A winning culture experienced multiple deficits last season, and Carlton’s staff is ready to move on from those previous sorrows.
Never had Rudy Carlton experienced a stretch of ineffectuality under coach Victor Santa Cruz’s system. The closest thing he had experienced was in 2012, the first year the program reached Division II status.
The Cougars opened that season losing seven straight contests. But, they responded appropriately by winning the final four games of the campaign, including a season-ending victory against Simon Frasier who had the most prolific passing offense in the GNAC that year.
An abysmal start was turned into a proud overcoming. And this, along with profusely consistent success, became customary to this program over the last decade. That is why last year was such an anomaly.
“There were so many things that made last year challenging, even from the start,” said Carlton. “A lot of class conflicts. The school was struggling financially. Early injuries from some really important players. And truly, we weren’t a 1-9 team. I could count, at the top of my head, a number of plays to where if it would have gone differently, we could have had a winning season. But, ultimately, that’s a product of the competitive equity at this level.”
When the 2019 season came to a close, Azusa was staring in the face of a 1-9 record. And with that came crushing defeat after crushing defeat, whether that be a season-opening loss against West Texas A&M, a team they defeated in those circumstances four straight seasons, or a mid-season loss to Simon Fraser, a team who hadn’t won a Division II game in five years up to that point.
It is a game of wins and losses, and the Cougars that year could not meet expectations in that cold reality. Yet, schematically what they were presenting on the field failed to meet expectations as well. All the evidence you need lies within the stats.
In the nine seasons since Carlton became the offensive coordinator, his rushing attack had always averaged more than 100 rushing yards per game. Last season, however, the Cougars averaged 96.3 yards per game. Comparatively, the Cougars defense allowed a rushing average of 239.9 ypg.
“The reality is this: football is a tough man’s game. It’s meant to be played up front. And last year we couldn’t run effectively nor could we stop the run effectively. When you can’t do either of those things, it makes it very difficult to win games,” he said. “Injuries made us thin at both positions, so when I took over I made it a priority to make sure that our o-line and d-line are deep. That we’re getting the kind of size and measurables we need to be competitive in the trenches.”
These issues up front weren’t rescued by any other facet of the game among last year’s squad. The passing game for APU was manifested through inconsistency. Certainly, there were bright spots and exceptions to this rule, but ultimately nothing clicked through the air. And, once again, defensively they struggled against the pass. Their 241.6 average passing yards allowed is the most that defense has given up since 2014 when they allowed 250.3 passing ypg.
Despite the overwhelming level of discontent, there were several names who stood out week after week. Guys like running back Gil’Scott Jackson, who led the team in rushing, and defensive back Siaki Alualu, who finished second in total tackles after finishing 24th the year before.
Redshirt freshman wideout Jasiah Richard-Lewis may have been the story of the season. A product of Rancho Verde High School, Richard-Lewis in his first collegiate season became the most reliable player at his position, catching 34 passes and acquiring 531 yards – both team highs.
Quarterback Anthony Catalano had the most memorable performance of the season against the eventual GNAC champion Western Oregon Wolves. Down 34-16, Catalano was thrown into the game and nearly brought the Cougars back. It would take a defensive stop on APU’s final drive for the Wolves to escape with the six-point victory. The performance showed exceptional will, and considering previous starter Tyrone Williams Jr. graduated last semester, perhaps Catalano is in the driver’s seat to earn the starting role in 2020.
Carlton understands, however, that using last year’s performances as the sole impetus for current roles would be defective. In order to earn your spot in this sport, it is about showing up and showing out day after day.
“You have to take past performances into account, but you also need to evaluate every practice and what they do during the offseason as well. Because I’m a firm believer in competition, and it tends to bring out excellence across our roster,” said Carlton. “It’s our job to put the best 11 on the field. And if someone is outperforming somebody who had a great year prior, then that guy deserves the open spot. We should never shy away from that type of competition.”
The Cougars roster this year is full of experience. There lie 26 seniors on this squad, whether they be natural or redshirt seniors. A majority of them were members of last year’s team, and that doesn’t account for the lowerclassmen who are returning this year as well. They will be asked to prove last year’s difficulties a rarity, which puts Carlton in a both unique and challenging position.
He must now convince his players that the fundamentals in place last year, which is run through the similar mechanics Carlton has taught and learned from since becoming a part of this staff, still works. That the heart of these coaching philosophies are still capable of being implemented and that it has the potential to secure that desired level of success when executed properly.
Last year’s frustrations should now be used as a level of motivation. But, dwelling on previous failures is not the lesson Carlton wants to portray to his players. The winning culture of APU will remain, but under this fresh coaching staff, there is much room for improvement among this team; an improvement that hopes to accept the humility of a lackluster season but fails to accumulate discouragement when certain aspects of their game are deficient.
“If you focus too much on last year, you begin to develop this complex of ‘fear of failure.’ I always want our guys to be free from that. I want the focus to be on what is coming. I want to free our guys to excel and compete and play their very best. Focusing too much on last year won’t allow us to have that mindset,” he noted. “So much has changed from then, and we’re ready to move on.”