Speir leads WCU out of valley of despair

Western Carolina and running back Darius Ramsey (20) will make their first trip to The Citadel since 2012 on Saturday. (Douglas Rogers/Special to the Post and Courier)

Citadel coach Mike Houston calls his friend Mark Speir a “mountain guy,” and it’s easy to see why.

Speir, a native of Kannapolis, N.C., has spent much of his life coaching football in the mountains of North Carolina, including 19 seasons at Appalachian State and Western Carolina, where he’s been the head coach since 2012. Speir’s first son, Zeb, was born just down the road from Cullowhee through Catamount Gap in Sylva, and is now a walk-on quarterback at App State. His second son, Jackson, was named for the county in which WCU resides.

So it’s only fitting that a mountain guy has led the Catamounts out of the valley of despair into which Western Carolina football had fallen. In the six years before Speir was hired in 2012, WCU had a woeful record of 11-56, including an even worse mark of 3-35 in Southern Conference games.

But last season, Speir led Western Carolina to a 7-5 overall mark and 5-2 record in the SoCon, the team’s first winning record since 2005. And with 21 starters back this season, the Catamounts are picked to finish as high as second in the SoCon.

Speir deflects credit to his players and a new administration, including a new school president and athletic director. But Houston, who got to know Speir during his days as coach at Lenoir-Rhyne and at North Carolina high schools, says the WCU coach has drastically improved the program’s recruiting and culture.

“He’s a mountain guy who’s been at Western Carolina before and at App State,” said Houston, whose Bulldogs host WCU in a SoCon showdown at 6 p.m. Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium. “He’s done a great job recruiting North Carolina players, and he’s brought a certain level of doing things the right way to that program. He’s brought a philosophy of the way you treat the coaches and the players and put together a good staff. He’s done a good job recruiting out-of-state as well, and the No. 1 evidence of that is Troy Mitchell.”

Mitchell, from Houston, Texas, was one of 17 players in Speir’s first WCU recruiting class in 2012, and the senior quarterback is now the Catamounts’ career leader in total offense. He and 15 others from that first signing class persevered through seasons of 1-10 and 2-10 before last year’s turnaround, which including a 29-15 win over The Citadel.

Slowing Mitchell will be key for the Bulldogs. The 6-0, 205-pound senior riddled The Citadel for 422 yards of total offense last season, rushing for 131 yards and hitting 21 of 29 passes for 291 more. Mitchell is often at his most dangerous on run-pass options, when he can hand off or keep the ball on a zone-read play, with a pass option tacked on.

“I equate it to the triple option,” Houston said. “You have to be able to defend all three phases. It’s the “in” scheme right now, and you have to have a quarterback that can handle all those things at once. That’s why I say Troy Mitchell is one of the best players in the conference; he’s exceptional in all phases.”

Coming off a 69-0 shutout of Davidson in which the Bulldogs allowed just 104 yards, Houston said his defense is better equipped to handle Western Carolina this season. Another key will be limiting turnovers and controlling the clock on offense — The Citadel had four turnovers against WCU last year, including a fumble by fullback Isiaha Smith as he was about to cross the goal line for a touchdown.

“I don’t have to stress to our guys what they face this week,” Houston said. “They know exactly what kind of team is coming in here. I do think the way we played against Davidson gives them confidence that when they are prepared and play together, they can play at a very high level.”