How JC Recruits Helped Turn Around a Program

SPECIAL FEATURE... When Mike Springston was named the head coach at West Virginia Tech University, a Division II school located in Montgomery, WV, he had just one full-time assistant coach on staff. That 1999 season, Springston, Tony Gibson and the Golden Bears went 1-10, with their win over Concord College snapping a 33-game losing streak.

However, in the last two years, Springston and his staff have led their teams to consecutive 5-6 records and they are considered to be one of the top teams in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference this season.

The secret to their turnaround? Junior college players. Last season, the Golden Bears had 23 JC transfers on their roster and went out and picked up 25 more this season. The philosophy is nothing new to Springston, who played for West Virginia Tech in the late 1970's.

"I have always tried to bring in as many junior college players wherever I have coached," stated Springston, who is in his third stint at WVU Tech. He was a graduate assistant from 1978-80 and then spent the 1990 season as an assistant. In addition, he has also spent time at West Virginia State, Glenville State, Concord and the University of Texas, El Paso, as well as being a head coach at the high school level in Ohio and Illinois. "I learned this from Oree Banks", said Springston, who he met when he was an assistant coach at West Virginia State 20 years ago.

"At this level, having junior college players is a vital asset," added Springston. "When a JC player comes here, they already have 20 collegiate games under their belt. That is something we try to utilize. When a JC guy comes here, he will not sit on the bench. We only have them for two years, so we establish our depth through the JC ranks. They will all play a role here."

Defensive coordinator Perry Jehlicka, who spent two years as an assistant coach at Reedley Community College in Northern California as an assistant coach, concurs. "Junior college players are a lot easier to recruit, especially in California. There are so many JC's in California, that just about every school has a player worth recruiting. A lot of players at the JC level are good enough to play Division I football. But for some reason or another, they didn't go that route. We are more than happy to bring them here. We know that just about all of them will contribute, so we set up our packages to accommodate them. On defense, we try to get the defensive linemen 30-35 snaps a game, while in the secondary, we try to use as many guys as possible. They have bought into our philosophy and it is showing dividends"

The transition has worked out well for the Golden Bears. Last season they finished in fourth place in conference play, with senior wide receiver Damieon Mills, a transfer from Hartnell College in Salinas, CA, earning 1st Team All-Conference honors. He led the team with 53 receptions for 835 yards and 13 touchdowns. Junior college transfers accounted for 773 of the team's 995 rushing yards, while they amassed 1,525 of the team's 2,625 receiving yards. The contributions don't stop there, as nine of their 16 interceptions, along with 29 kickoff returns for 524 yards and all of the team's kick scoring and punting coming from junior college transfers. On the other side of the ball, nine of the top 16 tacklers were two-year transfers, while eight others chipped in on at least one stop.

Springston stated that they use a two-quarterback system because "you are one snap away from having a new guy." Last season the duo of Eric Smith (173-of-347-13, 2,090 yards, 20 TD's) and Phillip Reed of Compton College shared the duties. Reed passed for 477 yards, while he was also the team's leading rusher with 376 yards and four scores. The pair, along with Dan Bourdon, a Santa Rosa, CA JC transfer, who added 50 passing yards on the year, with handle the signal-calling duties.

"We stress having depth at every position," said Springston. "And we get that depth from junior college players. They tend to mesh together very well. Especially the guys from California. It seems most of them know each other, or they know someone who knows someone. It really helps with their adjustment to the area and their social base has already been established. I have heard that players from California can be a little difficult to handle, but I have not had a single problem with any player I have recruited from California. They have been model student-athletes." 

It wasn't always this rosy of a picture for the Golden Bears. The 1990's were an abysmal one, as they accounted for only five wins, with three of them coming in 1990 when Springston was an assistant coach. The program endured losing streaks of 32, 26 and 23 games in the decade, which made recruiting difficult for Springston in his first season as the head coach.

Their win in 1999 that snapped their longest losing streak was one that almost didn't happen. Down 25-21, the Golden Bears scored their game-winning touchdown on a third-and-27 play with 30 seconds left. On the pass attempt, the ball bounced off both the safety and cornerback's facemask and into the hands of the receiver.

