Early in Wednesday’s second Fort Hays State football scrimmage of preseason camp, the defense looked to be a good deal ahead of its offensive counterparts.
That would make sense given the Tigers nine returning starters on defense against six on offense, not to mention a new quarterback. The Tiger defense is doing what it can to give quarterback Jacob Mezera, who ran with the first-team offense once again, a variety of looks, according to head coach Chris Brown.
“We’re keeping our offense on their toes quite a bit,” Brown said. “We’re doing a lot of different things to them, a lot of different fronts, a lot of different stunts and blitzes and things to get them prepared for the season.”
Despite completions to tight end J.J. Lewis and running back Shaq Cooper, the Tigers’ first-team offense failed to put up point on its first drive against the Tigers’ defensive starters.
After an offseason of bulking up, the Liberal product looks to be in line for serious playing time at tight end.
“I put on at least 10 pounds this summer. When you come out here, you can feel that weight,” Lewis said. “You feel that strength being able to move people that you weren’t able to move last season. As that goes along, you get a lot more confident, you get more swagger with every step that you take out there.”
Mezera was nearly intercepted by DeAndre James on the second drive, which ended on a fourth-down incompletion.
Kamon Clayton, a junior college transfer from Mesa Community College, picked off Mezera on the third drive and would have returned the play for a touchdown.
“We have a lot of returners coming back, so defensively, we should be strong,” senior defensive end Sie Doe Jr. said. “There’s a lot of room for improvement, but today, we looked pretty good.”
Following the interception, the Tiger starting quarterback seemed to settle in. With the Tigers starting from deep in their own half, Mezera linked up with redshirt freshman Layne Bieberle on a first down run and catch. Cooper then busted a big run down the North sideline to get the ball on the other side of midfield.
Later in the drive, Mezera showed the ability that has him in line to start the season opener in one week. He dropped a well-placed deep ball beyond the coverage in the front corner of the end zone, and Andrew Jay, another redshirt freshman, reached out and made the grab for the first-team offense’s first score of the day.
Bieberle, a Claflin native, and Jay, a La Crosse product, can expect to see the field in some capacity this fall.
“Both got great hands and very decent speed, great body control,” Brown said. “They like to block as well, and we’re going to need that on the edge. With all the things that happen through a season, you’re going to need guys like that to get out there and do things for ya. They’re going to play special teams for us too, so they’re going to get a lot of playing time for us this year.”
The next time the first-team offense took the field, they did so on the verge of the red zone. Mezera found Cooper and Iheme for completions out of the backfield to get the Tigers closer to the end zone before Nathan Shepherd stopped a Mezera scramble to bring on a field goal attempt.
Freshman Justin Flanigan converted the field goal. Flanigan handled most of the kicking and punting duties with Brandon Brown in street clothes.
Brown was joined by a number of other Tigers not in uniform. Offensive lineman Chico Feltenberger and running back Malik Thomas watched in street clothes, while cornerback Rashad Dunnigan and bandit Doyin Jibowu watched from the South sideline. Brown believes those players will be ready for Missouri Southern on Sept. 1.
“It’s just all precautionary stuff right now. We’re keeping them healthy,” Brown said.
“If they’re not healthy, we’re not as good, so we just want to make sure we take care of them and keep those guys fresh.”
The second team offense, once again quarterbacked by Brad Schencker, got on the board a little earlier.
The senior quarterback found running back T.J. Thomas on a pair of receptions, the second of which came on a wheel route to get the Tigers into scoring range. The drive eventually stalled, but Flanigan converted his first field goal of the day to put points on the board.
After a few fruitless drives, Schencker appeared to rediscover his rhythm. The quarterback hit reserve running back Charles Tigner on an out route before leading tight end A.J. Cooper into open space for another first down. Matt Wendelberger, another tight end, made a catch soon after before Schencker aired one out to Shaq Cooper for the second-team offense’s only touchdown of the afternoon.
Another big connection from Schencker to Tigner was halted by Brown’s whistle. He had seen enough of the big plays at that point.
“Offensively, we moved the ball and made a couple big plays,” Brown said. “I blew one dead just because I wanted to see if we could sustain drives. Teams can make big plays, but I want to make sure we can continue to drive the ball down the field and score points and manage the clock.”
The Tigers now begin game-week preparations in anticipation of the season opener.
“We’re ready,” Doe Jr. said. “It’s been a long (camp).”
“Closing out camp, it’s obviously a great feeling,” Lewis added. “We’ve been out here grinding and hustling together. That’s where you make your bond with your teammates, with your brothers. It’s what we’ve worked for ever since last season ended, ever since that last defeat.”
Wednesday’s scrimmage appeared to be a strong finish off the camp portion of the preseason.
“ I thought we played good on both sides of the ball,” Brown said. “Now we’re getting to game preparation after this. Our kids are amped up, ready to go and move on to (Missouri) Southern right now.”