After 18 weeks of off-season preparation, Northeastern A&M's Golden Norseman football team returns to the practice field Monday to participate in five weeks of spring drills.
"During the off-season, we worked really hard at trying to get stronger and faster," second year Golden Norse head coach Dale Patterson said. "I really felt we didn't have the overall team speed we needed last year, so we put in some work on getting quicker.
"You really can't increase a player's overall speed, but you can coach him to have faster reaction time and quicker foot speed," Patterson said. "But, probably more important than working on improving their strength, speed and quickness was the fact that we worked hard on improving our discipline."
Last season the Golden Norsemen finished 3-6 on the season, but failed to win one game in the Southwest Junior College Football Conference for the first time since joining the league in 1996.
With approximately 60 prospective players taking part in the off-season program and the 16 spring workouts, Patterson and his staff created the DEA.
"The DEA stands for discipline, effort and attitude," Patterson said. "We felt like we need to be a very disciplined team and not do the little things that can get you beat.
"We wanted them to learn to do those little things right and not make mistakes in key situations that could cost us the game," Patterson said. "That was one of the big things that hurt us last year and most of those mistakes start with better discipline."
Another area where the coaching staff felt like they could have an impact in the off-season was the effort expended by each player.
"We've spent a considerable amount of time stressing to them that they control their own effort," Patterson said. "We want that to carry over from the field into every aspect of their daily lives.
"They have to understand that they are the ones that control how hard they play each play, each series, each quarter and each game," Patterson said. "We want them to know how important that is to their success in whatever they are attempting to do."
Patterson feels that one of the missing ingredients to the growth of the Golden Norse football program in recent years has been attitude.
"We're trying to instill a winning attitude in each and every player by developing a solid team work ethic that it takes to be successful," Patterson said. "Our players have seemed to grasp the concept and are working hard to get better."
These three areas of development will be enhanced once the Norsemen hit the practice field starting Monday at 3:30 p.m. The team will workout for 90 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday until Saturday, May 7, when the traditional Blue-Gold game will be played at 6 p.m. on Robertson Field.
"Our league allows for 20 spring practice sessions and we've scheduled 15 along with the spring game," Patterson said. "We took them out last week to get them back in shape after spring break (April 19-23).
"We're starting a little later than the University of Tulsa, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, Northeastern State University, Pittsburg State University and Missouri Southern State University because university coaches can come out and start recruiting starting April 15," Patterson said. "So, hopefully they will come by and watch our guys in practice."
Along with winning football games and building a great program, Patterson has a goal of getting all the sophomore players recruited by the next level.
"One of the best ways for coaches to understand a players skills is to see him in either practice and/or game situations," Patterson said. "That's a lot better situation than to try and evaluate a guy on tape or film."
Once spring drills start, the Golden Norse offense will have the benefit of eight returning starters from last year's team.
"If we have a deficit of players in terms of numbers, it will be at running back," Patterson said. "Even though Gerald (Howse, 6-1, 219 from Murfreesboro, Tenn.) is back, we don't have a lot of players backing him up. That's why we signed three of the best Oklahoma high school running backs."
Howse earned all-conference recognition as a redshirt freshman while rushing for 590 yards on 136 carries with 10 touchdowns.
Redshirt freshmen Elliott Hawkins (5-9, 189 from Spiro) and Tevon Wilson (5-9, 185 from Del City) provide depth at running back.
Veteran quarterback Clayton Mitchem (6-0, 173 from Spiro) returns at quarterback, along with three redshirt freshmen. Mitchem started the final five games last season and rushed for 134 yards on 68 carries and two TDs while completing 50 of 97 passes for 508 yards and four touchdowns and two interceptions.
"Along with that experience coming back in our backfield, we've got six or seven receivers and 11 or 12 offensive linemen, so we're in pretty good shape of offense," Patterson said. "Coach (Doug) Buckmaster and his staff will spend the spring trying to simplify our offense a little bit. After all, last year was his first year back too, so he learned a lot about our calls and terminology.
"We're also going to involve our tight end a lot more," Patterson said. "We want to get back to power football and be more efficient by speeding things up on offense."
Joining the Golden Norse offensive unit as line coach is Ryan Slizner who spent two seasons with the Mules of Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. Slizner replaced Scott McGehee who resigned after two years.
Graduation decimated the back end of the Golden Norse defensive unit.
"We graduated a lot of guys at our four secondary positions and even though we signed a lot of high school prospects, they aren't here yet," Patterson said. "So, we've only got about six or eight defensive backs where we can be two deep. But there isn't much experience coming back.
"It's the same way at the three linebacking spots," Patterson said. "Even though we've got a few players back, they don't have a lot of game experience."
Returning to bolster the depth along the defensive front are George Rogers and Deonte Cruse. Both players were redshirt freshmen defensive tackles last year.
Cruse (6-0, 290 from Murfeeesboro, Tenn.) finished with 63 tackles while recording three quarterback sacks and one tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
Rogers (6-3, 308 from Stillwater) recorded 29 tackles with three quarterback sacks and two tackles for a loss.
"They both had another year and decided to come back and graduate in December," Patterson said. "That should give them a better chance of getting recruited."
Just line on offense, the defense will focus on cutting down on mistakes.
"We're also going to put in some zone blitzes that will keep us on the move and trying to make plays," Patterson said. "There will be a lot of learning on both sides of the football."