Vikings vow to make this a better year


After Portland State's second consecutive 2-9 season, sophomore head coach Nigel Burton is not looking for the Vikings to wipe the slate clean this spring. Rather, he wants the Viks to remember what happened in the past and use it as a stepping stone into the future.

'I don't think you can erase that,' Burton says. 'Because in the end, you've got to learn from your bad experiences no differently than you learn from the good ones. You'll never learn if you just try to forget.'

As Burton and his staff work on developing the players this spring, he also hopes that he has grown as a coach.

'I was a better 'DB' coach (at Oregon State) my second year than I was my first, and I was a better (defensive) coordinator (at Nevada) my second year than I was my first,' Burton says. 'I hope I'll be better my second year (at PSU), and hopefully I'll be a better coach in my 30th than I was my first.'

Burton has changed his definition of what 'better' means for the Vikings from last year to this year. And as both he and his players try to improve, he seems confident Portland State can become a respectable Big Sky Conference football team again.

'Better is relative,' Burton says. 'Last year, better to me wasn't necessarily our record, it was the way we played. From hearing people who have been around for a couple of years, there were some things that were better. The thing that's most important in the end is that our record is better. Now, we've got to continue to take the steps to build this program.'

•• Like last season, Portland State is spending the spring in an open quarterback competition. As with last season, it seems likely that Lincoln High alum Connor Kavanaugh is the favorite as he competes for the starting job against Jerry Glanville-era starter Drew Hubel, former Oregon State transfer Justin Engstrom and freshman Josh Milhollin from South Medford High.

Burton says that opening up the quarterback position is justified and not an attempt to put pressure on the eventual starter.

'If I had Brett Favre here, he'd be the guy,' Burton says. 'It would be over.'

Kavanaugh, a 6-0, 185-pound fifth-year senior, started eight games last season, completing 93 of 154 passes for 1,109 yards, six TDs and three interceptions. He also rushed 85 times for 506 yards before he broke his left, throwing hand against Eastern Washington.

Kavanaugh recovered from surgery even quicker than the doctors may have wanted him to.

'I was in a soft cast for about a week,' Kavanaugh says. 'They took the stitches out, and then I was in a splint. They told me to wear the splint for a month and, don't tell the doctor this, but, I didn't even wear it. I was lifting on it in probably about a month. The hand is 100 percent (now). I don't even think about it anymore.'

Kavanaugh is optimistic that his final year playing football could be a special one.

'This is the last year I'm ever going to play organized sports, and everyone knows this is the year,' he says.

Hubel is still working to recover from the surgery on his right shoulder that sidelined him last season.

'I've got to get myself back up to college-level competition,' Hubel says. 'I don't want to be out here wasting people's time throwing at a poor level. It's just a matter of getting back to that point where I was a year and a half ago, before the surgery.'

The 6-5, 205-pound Hubel was a true star in former PSU coordinator Mouse Davis' run-and shoot offense. As a sophomore, Hubel completed 226 of 393 passes for 2,912 yards, 18 TDs and 15 interceptions.

The pistol offense the Vikings have adopted under Burton may not be the ideal showcase for Hubel's strengths. But Hubel is confident he will be able to play in the system.

'We still have a passing game,' Hubel says. 'I can showcase my talents that way. I'm not going to be scrambling around like 'Kav'. For me, it's just a matter of playing within my strengths and molding the team to them."

••• The Vikings have a "tree" growing on their practice field this spring that they could not be happier about.

Last year, Viking basketball player Julius Thomas used his final semester of eligibility to step onto the football field. This year, Phillip 'Tree' Thomas (no relation) is doing the same thing.

The 6-8 245-pound 'Tree' Thomas was the last player off the field after a recent spring practice. The former basketball forward, who played little football as a youngster and did not play at all in high school, says that while he needs extra work, he is turning himself into a football player.

'I feel like I'm adjusting well,' Thomas says. 'It's only been the first week, and I feel like I'm getting better every day. I make sure I don't leave the field without doing something extra because I know I'm behind a lot of these guys.'

After seeing how successful Julius Thomas was last season - he earned an invitation to the NFL combine - 'Tree' Thomas believes he, too, could make a career out of football.

'It is a big opportunity,' 'Tree' Thomas says. 'I can make a career out of anything I really put my mind to. I'm a hard-worker. Hard work in any area will get you better and can lead to success. I'm not afraid of getting into anything new."

•••• One of the bright spots on the Vikings defense last season was cornerback DeShawn Shead. Shead, a 6-2, 210- pound senior, had 51 tackles and seven pass breakups and was second-team all-Big Sky Conference.

This season, Shead will move to strong safety.

'I'm still a corner at heart,' he says. 'That's my pride and glory - corner. But being able to play safety as well, I hope it will contribute to the defense a lot.'

Shead is confident that the athleticism he built up by playing corner will make him a good strong safety.

'Corner is the most athletic position on the field because you've got to do everything backwards,' Shead says. 'So, going from corner to strong safety, you can be a more athletic person at safety. The only difference is the angles and (having to) read run or pass. Just the minor things."

••••• Cory McCaffrey found himself left out in the cold his first few years on the Park Blocks with the run-and-shoot, which used only a fullback as a running back. McCaffrey, who shattered Oregon prep rushing records with 8,460 yards at Sisters High, was never comfortable playing receiver.

Last year, though, when he moved back to running back in the pistol, McCaffrey flourished. The 5-9, 185-pounder had 231 carries for 1,287 yards and 10 TDs.

Being in the backfield again for his senior year, McCaffrey is even more confident in his abilities.

'Everything has kind of slowed down, and the practices feel a little more mellow,' McCaffrey says. 'Instead of thinking, 'I can't mess up, I can't mess up,' it's 'how can I do this play and then do it a little better?' '

McCaffrey, who was shunned by Division I schools coming out of high school, is ready to leave his heart out on the gridiron every time he touches the ball this season.

'It's my last year,' McCaffrey says. 'So I'm laying it all on the line.'