them in the middle will be sophomore Justin Van Fleet, a transfer from Saginaw Valley (Calif).
“I think we have a special group of linebackers,” Gordon said.
The Rangers will see four defensive backs with starting experience, led by redshirt Aharon Barnes, who was 6th in the GAC with nine pass breakups and two interceptions.
“He’s played against NFL receivers out of this conference and he’s played very well against them,” Walter said.
Barnes’ main responsibility will be guarding the best receiver opposing offenses have to offer.
“Wherever the best receiver is at, Barnes is going to be on that side,” Gordon said.
Northwestern opens the season Sept. 5, 2019, at East Central.