Game time for Tigers
By CONOR NICHOLL
Third-year coach Chris Brown knows the fans and community are excited for the start of the Fort Hays State University football year.
The season opener is 7 p.m. Thursday against Emporia State University at Lewis Field Stadium. However, Brown and his coaching staff have different emotions.
"Coaches are always nervous, but I think we have got some great players," Brown said. "I think we are a very talented team right now.
"I think we have got some kids with some speed and some athleticism."
Compared to recent Tiger teams, the 2013 Fort Hays squad has more new players and first-year starters. This group looks to build on 4-7 and 5-6 records in Brown's first two seasons. FHSU has one winning season and hasn't posted an above .500 record in conference play since joining the MIAA eight years ago.
"As a whole, I feel like we have got a pretty good team right now," Brown said. "If we can continue to build on what we have got right now, hopefully we can have some excitement. You never know until you get onto the field."
The Tigers have just two players, senior running back Andre Smith and junior safety Michael Jordan, who have earned all-MIAA honors in their careers. A multi-purpose threat in 2012, sophomore Treveon Albert is now the starting quarterback.
"Right now, we have got some kids, we haven't really seen them play in a game situation and I think that's going to be the biggest difference in this team," Brown said.
Just two offensive players, senior wideouts Tanner Hageman and Keaton Callins, started Week 11 last fall in the same spots they will start Thursday. Sophomore right guard Jarred Stindt is the lone returning starter up front, but moved from center to right guard.
"Our O-line get better every single day," junior running back Edward Smith said.
"I feel like we have the guys to do it, the guys to block, so we should be all right."
In 2011, Andre Smith rushed for 963 yards and Edward Smith collected 748 yards. Both took medical redshirts last year after early season injuries.
"Two great threats at running back," Albert said. "That's what we need, so we can run the ball, we can pass the ball, we can do a lot of things when we've got two great running backs."
The defense has four returning starters. Hageman, Jordan, Smith and junior defensive lineman Jesse Trent are the captains.
But a host of transfers - including defensive backs Derek and Nathan Lindsey, tight end Marshall Musil, defensive lineman Brandon Walther and Joita Te'I - are among those who can step in right away.
"Overall, I thought it was a pretty good camp," Brown said. "I think our kids are a little bit farther ahead than we were last year. ...
"For the most part, I think our kids have done a great job and done what we have asked them to do."
Similar to last season, the first four games present a critical juncture. Three of the Tigers' goals are to go undefeated at home (they were 1-4 in 2011), have a winning MIAA record and reach the postseason. That will likely take no fewer than seven victories. Last season, FHSU opened 0-4 against four teams that spent most of the fall ranked, and then finished 5-2.
This year, the Tigers have the same slate of opponents: Emporia State, at Washburn University, home against Northwest Missouri State University and at Missouri Western State University. Northwest Missouri and Missouri Western are ranked in the top-five nationally, and Emporia State University is receiving votes after a 10-2 season last fall.
"It really comes down to how well we do these first four games," Brown said. "I think if our kids play well and do the things that we ask them to do, we could have a very successful season. If these first four games don't pan out the way we wanted, how are we going to bounce back from it, and play the next seven games?"
Last season, FHSU opened with a 41-18 loss at ESU. The home team has won nine of the last 11 meetings, including the last seven. Emporia State holds a 50-34-2 edge in the longest running rivalry between the two schools. The teams have met up 56 straight years and 18 times in Week 1; FHSU is 4-14 in such contests.
"It's always good to open up a home game," Andre Smith said. "First game at home with your crowd out there. We will go out there and put everything out there for them."
All-Region quarterback Tyler Eckenrode graduated, but sophomore Brent Wilson, who saw reserve action in nine games, steps in. Senior Ray Ray Davis has 111 catches for 1,439 yards in his last two years. Senior linebacker Jordan Sanders and senior safety Chris Poston are on preseason All-American lists.
"They have lost some kids," Brown said. "The kids that are behind them are just as good. They are very talented kids, very quick kids, very strong kids as well. They seem to play the game the way it is supposed to be played, fast and physical."