Tigers earn MIAA honors
By CONOR NICHOLL
By CONOR NICHOLL
Senior right tackle Mario Abundez personified the 2013 Fort Hays State University football team. In terms of returning starters and all-league players, the Tigers entered the season the MIAA's youngest and most inexperienced team.
Plus, FHSU had to scramble on the offensive line after a season-ending knee injury to sophomore Matt Erbert in fall camp and a Week 2 knee injury to sophomore Jarred Stindt that kept him out several weeks.
Fort Hays started 0-4 against four top-25 teams, but helped by improvement across the squad, especially with the offensive line, the Tigers finished 6-1 in their final seven games.
On Tuesday, 12 Tigers earned all-MIAA honors, 10 for the first time. Fort Hays went 6-5, 4-5 MIAA and tied the most wins and conference victories since it switched conferences eight years ago.
"Could have said, 'We are done, season's over. We are not going to win a ball game,' " third-year coach Chris Brown said in his season-ending news conference Tuesday. "But this group of kids believed in each other, had faith, worked even harder after those four losses to get wins, and they were hungry, and it goes to our seniors. They are great leaders. They wanted to win."
Abundez and junior safety Micheal Jordan collected second team recognition; Jordan was an honorable mention selection in 2012.
Senior running back Andre Smith, senior wide receiver Keaton Callins, junior defensive lineman Jesse Trent and sophomore linebacker Justin McPhail were third team. FHSU had six honorable mentions: senior wide receiver Tanner Hageman, senior punter Cameron Owens, senior defensive tackle Jeremy Jones, senior center Greg List, junior linebacker Michael Terry and freshman kick returner DeAndre James. They helped FHSU improve from 3-8 to 4-7 to 5-6 to 6-5 in the last four years.
"I was really pleased with how the all-conference selections came out," Brown said. "Those kids really deserved those honors. They worked hard through the summer, and they worked hard through spring practices and they worked hard through fall camp and really bounced back from an 0-4."
Eight of the 12 all-MIAA selections spent at least three years in the Tiger program. James is the only one who hasn't spent at least two. Every all-league player improved, especially Callins and Owens.
"If I would have had these kids one or two years, you don't see much improvement in those guys," Brown said.
Jordan picked off five passes, the most by a Tiger since 1997 and tied for the conference-high.
He also had 70 tackles; before this season, he had 100 tackles and no interceptions in two years. Jones led the team with nine sacks, while Trent had seven. List had appeared in just one game before this year, but started all 11 contests at center.
McPhail and Terry finished 1-2 with 90 and 75 tackles, respectively. Smith collected 1,013 rushing yards, the first Tiger since 2004 to clear the 1,000 mark.
Callins, known for the acrobatic catch, had 53 grabs for 756 yards and 11 scores, while Hageman finished with 31 catches for 412 yards and two TDs. James averaged 25.2 yards per return.
Owens struggled in 2012 and was briefly suspended, but had a terrific season with 41.3 yards per punt, including 15 of 40 inside the 20-yard line.
"It's just going through our program, our strength and conditioning program, understanding our system both offense and defense and doing the things that we ask them to do and doing them well, and when those guys do those things, good things happen for them," Brown said.
The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Abundez transferred from Bakersfield (Calif.) Community College before the 2011 season. Abundez redshirted 2011 and played just seven games as a reserve in '12.
"Especially from his junior year to his senior year, I saw his most improvement," Brown said. "Very, very proud of that kid. Him and Andre Smith both, I think they are both the first ones in their family to graduate from college with a degree, that's huge to see those kids do that, and they are really going to excel in life."
For part of the year, Abundez was the Tigers' most experienced linemen. He helped FHSU allow just eight sacks, tied for first in the conference.
"I didn't know how strong they were going to be," Brown said of the line. "They kind of took ownership and wanted to do well and wanted to be successful and wanted their offense to be successful.
"I think that's one of the reasons, those last seven games, they were successful was because of our offensive line," he added. "Got against guys that were kind of the same strength, the same height, same weight."
Sophomore quarterback Treveon Albert finished with 2,338 passing yards and 507 rushing yards, the first Tiger QB in history with the 2,000/500 double. FHSU finished with 384 points and 4,721 yards, second and third-best in school annals.
"Very proud of the way those kids performed as the year went along," Brown said. "Gave our running backs great holes to run through, really protected our quarterback well."
After six interceptions in the first two contests, Albert ended up with one of the finest seasons by a Tiger signal caller in school history. Albert ranked 45th in NCAA Division II in total offense with 2,845 yards. Among sophomores, he ranked 11th. Albert was also responsible for 31 scores, including 24 passing, and tied for 21st in the country, tied fifth for sophomores. Albert helped Fort Hays average 6.4 yards per play. The previous two years, FHSU had averaged 5.3 and 5.1 yards per play.
"We finally had some explosive plays this year, and that's something that I didn't see our first two years," Brown said.
Brown was pleased with the offensive improvement, but wants to see more against the top teams. FHSU averaged 16.3 points in the first four losses, but did score 34 against Central Missouri in a Week 10 defeat.
Next year, the schedule will likely get harder with the addition of Pittsburg State University and Missouri Southern and the subtraction of the two non-conference games, Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University and Lincoln (Mo.) University.
"Our O-line did a great job this year, but I want to be able to ground and pound it anytime I want to ground and pound it, and I want to be able to protect our quarterback," Brown said.
Brown said Albert has the speed, athleticism, and arm strength for a MIAA quarterback, but still needs to work on the mental game.
"It's just really understanding what we are doing overall, every route, every protection, every formation, every run play that we are going to have," Brown said.
Recruiting, personnel update
Brown wants a recruiting class of five to six junior college players and 20-25 high school kids. Most of the junior college kids will come on the lines and Brown also wants a quarterback and a safety.
"Not just a one-year wonder," Brown said. "I want this to be something that continues on."
Brown will hold Erbert out of the spring drills as a precaution on his knee. Brown is uncertain whether junior Tomasi Molesi will play offense or defense in 2014. It likely depends on the Signing Day class.
Brown believes senior tight end Marshall Musil (La Crosse) can receive another year.
Musil played four years at University of Oklahoma, including a redshirt season and another year where he missed virtually all fall because of a medical redshirt. Musil finished with 12 catches for 131 yards and a TD and had eight special teams tackles.