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Vikings are tired of losing, ready to win

PSU's Burton learns patience as starters fight for their jobs
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT DeShawn Shead, moving from cornerback to safety, returns as one of Portland State’s key players.

Portland State is coming off of back-to-back 2-9 seasons. In 2010, the Vikings suffered huge blowouts against Pac-10 teams (54-9 at Arizona State, 69-0 at Oregon). The Vikings also failed to close out close games; they lost five times by one score or less.

But, as Portland State prepares for the 2012 campaign, a sense of optimism surrounds the program.

About two dozen players with starting experience are returning. After playing for a year at Hillsboro Stadium, the team returns to downtown Portland and will compete at Jeld-Wen Field, which was renovated for the Portland Timbers. Also, the Vikings have had a year to adjust to second-year coach Nigel Burton's 'pistol' offense and 4-3 defense.

'My wife teases me that I can be a pessimist at times,' Burton says. 'I've probably never been more optimistic in my life. So I'm trying not to freak out about it. I can't think of one position where we didn't either increase competition or increase athleticism, or where the kids didn't increase their knowledge and their level of (quality).

'The leadership I saw in particular this summer, it's very exciting.'

Burton's goals for the season are in a word, lofty.

'As Herm Edwards says, 'Play to win the game,' ' Burton says. 'I want to win them all. Our kids want to win them all, and our coaches do. But in the end, my biggest thing is I want to see us improve from where we left off the spring, which I was very happy with. If we improve on a weekly basis, you'll see the record improve, as well.'

Winning every game will be a challenge, especially with the Vikings facing powerhouse TCU in Texas on Sept. 24. The Big Sky is no cakewalk, either. Last year, Eastern Washington took home the Football Championship Subdivision national championship.

'Best conference at our level,' Burton says, of the Big Sky. 'It's better than two or three of the I-A levels. The bottom half, if there is one in our conference, is getting stronger. It's going to be just like last year. You never know who's going to beat who, and really you can't call any games a surprise.'

The Vikings offense was solid last season, averaging 23.4 points per game. The strength of the team came on the ground. The Viks gained a league-best 200.3 yards per game. They return their leading rusher, senior Cory McCaffrey, who gained 117 yards per game.

'Last year was a great start to the pistol offense, and we ran it really well and just got comfortable with it,' McCaffrey says. 'I'm excited to see how we can take it to the next level. I imagine our stats being more impressive than they were last year. A better rushing game, a better passing game. Overall, we'll be a lot better.'

As was the case last season, Burton plans to wait as long as possible to announce his starting quarterback. In 2010. Connor Kavanaugh threw for 1,109 yards and six TDs. Kavanaugh seems likely to start, even though Jerry Glanville-era passing machine Drew Hubel is healthy after shoulder and knee injuries that forced him to miss all of last season.

'If having two great quarterbacks is a problem, I'll take that problem any day of the week,' Burton says.

The Vikings defense was the team's weak point last season, giving up 40.5 points per game. The Viks return playmakers in all-Big Sky defensive back DeShawn Shead and defensive end Carl Sommer. And defensive tackle Myles Wade looks to buoy the defensive line, after transferring from Texas Tech.

'Improved defense is what I plan to see,' Sommer says. 'It's not even what I hope to see, it's what I plan to see from all the work we've put in and the hard summer we had as a unit, staying late nights and putting in work on the field and in the weight room, and running.'

While 20 returning starters is a staggering number, Burton is predicting that there will be some new faces on both sides of the ball by the time the season starts Sept. 3 at home against Southern Oregon.

Most of the Vikings have never experienced a winning season in their collegiate careers (PSU went 4-7 in 2007 and 3-8 in 2008). That may account for some of the close losses last season.

Changing that losing culture and learning how to close games out may be the most important factors for a good 2011 season.

'I've had to learn to be patient,' Burton says.


PSU Locals

Connor Kavanaugh, Lincoln: The senior quarterback started last season until suffering a broken bone in his left, throwing hand. He's likely to start again this year. He completed 60.4 percent of his passes, for 1,109 yards in eight games, with six touchdown tosses and three interceptions in 154 attempts. He also ran 85 times, averaging 6.0 yards.

Adam Kleffner, Jesuit: The senior center, like Kavanaugh, earned honorable mention all-Big Sky honors in 2010 and was voted Most Inspirational by his PSU teammates.

Justin Monahan, West Linn: The junior receiver started all 11 games a year ago and ranked second on the team in catches (30) and third in receiving yards (369).

Mitch Gaulke, West Linn: The sophomore offensive lineman moved into the lineup last season at right guard, replacing an injured teammate and making five starts.

Kyle Ritt, Aloha: The junior offensive lineman is expected to contribute a lot for the third year in a row/ He has started 21 of 22 career games and is moving back from tackle to guard this season

Ricky Cookman, Clackamas: The senior wideout, who transferred from Boise State in 2008, got to start four times in 2010 and made 13 receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown.

Myles Wade, Benson/Central Catholic: The senior defensive tackle has played at Texas Tech and Arizona Western Junior College. He started six games for Texas Tech in 2010.

See complete story on PSU's local players at www.portlandtribune.com/sports.