Vikings' latest step consists of 15 football signees
Let's just say Portland State coach Bruce Barnum wasn't in the greatest of moods after the Vikings finished 0-11 last season.
After three years at the helm (following five as PSU's offensive coordinator), he knew steps had to be taken to change the situation.
A big first step came immediately after a 59-33 loss to Eastern Washington in the 2017 finale. Defensive coordinator Malik Roberson was relieved of his duties (and later replaced by Payat Saadat, plucked from the same post at Cal Poly).
The next step, Barnum says, was an ongoing refocus on commitment to the program from top to bottom (coaches to players).
On Wednesday, Barnum and the Vikings took another step, announcing 15 players who have signed letters-of-intent to play for the Big Sky school.
The new class, which the coach says could grow by as many as five, will help Barnum and his staff take a leap in April. That's when the team hits the practice field for spring ball and begins to sort out various issues — such as who can play at what position and how soon.
The Vikings will have a lot to work on, but Barnum says they now have some more to work with in three areas of need: receivers, offensive line and the secondary.
The signing class on Wednesday was driven by "totally need," Barnum says. "And we wanted to even out our classes. I took some guys who would have an impact right away, to add to the upper classes."
All in all, "I got 15 good ones."
The list includes two potential pass catchers who have played for the Washington Huskies: 6-1, 210-pound wideout Isaiah (Renfro) Woods and 6-5, 245 Brayden Dickey, who was a "tweener" at UW but is likely to settle in at tight end for PSU, Barnum says.
Woods, from Los Angeles, started as a freshman and caught 13 passes for 178 yards. He sat out the past two seasons, battled anxiety and depression, sought hospital treatment, says he attempted suicide twice, has been outspoken publicly about the need to have mental health issues addressed in college athletics, and says he has become a happier person.
Dickey, from North Vancouver, British Columbia, had his playing time reduced with the Huskies. He left UW with 42 receptions for 452 yards and three touchdowns in 40 games, including eight starts.
"I just don't think he's as fast as some of the guys are up there, and that probably caught up with him," Barnum says.
Both players have "no red flags," Barnum says. "We battled people for them. They're highly touted. They weren't bench guys. There's talent, leadership and maturity.
"Woods went through some personal issues and has been out of the game and wants back. He hit it off well with our staff and players. Everything checked out. He's a great fit and excited to have another chance.
"Brayden is good friends with him.
"We lucked out. Isaiah has lots of friends here and a girlfriend who attends the University of Portland."
Woods will be a junior. Dickey, the grandson of former pro quarterback Eldridge Dickey, is a graduate transfer senior.
Both will be with the Vikings for spring ball, where all sorts of battles for spots on the depth chart figure to break out at Stott Community Field.
"We're going to see what we have," Barnum says.
Spring will help the coaching determine what approach suits the 2018 Vikings best on offense as well as who can help and in what roles in a remade defense under new coordinator Saadat.
As of Wednesday, two things the Vikings didn't have were additions at quarterback and running back. Not that they still might not pick up a player or two who is on the market.
"There could be another quarterback signing," Barnum says. "One I courted decided to go somewhere else, and another I courted decided to go to Oklahoma State.
"I am going to look for more competition at that position. I'm looking for an older student-athlete."
That type of QB might come for spring ball, or he might come for August camp.
"A lot of things can happen," Barnum says. "There's JC guys out there I'm aware of … and high school athletes who might be good enough and got passed over. Sometimes it's August when the transfer comes knocking on your door."
"Right now, I've got young people at that position — the oldest one's a sophomore — so I'd like to have somebody in that junior/senior range."
The returning QBs on the Park Blocks are sophomores Davis Alexander and Jalani Eason and redshirt freshman Davis Koetter. Cade Smith, who would have been a junior, won't be back with the team.
Eason started the 2017 season at the helm as a green true freshman. He wound up as a reserve behind Alexander, the 2016 redshirt who showed flashes at moving the team through the air in the closing games of '17.
The Vikings are in nearly the same boat at running back, with a handful of returnees, mostly underclassmen who have had mixed or limited success.
"A lot of young (running backs) and some older guys want to come here, and I'm going to choose the best one," Barnum says of the continuing pursuit for another signee. "I'm looking at three older guys in particular who would be either graduate transfers or transfers."
Wednesday's PSU class of 15 included three offensive linemen, one of whom comes from the junior-college ranks: 6-3, 265 Spencer Reed played tackle for Moorpark (California) College.
What position Reed and prep signees John Schulte, 6-6, 235 and from Las Vegas, Nevada, and Shiloh Ta'ase, 6-3, 275 and from Seattle, will play for the Vikings remains to be determined.
"These guys run better than most O-line guys, but they have the frames to put on more weight," Barnum says.
A lot is up in the air about playing time throughout the offense, but the Viks hope to come out of spring ball with a better plan for their 11-game regular season, which kicks off Aug. 31 at Nevada.
"Offensively, if you caught me in the alley, I'd still say I want to be 50-50 run-pass," Barnum says, "but I want to be able to do both when I want to, and not when you tell me I can."
The Portland State defense is going to be maybe even more of a work in progress this spring, at least in terms of possible position shuffling.
"You'll probably see more moves — corners going to safety, safeties going to linebacker, linebackers becoming pass rushers, that sort of thing," Barnum says.
One thing Barnum says he especially wants, though, is a stronger pass rush.
"I have to get pressure on the quarterback," he says. "I need more sacks and hurries. I can't have a quarterback go on a two-minute drive at the end of the game and not get touched and pick us apart like Oregon State did last year (in a come-from-behind, 35-32 win over PSU). Those days are over."
And then there's the kicking game. It was up-and-down last year for the Vikings. Mostly down.
So, for the second year in a row, Barnum has given a scholarship to an incoming kicker in hopes of making that part of the game more of a weapon than a wing and a prayer.
Cody Williams, from Murrieta, California, signed Wednesday with the Viks. Barnum says Williams ranked 17th at a kicking academy in California and had five walk-on offers from other colleges.
"He can place-kick and kick off — on film, he's putting his kickoffs through the end zone in high school, which would put him five yards into the end zone in our world," Barnum says. "It would be nice to have other teams start with the ball on their 25-yard line."
Wednesday's class also includes two players from Oregon schools. Jordan Hill is a 6-4, 180 wideout from Lincoln High, and Dawson Carr is a 6-4, 185 safety from Rainier.
"Jordan Hill is long, can run, has got amazing hands — he catches everything," Barnum says. "He's impressive. A no-brainer."
Carr, like Hill, played both ways in high school, and Carr was all-league in baseball and basketball as well as football.
"He's athletic as hell," Barnum says. "I'm excited to see what his body's going to look like in a year. We'll start with him on defense."
Overall, though, it's not just the incoming freshmen and transfers who are being assigned with making a difference in the win-loss record for Portland State, which went 9-3 in 2015, then 3-8 in 2016, before the winless march through last season.
"I put it on me," Barnum says. "I've made some changes. Had to. I wasn't happy with what was going on with the defense. I also made a change with some players who weren't doing it the way I wanted to do it.
"I figured out that as a head coach it's great being a nice guy but it doesn't run my business correctly, so I had to make some hard decisions.
"Last year was hard — we didn't find a quarterback till the end, my kicker couldn't make an extra-point, there were leadership issues, we were giving up third-and-28s. But I said let's not talk about doing something about it, let's do it. And I had to make sure everybody on this football team wanted to be a part of it.
"So screw it — Barnum's back."