"The kids were a little soured on the past," stated Springston. "The high school kids from around here knew about our past, so some of them shied away"

The Golden Bears had 19 players on their roster last season that came from high schools in West Virginia. None of them were seniors, while only two were juniors. In addition, there is only one junior college in the state of West Virginia and they don't field a football team.

Springston and his staff get the majority of their junior college transfers from California, which account for 24 of their 25 JC signings this season. Jehlicka has continued to use his Northern California connections, as four incoming juniors are from Reedley College. Additionally, seven players from Compton Community College and four players from Citrus Community College in Glendora, CA have sent players to West Virginia Tech this season.

In past years, the coaching staff did their recruiting of players over the phone and through game film. It wasn't until February 2001 that anyone from the Golden Bears staff had ever gone to California to recruit players in person.

"We went there and matched the names with the voices on the phone," stated Jehlicka. "It was a great experience for us and we were able to get a lot more guys. Now, we have coaches calling us to tell us about players they have. That tells us that we are making progress."

At the Division I level, San Jose State University has also geared a lot of their recruiting to the junior college ranks. Coming off a difficult 3-9 season, the Spartans staff went out and corralled 18 of their 27 recruits from the JC ranks, with all but one coming from California. They landed three 1st Team All-Americans, including defensive tackle Eddie Brown from Blinn Junior College in Texas, wide receiver Kendrick Starling from Navarro Junior College in Texas and offensive guard Justin Arrington from Laney College in California.

In addition, the Spartans have also landed tailbacks Damarcus Ingram and Oscar Rigg from Shasta (CA) College, who combined to rush for 3,200 yards last season. They have also upgraded their defense by signing 1st Team All-State selection Mario Vital from Laney (CA) College and linebacker Philip Perry, an All-Region selection from Cerritos (CA) College.

Last season, San Jose State had 39 junior college players on their roster, which included senior wide receiver Edell Shepherd (West Los Angeles College), who led the team with 83 receptions for 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns. Returning for his senior year this season is wide receiver Charles Pauley (Citrus, CA College), who was second on the team with 41 catches for 669 yards. Quarterback Clint Carlson (Scottsdale, AZ College), who was a senior last season, passed for 1,298 yards and nine scores, while linebacker Onyeka Ossai (West Valley, CA College) was fourth on the team in tackles with 44½.

Another way the coaching staff has been able to get players to come to West Virginia Tech is their schedule. Armed with one of the toughest schedules at the Division II level, the Golden Bears play three of their first four games against I-AA opponents, including Nicholls State (LA), Western Carolina and Southern Illinois, all on the road. Last season, the Golden Bears dropped all three of their games against 1-AA opponents, but that doesn't mean they are going to shy away from them. The staff knows that playing tougher competition will only makes them a better team in the long run.

"We have guys that can play at the Division I level, without a doubt," said Springston. "Damieon Mills is a perfect example. He was probably one of the most exciting players I have ever had the pleasure of coaching. He came here as a quarterback and he passed for over 1,000 yards and rushed for over 500 yards in just three games. He was absolutely phenomenal. We moved him to wide receiver and he excelled there, too. He has now been given an opportunity to play in the Arena League and he is making a name for himself there, too. Also, our best player on defense last year, Davon Deveaux, the conference Player of the Year, is now playing in Germany. The quality of football at the Division II level is very good and we produce some very good players."

Springston feels as though the group of junior college players he has brought in is the best he has ever assembled. He spoke very highly of cornerback Antoine Anderson (Santa Monica, CA College) and defensive back Devry Hughes, who is a bounce-back from the University of Wisconsin and played one season at Compton College. Defensive lineman Teron Brown and linebacker Otto Evans come over from Pasadena City (CA) College, that went 10-1 last season, while wide receivers Bemenet Assefa (Citrus, CA College) and Michael Bautista (Glendale, CA College) should make immediate impacts.

Reaching the post-season is always difficult at the Division II level. The top three rated teams in each of the four regions across the country make the playoffs, while there is no guarantee that you will advance to the playoffs if you win your conference. The Golden Bears have not made the playoffs since 1989 when they were playing in the NAIA. They switched to Division II in 1995 and are looking to make it to the playoffs. This season could very well be the one for West Virginia Tech University.

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About the author: John Van Gaston is the Sports Information Director at Cerritos College and a long-time special contributor to JCFootball.com.


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