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Tiger football wraps season on a positive note

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University football started 0-4 against a difficult schedule that featured Emporia State University, Washburn University, Northwest Missouri State University and Missouri Western State University. Missouri Western eventually won the conference, while Northwest took second and Emporia third. Washburn won seven contests.

It was the third time since 1974, and second since the program switched to the MIAA seven years ago, that FHSU opened 0-4. In 2006, Fort Hays started 0-4 in the MIAA, its first season in the new conference, and eventually finished 1-10.

That didn't happen this year. In Week 4, Fort Hays lost 21-3 to Missouri Western, currently 10-1 and ranked No. 9 in NCAA Division II. It tied for the lowest points of the season for Western. Second-year coach Chris Brown complimented his team's physical play.

Afterward, FHSU finished 5-2 and enjoyed a 5-6, 4-6 MIAA season. It was the second-best overall record in the program's MIAA tenure and highest winning percentage in conference play.

"I am just so proud of the guys, so proud of the underclassmen for buying in, keep fighting," said senior bandit backer Layton Hickel, the team's leading tackler with 101 stops. "I knew the seniors were going to fight, because we put in so much time. We want wins bad, and we are not going to lay down for anything. We are going to keep fighting every week. It's been a ride. It was a rough stretch there at the beginning, but we have definitely improved and continued to improve. We will just build off of that."

The finish helped turn the season into a positive -- and yielded a one-win improvement from last season's 4-7, 3-6 MIAA finish under Brown.

The Tigers had their top four starting tailbacks suffer injuries and had no rusher with more than 422 yards. However, a veteran offensive line opened holes for 174.2 rushing yards and 4.6 yards per carry, the second-best rushing numbers in the program's MIAA tenure. Freshman Shaquille Cooper moved from defensive back to tailback in the last several weeks and finished with 47 carries for 356 yards and four scores. He led the team with 7.6 yards per rush and finished second with four rushing scores.

The top five tailbacks are expected to return, but Brown still will recruit tailbacks. Cooper is expected to move back to defense to provide more athleticism, but could play some offense.

"We will recruit again no matter what," Brown said. "We will always recruit a tailback. I like to recruit tailbacks, because I feel at tailback, if you get the right of size of kid, he can play safety for you, he can play outside linebacker for you, could play corner."

For the second straight season, Fort Hays played more than one quarterback -- and had trouble in the passing game. Junior quarterback Tarean Austin and senior Anthony Sheppard combined for 173.8 passing yards a contest and a 108.4 passing efficiency. The Tigers finished 13th in the 15-team MIAA in passing yards per contest.

Still, Fort Hays' defense, under first-year defensive coordinator Cooper Harris, showed improvement, led the league in red zone defense and allowed 29.3 points per contest.

"There is no question in my mind we are in a way different place than we were before then," Hickel said of Brown and the coaching staff.

"Just being around the building, around the guys, the expectations are here now that you didn't see before. The chemistry with the guys is so much better than it has been before. Just this coaching staff is just unbelievable. They bring a fire everyday, and you can tell they want to win, and it translates to the players wanting to win."

Fort Hays enjoyed its best special teams play in years. FHSU had four defensive/special teams scores -- the first for the Tigers since 2009.

Fort Hays blocked seven kicks, the most since 1995. Freshman Drew O'Brien, from Thomas More Prep-Marian and in his second year of kicking a football in his life, took over the duties after two-year starter Tyler Kimbrough suffered a hip injury in the preseason. Kimbrough didn't play this year and his status is still uncertain. However, Brown said O'Brien is the kicker of the future. He finished 12 of 17 on field goals, 25 of 29 extra points and also punted effectively in Week 11. He missed just one kick inside 40 yards; Kimbrough had missed seven field goals within 40 yards the last two seasons.

"To me, Drew is going to be our guy," Brown said. "He has done a very good job. He has gotten very consistent with his kicks. We have asked him to kick some very long ones. ... His progression as a kicker has really impressed me."

O'Brien tied for 30th nationally in field goals per game, fifth-best among freshmen.

"His kickoffs are great," Brown said. "He has got a lot of power on his kickoffs. He is able to start placing the ball a little bit better than he had when he first got here. His field goals are tremendous. He has got great timing now and great form and he has proved to me that he is worthy of the job."

Brown has continually seen improvement in his team, especially with playing more aggressive -- a style that he had when he was an All-American safety at Pittsburg State University and has preached since he came to Fort Hays.

"I think our success is showing that our kids are improving each week and have done a great job," Brown said.

In Week 10, Fort Hays lost 14-12 to University of Central Missouri, but sophomore safety Michael Jordan led the team with 13 tackles.

Afterward, Brown pointed out Jordan's play and said it was the way he wants Fort Hays to play all the time. Jordan said the performance was the most fun he had ever had on the football team.

"When you play the game like that, it's fun, it's enjoyable," Brown said. "When you physically beat somebody, that's feels good."