April 2, 2015 by Stephen Alexander
On the eve of Portland State’s first spring football practice, interim coach Bruce Barnum couldn’t hide his excitement.
“I’m doing double backflips,” says Barnum, the Vikings’ offensive coordinator the past five seasons under former coach Nigel Burton. “I still can’t sleep. I’ve gone over and dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s probably 2,700 times. It’s organized. It’s where I want it. I’ve got people here who are running the program well. I love the staff, I love their energy, I love what they’re doing football-wise. We’re all on the same page.
“And I love the kids. The players are the key to the whole thing. I like where they are. I wish we could play tomorrow just because of the attitude of the football team.”
Working on a 12-month contract, Barnum is making decisive and immediate changes. When Barnum met with his players for the first time as the head coach, he gave them the three commandments of the program.
“Listen, you’ve got a new world,” he told them. “You’re going to do three things here. You’re going to call your family, or your kin, whoever you love who’s taking care of you, once a week. You’re going to go to school. You’re going to attack school just like you do football. And No. 3, I’m going to throw you a football jersey. I don’t care what the number is, or what it says, or what color it is. You’re going to go on that field and you’re going to play as fast and as hard as you can.”
Barnum also instilled a blue-collar mind-set by making changes to the weight room and the dress code.
“There’s no music in there,” he says of the weight room. “And I took off the jewelry. I want a team. I don’t want me looking at your earrings and asking you where you got them. I’m not too old school, but it’s going back to a little bit of blue collar.”
While Barnum hopes the cultural shift will help, with PSU coming off a 3-9 season the Vikings will need to get better on the field. For Barnum, the most important concept to improving is competition.
“Across the board, I tried to create competition out on that football field,” he says. “Competition makes it work.”
Portland State will bring in several transfer players this season. Barnum says he is every bit as concerned with how those players mesh inside the locker room as how they perform on game day.
“Every new guy is going to be in the back of the line come spring football,” he says. “And they’re going to have to earn their way into the team we already have, because I love the team we already have.
“I’m not going to have new blood come in and screw up anything about our team chemistry.”
One key transfer is junior quarterback Alex Kuresa, from Snow College by way of BYU. Kuresa will compete against junior QB Kieran McDonagh, junior QB Paris Penn and sophomore John Kraght.
McDonagh has started since his freshman season, but he struggled last season.
Penn can be electric with his feet but will need to work on his consistency as a passer.
As Portland State desperately searched for answers at the tail end of last year, Kraght started the final three games.
“We got thin at that position last year because of injury and because of mistakes, and I had to throw a young guy in there,” Barnum says. “I’m not going to have that happen again. That’s a key position. That’s your offense. I’m not going to have a signal-caller who doesn’t wow me.
“Every one of the quarterbacks is better when there’s competition and there’s somebody pushing them. It’s like anything. You get cocky and think you’re the king, and they settle in, and I don’t think they’re doing their best. I need that position to be great.”
Another key transfer is Za’Quan Summers, a 5-9, 175-pound running back out of Scottsdale Community College.
“Running back is your next key position,” Barnum says. “I added competition there, too. I brought in the best guy I could find, Za’Quan Summers, an older kid. He knows the system and knows where he fits. He’s going to compete.”
The Vikings return Steven Long, a 5-7, 180-pound sophomore from Lake Oswego High, and 5-11, 215-pound junior Nate Tago. Long and Tago shared carries last season with Shaquille Richard, who has graduated.
Portland State bolstered its secondary by adding Tyler Foreman, a 6-1, 195-pound sophomore safety who transferred from UCLA.
“I needed more experience and depth at the safety spot,” Barnum says. “But that’s a tough group. I’m going to get them all on the same page.”
Last season, Portland State had the luxury of having the best punter in the nation in Kyle Loomis. With Loomis lost to graduation, Barnum brought in Casey Eyman, a junior who transferred from Fullerton College.
The transfer train continues to roll, too, with the addition of 5-9, 180-pound receiver Blair Cavanaugh out of Oregon State.
A big focus for Portland State this spring will be turnovers. Last season, PSU turned the ball over 29 times and the defense forced just 14 turnovers.
“We gave the ball away too much on offense, and we didn’t get it enough on defense,” Barnum says. “That’s a team thing. We’ll be focused on it as a team thing. We will talk about it every day. (New defensive coordinator) Malik Roberson was the defensive coordinator at Central Washington, and that was one of his defensive strengths. That was one of the reasons I put him in that seat.
“We’re going to put in a new defense, and we’re going to practice fundamental tackling and taking the football away from our opponent all spring.”
Barnum says he will be demanding of his players this spring. He is confident he will see dividends.
“I’m not going to let them sit back and go on holiday,” Barnum says. “They’re not going to be in Bermuda or Cabo San Lucas and show up on game day. They’re going to do it every day for us. After education, we’re here to win football games for Portland State University. And the Big Sky is a tough conference.”