SAN ANTONIO – In their first season with Eric Morris as head coach, UIW football adopted the phrase "Stealth Mode" and took the Southland Conference by storm. The Cardinals finished with a program-best 6-5 record, their first conference title and a berth in the FCS playoffs.
But that was last year.
This year, UIW won't take anyone by surprise. The bar has been raised, and Morris knows that fighting complacency after a breakout season is the primary goal.
"I’m really honest with our team, all the time," Morris said. "The expectations weren’t there last year. Now, they are. Now we’re trying to follow the process. That’s kind of our motto going into this season. There’s a process that happens each and every day to get us to the end goal of winning football games. That takes us putting one foot in front of the other and making sure that we’re successful every single day. We’re going to continue to push them. We’ve a got a month to do it, so we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us."
With that mentality, the Cardinals took the field Friday morning for the first practice of fall camp. Based on the excitement and buzz circling around Gayle and Tom Benson Stadium, it's clear that 2018's seeds of confidence and belief are blossoming heading into the 2019 season.
"It’s really just good to be back our here," said senior Lamont Johnson. "It’s been awhile since we’ve come out here. Everybody’s getting back in the groove, the summer workouts were perfect and now it’s time to put everything together."
"We’re a lot more organized right now," Morris said. "The players know what to expect. They know the plays. This is their fourth time doing their installs -- two springs, two falls. We’re a lot more comfortable."
Leading the charge was sophomore quarterback Jon Copeland, who is returning from an ACL injury he suffered during the final game of the 2018 regular season.
"It’s an amazing recovery," said junior defensive lineman Javon Wright. "Just seeing him do shuttle runs and leading the pack, it’s like he never left, really. He did a very good job, he’s always in the treatment room, he’s always taking that next step to get better, so he’s an amazing kid."
"He went thought an ACL injury in high school, so he knew what the rehab process was going to look like," Morris explained. "He’s done a phenomenal job, along with our staff. He looked like he was full go today. It was good to have him out there knocking a little rust off."
Copeland was one of UIW's biggest offensive weapons last season. He was named Southland Conference Freshman of the Year and set multiple school records, throwing for 2,984 yards and 20 touchdowns. Now heading into his second year in control of the offense, Copeland feels more confident in his abilities.
"He’s had a bunch of game experience," Morris said. "This spring, he got to sit back and really watch. He sat in our coaches meetings, so he understands the offense better from a coaching standpoint. He’s directing the traffic out there. He’s our point guard. I trust him. I can put it in his hands and he can make checks any time if he doesn’t like the play call I send in. He’s a smart kid that loves to compete."
"It’s really nice knowing the plays, knowing the people around me, having everyone come together," Copeland said. "Not only do I know the offense better, everyone else does too, so it’s just clicking a lot faster."
While the offense racked up yards and points, the defense held strong as one of the best turnover units in the nation, recording an FCS-leading 29 takeaways. They know it'll take a collective effort to replicate that success in 2019.
"It’s going to be our teamwork, coming together as a complete package," Wright said. "I can’t say the defensive line or secondary is going to do anything specific. It’s just all of us coming together and playing the game we know how to play."
Twenty-one seniors graduated from last year's SLC championship team, including vocal leaders like Ra'Quanne Dickens. But thanks to a communal desire for improvement, the Cardinals enter the 2019 season with a tight-knit, family bond.
"We are a family for sure," Copeland said. "Last year, we had a few guys that were leaders, but this year everyone as a collective is helping each other out. Having that season last year and knowing what we’re capable of, knowing what it takes to do that helps us come together as a whole. We’ve got a lot of new people that are buying in as well, so it’s awesome."
That bond will be tested in the first week of the regular season with a showdown against crosstown rival UTSA. This will be the first time in history that these two football programs square off, and with bragging rights over the city of San Antonio on the line, both teams know there's a lot at stake.
"I feel like I’m going to have to calm them down more than pick them up for that one," said Morris. "It’s such a great opportunity to play a great program. They’ve got a quarterback coming back that I really respect in Frank Harris. Frank Wilson has done a great job over there. They had a down year, we know they’ll come out firing on all cylinders. I don’t think it’s something that I have to talk about because I don’t want our guys geeked up. We need to follow up day in and day out and try to follow the process that’s getting us prepared to go into the season."
UIW will open the season against UTSA Saturday, Aug. 31, at the Alamodome. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m.