Spring football is about infinitely more than X's and O's, especially for new coaches who take over the rudder. For many, the focus in the monthlong session tends to be more toward the subtle, psychological part of program-building, as such items as run, pass, and tackle tend to take care of themselves in the long haul.
This is where Gabe Pena finds himself as Econ worked through its third week of training. The new Jag mentor is excited that the team is accomplishing goals every day, and does not downplay the nuts and bolts mentioned earlier. He just knows, after having been a part of four winning programs, that the way the kids think is going to determine their success to a greater extent than the uninitiated might believe.
"Every day, we want to be able to say, collectively, that we have practiced like a playoff team," said the former Weslaco assistant who was once the head coach at Port Isabel, where he took the Tarpons to the postseason. "That goes down to the little details, about hustle, commitment, attention to the small things. So far, I am very pleased with how we look in that regard."
Pena has worked hard with his staff to install a fast pace to everything the Jags do, and Monday, the Orange was cranking along with a purpose under forgiving, halfway cool conditions.
"Every day we are working hard to concentrate on the practice routine, get something out of it," added Pena, who inherits a 3-7 club formerly led by Oscar Salinas, now at La Feria. "Because down the line, the practices will have a bearing on our success on the field. In time, if the kids buy into our system, our philosophy, they will become a winning team, a playoff team. I firmly believe that this is possible, and that it will happen. That's why we're here."
Econ has a similar roster situation to that of rival North across 281, in that there is a reasonable wealth of offensive talent but several holes to fill on defense. Last year the Jags started strongly at 3-1 but wilted under the inexorable pressures of 31-5A, the Valley's toughest 5A league.
Pena, a former offensive lineman, can count on the O-line to be the team's initial strength.
"It's definitely a bright spot right now," he said of the group that returns four starters from 2010. Felix Gallegos, Genaro Acevedo, Hugo Jimenez, and Luis Prieto are all quality blockers, with the imposing Prieto poised to become a household name as a junior tackle. "For what we do, it all starts with the line, and I think we have the talent there to be pretty tough."
As for skill guys, look for Danny Saavedra, who had some solid moments last year in spot duty, to be behind center, with Nathan Monterrosa (176 yards last season) as one of several running options.
"I joke that we will probably run the ball five out of every four times," Pena smiled when discussing his Nasty Slot offense. "But we also want to be able to throw it sometimes, too."
The program has made ample use of the tight end in past years, and this season's threat is Oscar Calzada, a rangy kid who can get downfield and catch the ball.
Defensively, again somewhat like North, the bulk of the returning experience is in the backfield, where lanky junior safety Andy Duarte is a star in the making. Athletic Bubba Villarreal, who could see duty both ways, is a promising prospect at linebacker.
Up front, do not be surprised to see a number of sophomores getting reps. The Jags have several as of yet unknown quantities in the front four, an imposing young group that is itching to break into the big time.
The defensive coordinator is Lonnie Garza, with Steve Flores guiding the offense. These days the spirit is high on the East Side with a new coach and a revamped philosophy. The fans have gotten into the act too, as Pena reported that a couple dozen parents are fast at work organizing the program's first official booster club.
"This will let the kids know that people are excited about their team, and are going to be there to support them," said the coach. "That is a great thing and we are fired up at the prospect of the booster club. Now we just have to do our work and get better, every day. That includes getting to know the kids.
"I told them the other day that they didn't choose me...but I chose them. I am here to make a difference and help the program become a winner. Right now I couldn't be happier with the kids, plus the support from the administration and the parents!"