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Viks coach keeps his cool

Nigel Burton sees potential as young PSU team recovers from losing


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Its a big year for Portland State and coach Nigel Burton, who open spring football April 8. A promising 2012 fell flat, as the Vikings went 3-8 (2-6 Big Sky Conference). Burton has a 12-21 record in three seasons at Portland State.I’ve never met a coach who didn’t think he was on the right track — at least until the day he gets fired.

This is not to suggest that Nigel Burton is in trouble as he enters his fourth season as head football coach at Portland State.

I have no qualms about Burton’s coaching acumen or his portfolio at the tender age of 36. Having had coaches such as Tim Walsh, Mike Riley and Chris Ault as mentors means he has been shown the right way. Burton — whose Vikings begin spring practice on April 8 — is bright and personable and engaging and a solid representative of the PSU athletic community.

But coaches are judged by win-loss results, and last season’s 3-8 ledger (2-6 in Big Sky Conference play) raises some eyebrows about whether or not the Vikings are headed in the right direction.

Burton exudes confidence that his ship is indeed in good shape, though when asked about next season, he tempers his remarks with caution.

“I feel like we have continued to make progress, but next season is still so far away,” he says. “Coach Ault once told me the biggest job of a head coach is to manage expectations. It’s a little early to talk about that now.”

So in a 20-minute conversation, Burton explores what happened last season and some of the components he believes will make a difference for the Vikings this fall.

After a 2-9 (1-7 Big Sky) opening campaign at PSU under Burton in 2010, the Vikings showed promise with a 7-4 record (5-3) in 2011. Then came the downturn last season when many within the program thought they might contend for a conference championship.

“It’s disappointing when you don’t have the record you were hoping for and with expectations we put on ourselves,” Burton says. “Part of it is we couldn’t figure out how to close games.

“But in the grand scheme of things, it might benefit us in the long run. Because we had so many injuries, a lot of the freshmen in a class that was so highly regarded had to play. Now they have game experience. The silver lining is, because we were in nearly every game to the end, our coaches and players have a sense that we’re very close to getting to where we want to be.”

Portland State averaged 438 yards total offense and 34.8 points a game last season. Since the Viks gave up at least 37 times six times, it would seem defense was the overriding problem.

“Not necessarily,” Burton says. “Yes, we need to improve on the defensive end, but football is a team sport. In the end, we didn’t score enough points, we didn’t stop the (opponent) enough, and we didn’t improve in special teams the way we were hoping.”

Two games into last season, Burton fired defensive coordinator Eric Jackson — a close friend — and assumed the duties himself. Unspecified internal problems were tied to Jackson’s dismissal.

“Hardest thing I’ve had to do as a head coach,” says Burton, a cornerback coach under Walsh at PSU and Riley at Oregon State and D-coordinator under Ault at Nevada. “It’s one of those things you struggle with. You don’t want to ever have to do that at that point in the season.

“I’m not going to be a head coach who runs around firing people, but you have to do what you have to do.”

Burton’s new D-coordinator is Jaime Hill, whose last coaching job was in the same capacity from 2006 to ’10 at Brigham Young under Bronco Mendenhall. Hill worked from 1993 to ’97 as secondary coach and then D-coordinator under Walsh at PSU and also coached three years with the San Francisco 49ers, as well as a couple of stints in the Canadian Football League.

“Of the candidates I interviewed, Jaime was the guy I felt brought the most to the table not only as a coach, but with his love for the university,” Burton says. “I’ve enjoyed my time at South Florida, Oregon State and Nevada, but when you’ve coached at Portland State, it’s a completely different deal. It’s a special fraternity. When you add all that in with Jaime, it was a no-brainer hire for me.”

Portland State returns 47 lettermen, including 11 starters. There are holes to fill on the offensive line and in replacing last year’s No. 2 and 3 receivers, Justin Monahan and Nevin Lewis, along with All-America linebacker Ian Sluss.

Among those returning are quarterback Kieran McDonagh, a 6-2, 245-pound sophomore who threw for 2,187 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 406 yards and nine scores a year ago, tailback DJ Adams, a 5-10, 210-pound senior who rushed for 967 yards and a dozen TDs last season, and receiver Thomas Carter, who caught a team-high 32 passes for 313 yards in ‘12.

Burton says all three, and virtually every other returning first-stringer, must prove themselves again this spring and in the fall.

“We don’t care who is a returning starter, we’re always going to have a competition,” he says. “We let things play out. That philosophy works for us. It’s how Kieran got his job last season. He was originally going to grayshirt.

“Kieran is going to have to bust his hump to be the starter when you consider how well Collin Ramirez played behind him, and we have Paris Penn, too. We have three or four, maybe five guys who can play tailback, including Shaquille Richard and Steven Long. It’s getting fun around here.”

The Vikings are bringing in several transfers who are expected to play right away, including 6-0, 275-pound defensive tackle Joe Lopez (Oregon State), 6-4, 255-pound tight end Hayden Plinke (Boise State) and 6-4, 225-pound linebacker Jake Woolley (College of the Canyons).

“I have Coach Riley’s philosophy — you don’t bring in a transfer for depth,” Burton says. “We’re bringing in five or six guys who will be given the opportunity to start right away.”

Burton says he will continue to employ OSU’s 4-3 defense and Nevada’s pistol offense, “with a few tweaks both ways, maybe more on the defensive side,” he says.

The 2013 schedule features only one “money” game — the Sept. 7 opener at California — and eight Big Sky games that will include a home date with Cal Poly and a visit to ’12 FCS semifinalist Eastern Washington.

The Vikings aren’t scheduled to face the other two Big Sky powers of a year ago, Montana State or Northern Arizona.

“But it’s all difficult,” Burton says. “This conference is so much different than it was the first time I coached at Portland State (2001-02). You’re battling every week. There are no gimmes. It’s like Big Ten basketball. We beat the snot out of each other.”

Burton maintains a confident air about the prospects of his Vikings.

“We continually seem to have better and better offseasons, this winter in particular,” he says. “The guys set unbelievable records in the weight room. We’re continuing to develop depth. I know the program is better than when we started.

“In the end, it’s not going to win games, but it’s a step. It’s still going to come down to how we play in September and October and, most importantly, in November.”

And, if Burton, his coaches and his players have their way, in December, too.

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