By CONOR NICHOLL
Junior wide receiver Tanner Hageman didn't see a crisp Fort Hays State University football team during a walkthrough Friday morning before the Tigers' first scrimmage of the fall.
However, FHSU's offense was strong once the scrimmage started.
The Tigers' first possession was a 12-play drive that produced a touchdown from senior running back Andre Smith. Fort Hays eventually scored multiple times, including several long passes from junior quarterback Tarean Austin and senior quarterback Anthony Sheppard.
"It was actually probably one of our better practices today and, actually, when we did our walkthrough this morning, it was pretty slow," Hageman, who hauled in one of the long TD passes, said. "We were missing assignments and then things seemed to click today and that's really the thing about it. Everybody showed up. They were mentally sharp. It was a good day."
Sheppard, the starter for most of 2011, called the 2012 offense stronger than last season's attack that averaged 23.2 points per game. FHSU has a returning starter at nearly every offensive position, including two returning all-conference players in Andre Smith and senior guard Hawk Rouse.
"It's already there," Sheppard said. "We are already strong. We are on the next level and beyond that. We are aiming higher than last year."
Second-year coach Chris Brown said choosing between Austin and Sheppard to start the season is difficult. On Friday, Brown said naming a starting quarterback would be a game-time decision, the same move he made last year with Sheppard and Blake McAhren. FHSU opens the year Aug. 30 at Emporia State University.
Sheppard knows the offense well and is a mobile quarterback, while the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Austin has an inch and 30 pounds on Sheppard and a strong arm.
"He has got a great touch," Brown said. "He knows exactly where to put it, puts it on the money when he has got a chance. He doesn't make very bad decisions very often and he has done a good job."
"Shepp has done a great job, too," Brown added. "His pocket presence is pretty good. He likes to get out, he runs pretty well. We've just got to keep him on his feet. He stumbles around a little bit, but he is doing OK."
The strong offensive performance yielded a struggling day for the defense.
"For the first scrimmage, it was pretty good," Brown said. "Called a timeout a few times just to get things lined up and get them shored up, but for overall, I thought it was pretty good. I thought our offense was very explosive, did some very good things."
Brown picked out several places for improvement, including more physicality from the defensive line and getting the linebackers "ready to play." The linebackers are an inexperienced group with little depth after several starters, including All-American Alex Whitehill, graduated. The defensive backs were beat on some deep balls, too.
"I think they lost their minds a little bit, first time scrimmaging and things are going pretty fast, a little bit faster than practice, secondary has just got to keep everything in front of them and not let it get behind them," Brown said.
Austin's deep passes were a highlight of the scrimmage, including a perfectly thrown deep pass to Hageman down the right sideline.
"First of all, let me start off with my O-line, giving the protection I need to be able to look downfield and find the open guy and the receivers running great routes to get open," Austin said. "Everybody played a part in this great scrimmage that we had out here. We just came out and executed well."
The ball just cleared the defensive back and hit Hageman in stride.
"Luckily, he doesn't throw it as hard as he can every time, but he has got some zip to it," Hageman said with a smile.
Sheppard also had some nice plays, including finding senior tight end Eli Cordon for a score and another TD to sophomore Ed Williams, a transfer from NCAA Division I University of Toledo and a Tampa native. The competition has existed between Sheppard and Austin since the spring and has forced both players to perform at a high level - a trait that delivered a strong scrimmage for the offense.
"That guy is talented," Sheppard said. "That guy is big, he is strong, he is everything that they are looking for, height, weight, he is smart, IQ for the game. He helped me out, I help him out. It makes it better because everyday I come in with the mind frame that I have to work.
"I can't take a day off," Sheppard added. "I kind of love that because it keeps me on my toes. I am sure probably the same thing for him, too. We use each other, we feed off each other, there is no hate."