The ending to one of the best football seasons at Fort Hays State University remained vivid in the minds of the Tigers for more than three months.
Moving on from a season-ending loss in the Mineral Water Bowl officially began with the start of spring practice Thursday afternoon at Lewis Field Stadium.
Fort Hays State put together an 8-5 campaign in 2015, concluding with a 30-22 loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the program’s first postseason appearance since 1995. The eight-win mark tied a program record and helped the Tigers finish third in the MIAA behind eventual national champion Northwest Missouri State and Emporia State, which lost to NWMSU in the national quarterfinals.
“It feels great,” FHSU head coach Chris Brown said of returning to the field Thursday. “There’s a lot of excitement with these kids coming off last year’s season, they wanna improve off last year’s season. … We started where we kinda left off last year.”
The first step to moving toward the 2016 season starts with replacing 14 seniors in a number of key positions, with focus at quarterback, safety and the offensive line.
Treveon Albert completed his career as the program’s all-time leader in total offense in three years under center, leaving the door open for front-runner Jacob Mezera, a 6-foot-4 sophomore-to-be from Orange Park, Fla., and Brad Schencker, a 6-3 senior-to-be from Scottsdale, Ariz.
Mezera played sparingly in the closing seconds of five games last season and has a new attitude now as the first team’s signal-caller.
“It was kinda different because I wasn’t exactly playing, but I was preparing for it,” Mezera said. “It feels good now. I feel like I got a shot now. I just want to be better than eight wins and see what we can do. … I’m just humble and ready to get going.”
The biggest hole to fill comes with the graduation of three offensive lineman — Colby Hamel, Luke Edney and Matt Erbert. The trio helped the Tigers become one of the most lethal rushing attacks in the country, averaging 5.4 yards per rush on way to amassing more than 3,000 yards.
Zack Gaughan, who served as a tight end, also must be replaced as a steady run-blocker, as well as receivers Andrew Flory and Garrett Holle.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys getting reps, and it’s good to see those guys are starting to understand what they’re supposed to do,” Brown said. “They’re very athletic, they’ve just gotta figure out a way to play this game of football.”
The lone graduates on the defensive side were Daniel Lindsey at bandit and Brock Long at linebacker. With senior linebacker Justin McPhail back from a facial injury that forced him to miss every game after the season-opener, Brown is looking to a wealth of youthful bandits to fill Lindsey’s shoes in the safety-linebacker hybrid position and become a three- or four-year starter.
Returning from injury alongside McPhail are a pair of running backs in junior Kenneth Iheme (ankle) and Malik Thomas (knee). Iheme, the projected starter in 2015, never saw action after a nagging ankle injury, while Thomas suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the opening minutes of the season-opener at Central Oklahoma. Senior cornerback Rashad Dunnigan, who was also hurt at the beginning of the season, returned to the field Thursday as a redshirt senior.
With the added depth from injuries accumulated last season, Brown’s staff has preached maintaining excellence throughout offseason workouts and the early stages of the spring.
“We talk about how we wanna be excellent. We’re not gonna be perfect, we’re not gonna do everything right,” Brown said. “... It takes work, dedication and commitment on their part to get in their playbooks and study everything that we’re doing so when they get on the football field, they play fast. That’s what we’re looking for right now, guys that wanna be excellent, wanna compete and wanna win football games.”
Fort Hays State’s spring camp will conclude April 16 with the 2016 Spring Kickoff. The Tigers are scheduled to open the season at home Thursday, Sept. 1, with a 7 p.m. kickoff against Missouri Southern.