By Jerry Briggs
First-year UTSA coach Frank Wilson says junior Dalton Sturm’s rise to prominence as the team’s starting quarterback reminds him in some ways of former Southern Miss star Austin Davis.
Davis was a Southern Miss walk-on and a redshirt freshman in 2008, when Wilson worked as an assistant coach in his one and only season at the school. That year, Davis opened eyes by winning the starting job and throwing for more than 3,000 yards.
By 2011, long after Wilson had moved on in his career, the quarterback from Meridian, Miss., led the Golden Eagles to a Conference USA title. This fall, he’s entering his fourth season in the NFL as a backup with the Denver Broncos.
Sturm also walked on at UTSA in 2014. But based on the statistics, the former four-sport standout at Class 2A Goliad High School hasn’t arrived on the scene in college with nearly as much production and impact as Davis.
Nevertheless, Wilson made the comparison between the two earlier this week on the eve of UTSA’s non-conference road game at Colorado State. Quite possibly, it’s a subtle hint as to how excited Wilson is getting about Sturm’s development.
“Every now and then, you find (a walk on) that has something inside ‘em. A desire. A will. A drive to want an opportunity,” Wilson said. “Dalton Sturm is that guy.”
As mentioned, Sturm doesn’t have a great career track record.
He threw for a modest 1,354 yards and 13 touchdowns in 10 games, including seven starts, last year. He also fired seven interceptions in the face of intense pressure from defensive fronts.
But last week, in his first game under Wilson and a new coaching staff, Sturm showcased his improvement.
He led UTSA to a season-opening, 26-13 victory at home over Alabama State, passing for a career-high 274 yards and two TDs, while sprinting 51 yards for another. Sizzling from the start with eight straight completions, he connected on 20 of 25 passes.
“He seized the moment,” Wilson said. “(He) played extremely well. We just need him to do it every week from this point on.”
Entering fall camp last year, Sturm was the team’s fourth quarterback. He wasn’t even on the travel roster for UTSA’s season-opener at Arizona.
But by midseason, he had moved into the starter’s role, thrust into action by a series of unfortunate events for the Roadrunners.
First, scholarship quarterbacks Austin Robinson and Russell Bellomy both quit the team. Next, No. 1 quarterback Blake Bogenschutz went down against UTEP in Game 5 with an injury that turned out to be career-ending.
Afterward, Sturm guided the team down the stretch of a disappointing 3-9 season, which snowballed and resulted in the ouster of former coach Larry Coker.
During the offseason, UTSA hired Wilson, who promptly said he planned to put Sturm on scholarship because he had earned it.
But Wilson also emphasized that he would be looking for a transfer to bolster the position, a promise that he kept when he signed Jared Johnson from Sam Houston State.
Most assumed all summer that Johnson, a former Southland Conference offensive player of the year, would beat out Sturm.
But when game day finally arrived last Saturday and the team was preparing to eat breakfast, Wilson delivered the news to the two of them. Sturm would get the call against Alabama State based on his play in fall camp.
Sturm, who once waited tables at a Mexican restaurant to help him pay his bills as a non-scholarship, student-athlete, had won the battle.
“It’s outstanding (for Dalton),” UTSA safety Michael Egwuagu said. “It’s definitely an achievement.”
Last week, Sturm started and played most of the game against the out-manned, FCS competition, but Johnson saw action in one series in each quarter. He hit 2 of 8 passes for 13 yards. Despite the numbers, Wilson isn’t down on Johnson.
“(Johnson) had very few opportunities to throw the football,” the coach said. “But he managed the game. He made the correct run checks and (called the) audibles that we needed. He was poised out there. It just got overshadowed by how well Dalton played.”
Because Johnson threw for more than 5,000 yards in his career at Sam Houston State, Wilson isn’t closing the door on his emergence at UTSA.
“Jared will be fine,” the UTSA coach said. “He’ll continue to grow. Certainly, there’s some things we need to clean up in his play. Dalton played outstanding. But it wasn’t perfect, either (with one interception). So there’s always room for improvement in both situations.”
Sturm said the Roadrunners want to make amends for last year’s performance against Colorado State at the Alamodome, where they watched as an eight-point, first-half lead turned into a dispiriting 33-31 setback.
“Definitely, I consider it a game that did slip away (from us),” he said. “They came into our house and got the victory, so it’s time for us to flip the script.”
Last year, Bogenschutz started against Colorado State, while Sturm took only a couple of snaps in the second quarter.
This year, the Rams will see an entirely different look from UTSA, with first-year offensive coordinator Frank Scelfo calling plays for Sturm, who has improved to 3-5 as a starter, including 3-1 in his past four games dating to last season.
Sturm said he feels much more comfortable running the offense this year, both because of his game experience and also because of an offseason of continuous workouts with first-string linemen, receivers and backs.
In contrast, during his first two years in the program, he rarely practiced with first-stringers until he was thrust into the fray in emergency situations. Sturm admitted it was “kind of tough” operating with the limited practice time.
“You always (try to) stay positive … make the most out of every (practice repetition) you’re going to get,” Sturm said. “It’s like I tell the guys now, not to get down on the amount of reps they’re getting. (I say), ‘Don’t count your reps.’ It’s, ‘Make your reps count.’ (It’s) kind of the motto that we live by.”
Two years ago, Sturm wasn’t high on anyone’s recruiting radar. The only athletic scholarship offer that he received out of Goliad came from NCAA Division II Henderson State, Arkansas.
Sturm also was wooed by Division III (non-scholarship) Texas Lutheran University with a substantial amount of academic financial aid, the player’s father said in a telephone interview this week.
Mark Sturm, the player’s father, said he recalls that the offer would have paid for about three of his son’s four years at the Seguin-based school.
But at the time, Dalton Sturm remained steadfast in his desire to play in Division I. Recruited as a preferred walk-on by former UTSA assistant Polo Gutierrez, Sturm wanted to play for the Roadrunners.
“He’s always had to fight for everything,” said Mark Sturm, a UPS driver who lives in Victoria. “He always had to go out and prove himself every day, and he’s done it.”
Wilson continued to praise Sturm after Wednesday’s practice.
“His leadership continues to grow (with) his command in the huddle, as well as on the field,” the coach said. “You know, you always want that coach on the field that can bark it out. So many times as a coach, you can yell it, but (a player has) got to play.
“To have that guy in the huddle (as) the extension of the coach, it’s certainly something we like in him. He’s continuing to grow each day.”
Wilson said it’s easy to see the similarities between a player like Sturm and Davis, who has played in the NFL in St. Louis and Cleveland and is now the No. 3 quarterback in Denver.
“They’re both very athletic,” Wilson said. “We go in the gym and play basketball, and you’d be hard-pressed to say Dalton Sturm doesn’t win our slam-dunk competition. I mean, he’s a tremendous athlete. Austin was the same way.”