The Fort Hays State University football team's defense of its MIAA title won't begin in earnest until next fall, but the defending conference champs are now starting to lay the groundwork for their repeat bid.
Fresh off the best season in program history, the Tigers opened spring ball this week, holding their first two practices without pads Monday and Wednesday.
FHSU coach Chris Brown wants his team to embrace the target on its back after the Tigers went 11-1 last year and ran the table in the regular season before falling 31-21 to Ferris State in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
"I just want to get better in everything that we do, get better with our fundamentals, get better with our speed, get better with knowing the offense and the defense and playing faster," said Brown, who will enter his eighth season at FHSU. "I really think those are the things we've got to work on, because I feel like we have a target on our back right now.
"We won the conference last year and people weren't happy about that in the conference and they're going to come after that trophy this year, so we've got to work harder than we've ever worked before."
Brown said last year's success has provided a boost in energy and enthusiasm to start the spring, but he's still looking for the Tigers to take it up a notch.
"I want more than what they're giving me right now," Brown said. "I'm trying to find their breaking point and make sure we don't have a breaking point. I want to get us mentally tough so nothing really affects us, and hopefully we can get that accomplished this spring."
Fort Hays will have to replace several of its key cogs from a year ago, including NFL hopeful Nathan Shepherd on the defensive line. The All-American and MIAA defensive player of the year finished the season with 38 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
"Nathan's going to be hard to replace," Brown said. "Kenneth Iheme at running back is going to be very hard to replace. We're going to miss Donald Blackmon on the O-line and Travis Talley because those guys had a lot of years of experience for us.
"In the secondary, we're going to miss Kamon Clayton. He was a great corner for us. And Brandon Brown's going to be hard to replace with his kicks and his kickoffs. Every one of those seniors we lost is going to be hard to replace and we've got to get these guys to step up and fill those holes and become better players."
FHSU has the luxury of experience at quarterback with two-year starter Jacob Mezera back to guide the Tiger offense. Mezera, a second-team All-MIAA pick, threw for 2,824 yards with 23 touchdowns and six interceptions last season as a junior.
"It's huge (to have experience at quarterback), but there's still some things he can always work on to make himself better," Brown said. "Just having a guy back there that knows every route, every run play and everything that everybody's supposed to do, that helps our offense out tremendously."
The Tigers had three underclassmen earn first-team All-MIAA honors last year — receiver Monterio Burchfield, linebacker Jose Delgado and defensive back Doyin Jibowu.
Brown said he's looking to gauge the Tigers' depth during the spring.
"That's something we're really trying to establish is depth — who can play for us and who can't?" Brown said. "Do I need to go find some other guys at a junior college who can help us right now, or are the younger guys ready to step up? We'll know more probably within the next week."
Brown also wants battles for starting spots.
"I hope everybody competes and tries to start, that's the kind of competition we want," he said. "If you're just going to kind of settle to be a backup or on special teams, that's not the kind of person we want on this football team. We want guys that want to compete and start at every position."
The Tigers will hold their annual spring scrimmage on April 21 at Lewis Field Stadium.