Two games into the 2019 Southwestern University Pirates football season, the Pirates stood at 2-0, winning by a combined scored of 97-10. By the end of the year, not much of the roster was left standing at all in a season plagued by injuries up and down the depth chart.
Sophomore quarterback Austin Emery opened the season as a new face at the helm of the Pirate offense but provided enough command of the system to give it structural continuity, running for three touchdowns and throwing for two more in a 47-7 victory over Sewanee.
The defense left training camp with all 11 returning starters from the season before, holding Sewanee to just 195 yards of total offense and forcing four turnovers in that same game.
Despite losing Emery to injury, the team opened conference play with a resounding 50-3 win over Louisiana College, distributing the burden of the offense amongst multiple quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers.
“Our depth is essential to our game plan,” running back Elijah Smith said after the victory over Louisiana College. “We have so many running backs, we’re able to spread the ball around, get everyone touches and stay fresh.”
If depth was the foundation on which the Pirates built their offensive attack, it would soon be leveled down to the last stone.
Backup quarterback Coleman Kerr was injured in the first half of the Southwestern 27-0 loss to Texas Lutheran University, a score that belies how competitive the defense kept the game despite turnovers that repeatedly gave TLU a short field to work with.
Against Sul Ross State, true first year Landry Gilpin became the Pirates’ third starting quarterback in four games in a 21-9 loss on homecoming. Gilpin showcased brilliant talent on the run but lacked his more experienced predecessors’ refinement in the passing game, giving the Pirates a threat but removing any semblance of balance.
And even that was removed when Gilpin went down with an injury in the first half, leaving only first year Hank Moore left in what was supposed to be a behind the scenes developmental season for him.
“It was a very difficult year for us offensively,” Head Coach Joe Austin said. “I don’t know how many times we had the same starting quarterback for more than one week in a row.”
Injuries eventually ravaged the defense too, decimating the linebacker corps and secondary, claiming—at different points of the season—season opener starting safeties Rosario Hernandez jr. and Evan Villastrigo along with linebackers Ben Brockman, Hayden Smith (a 2019 Academic All-District recipient), Bernard Sencherey, and Christopher Crawford.
On offense and defense, the Pirates went from unfamiliar names and faces to foreign schemes and alignments, rewriting concepts on the fly out of sheer necessity; switching to a four-man front on defense and a simplified I-formation on offense.
Senior slotback David Brandenburg remained a constant source of production despite the revolving door of quarterbacks, earning Second Team All-ASC honors with 26 receptions for 445 yards, averaging 17.1 yards per catch with five receiving touchdowns. He also showcased his versatility, rushing for 196 yards on 29 carries with a rushing touchdown.
Offensive lineman T.J. Vela also earned Second Team All-ASC honors, returning from an injury that ended his 2018 season to anchor the Pirate line, working alongside All-ASC honorable mention lineman Charles De La Rosa, blocking for All-ASC Honorable Mention running back Elijah Smith.
“The injuries really changed how we had to play. We had to get away from our base offensive and defensive systems quite a bit but I thought the coaches and players adjusted well,” Austin said. “A lot of times, when teams have seasons where things go sideways like this, they’ll end up with just one or two wins. We still found a way to win four games and were in position to compete for more, so that’s the silver lining.”
The defense may have lost its schemes and multiple starters but it retained its cultural identity, forever learning, improving, and working through adversity.
At the heart of the defense’s perseverance was the senior leadership of Garrett Womack, Nicholas Smith, and Josiah Minnifield. The defense also received help from punter Victor Windfeld, who routinely flipped field position, averaging 37.2 yards per punt, placing 17 inside the 20 to receive All-ASC Second Team honors.
Womack’s motor kept the rushing defense solid and created big plays on passing downs, leading the conference in sacks with 8.5 for a loss of 33 yards, finishing with 43 tackles, including 26 solo and 14 for a loss of 47 yards. Smith had 42 tackles with 2.5 sacks, forcing two fumbles with five tackles for a loss of 22 yards.
Both earned All-ASC Honorable Mention.
“They did really well but had to deal with some injuries of their own that limited their production,” Austin said. “But Garrett was still able to lead the conference in sacks and Nick was very productive. I’ve said this before but they might be the two most difficult players for our team to replace next year.”
While the defensive line remained the Pirates’ most intact unit throughout the season, Minnifield worked to plug holes in the defensive backfield, playing multiple positions in the secondary and leading a young, up-and-coming class of defensive backs.
The Pirates’ team captain led the team in tackles with 47, including four for a loss of 10 yards, and breaking up five passes, also earning All-ASC Honorable Mention.
“His leadership was really important to us in that he was a selfless player and a good leader on and off the field for us,” Austin said. “His experience allowed him play a lot of different positions and even though he had injuries himself, he was a guy we could count on to give us everything he had.”
Taking their cue from Minnifield, a slew of young defensive backs emerged, baptized by fire.
“Dameon Dawson and Payton Vaughn both did really well as first years. Again, they were limited by injuries but they’re players we strongly feel we can build around,” Austin said. “Peyton Ludemann also did a really nice job, learned, and got better over the course of the season. And Jackson Reece is just a sophomore, so we’ve got some good returning players who will be here for several years in the future.”
But if there is any player whose season encapsulated the Pirates’ year, it was first year receiver-turned-quarterback-
Slack mostly played special teams at the beginning of the season, his number popping up in the box score enough to gain attention. When injuries swept through the quarterback position, Slack stepped in under center. And over the final two games, Slack finished first and second on the team in tackles as an every down defensive back.
“He’s just a really good, natural football player whose instincts allow him to come in and play so many different roles,” Austin said. “He has a knack for where the ball is, a knack for blocking and running, and just has an exceptional understanding of the game.”
Circumstances derailed what began as a promising Pirate season but even as everything was stripped away, the Pirates retained their fight.
“A lot of guys got really good experience that will make them better down the road,” Austin said. “We kept plugging away and fighting. Their focus was on constant improvement and how we could get better every practice, every game.”