Last football season, opposing defenses rarely had to guess what was coming from the Fort Hays State University offense. It was stopping it that caused problems.
The Tigers ranked first in the MIAA in rushing offense at 251.1 yards per game behind senior quarterback Treveon Albert and sophomore running back Shaquille Cooper, and last in the league in passing offense, totaling 147 yards per game.
This year, the hope is the Tigers can bring a little more balance back to the offense.
“I think last year with Treveon back in the backfield, teams really stacked the box on us,” sixth-year head coach Chris Brown said. “They put nine guys in the box, man-up the corners on the wide receivers. They all played Treveon and Shaq.”
This year, the Tigers will be without the explosive legs of Albert, who earned All-MIAA second team honors after rushing for 1,228 yards, more than 100 per game.
Jacob Mezera — a 6-foot-4, 200-pound sophomore from Orange Park, Fla. — appears to be on the fast track to start the Tigers’ season opener against Missouri Southern at quarterback. The other options include senior Brad Schencker and true freshman Jacoby Williams.
“It’s going to be three-way battle, but right now I just feel like Jake just has that upper hand,” Brown said. “(His) arm strength is very good, runs pretty well, really understands our system and what we’re trying to do, and just the time and effort he’s put in through this summer, playbook, film study, getting with his receivers has really taken him to the next level.”
Mezera’s arm strength is no laughing matter, according to linebacker Alex Schmidtberger.
“The guy throws a really hard pass,” Schmidtberger said. “He’s definitely going to be dislocating some defensive fingers in practice I’m sure.”
The strong-armed sophomore is the only man in the quarterback unit with returning experience, although there isn’t much of it. He appeared in five games and completed two of his four attempts for 12 yards. He also rushed three times for 10 yards. He might not have the explosive burst Albert possessed, but he’s not a statue in the pocket either, according to his coach.
“He’s not a slow kid. He still has the potential to run very, very well. We just have to make sure he understands that he can run, that he’s just not a passing quarterback,” Brown said. “He can get himself out of trouble. If he feels too much pressure, he’s able to run and get the first down for ya. He’s probably not going to be that 80-yard touchdown guy like Treveon, but he’s going to get the first down and keeps drives alive.”
Most of the running figures to be done with the Tigers stable of running backs. Cooper busted onto the MIAA scene in his return to FHSU a year ago. After Kenneth Iheme missed the beginning of the season with an injury and Malik Thomas suffered a season-ending injury in the opener, Cooper literally ran away with the running back job. He rushed 245 times for 1,441 yards and nine touchdowns. It’s expected he’ll lead a three-headed attack alongside Iheme and Thomas, who rushed for 24 yards on three attempts before being hurt.
“Our backfield is a very, very strong one. We got some depth there. We gotta try to find a way to probably get all of those guys all on the field at the same time one time or another,” Brown said. “We’ll probably do some things offensively to make sure they’re out there and do whatever we can to be successful, but you gotta put your speed and talent on the field.”
The offensive line is a little bit more of a question mark after starters Matt Erbert, Luke Edney and Colby Hamel exhausted their eligibility a year ago. Seniors Mason Dickey and Chico Feltenberger return with starting experience and will be joined by a few other players that garnered some form of experience in 2015.
“Travis Talley played a lot for us. Britton Bishop went through all spring ball, went through all of fall camp and then got injured. He has experience in practice, but not game experience, but I think he’s a kid that can still get it done,” Brown said. “We got Romello Burke, who took a ton and ton of reps last year with the ones and the twos but we were able to redshirt him.”
Donald Blackmon, a 6-foot-2, 325-pound lineman, also joins the Tiger program after playing at Fort Scott Community College a year ago. Brown complemented the Colombia, Mo. native’s physicality at the MIAA media day.
The Tigers’ tight ends and wide receivers spent much of last year blocking, especially after Andrew Flory missed the rest of the season after suffering a serious injury against Missouri Western. Despite missing the last six games of the season, he still led the Tigers in receiving yardage.
Evan Jennings is the leading receiver returning from last year. He hauled in 16 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns. Tyler Bacon, another returning starter at receiver, is excited for the Tigers to have a little more balance on offense.
“That’s definitely exciting,” Bacon said. “We’ve been working real hard because we knew that was going to kinda come. We’re excited.”
The league-best rushing attack and the worst passing game in the league met in the middle, as the Tigers finished in the middle of the pack in scoring. The Tigers’ 27.8 points per game ranked sixth in the 12-team league.
Bacon doesn’t care so much who’s picking up yards and scoring touchdowns, so long as the result is a win.
“Whatever it takes,” Bacon said. “If Shaq has to run the ball, if we have to catch the ball. We just want to win.”
It’s yet to be seen whether the Tigers will rely on the run or the pass when the Tigers open the season on Sept. 1. Until that day, the Tiger coaches will work to find a balance that works for some of the Tigers’ newcomers on offense.
“I think our defense is going to be pretty solid, but I really feel like our offense is going to be OK,” Brown said. “We’re going to make sure we’re doing things our quarterbacks can do. We’re going to do things our lineman can do. We’re not going to try and do anything they’re not comfortable doing. I think if they feel comfortable and believe in the system, that we put in place for them, they’re going to be fine.”