To freshmen entering the Fort Hays State University football program, fall camp is a wake-up call. A down-to-the-minute schedule has them running from meetings to meals to practices from the break of dawn until beyond sunset.

The conditioning and weights gets to them and with the combination of watching film, the weeks leading up to the season opener take a toll, mentally and physically.

When times get troubling, the Tigers’ battle-tested senior class is there to lead by example and pick up the team in the grind-it-out days of camp.

“It’s incredibly important to have that leadership that can get the guys going,” said Matt Erbert, the Tigers’ starting right tackle for the past 22 games he has dressed. “The seniors kinda have to take guys under their wings, especially the freshmen whose legs are starting to really get heavy and they’re getting tired. We’ll just keep working though, and these seniors will lead them in the right direction.”

Erbert started all 11 games during the 2012 and ’14 seasons. Erbert was forced to sit out his sophomore year in ’13 after suffering a season-ending injury in the preseason. The majority of Fort Hays’ senior class brings a great deal of experience to the table, as does Erbert.

Of the 17 seniors, nine have 12 or more starts. Erbert and Luke Edney, the Tigers’ left tackle, have 22 starts at their respected positions as the anchors of the offensive line. Quarterback Treveon Albert racked up 21 starts during the past two season while tight end Zach Gaughan and linebacker Justin McPhail have 20 apiece. Kicker Drew O’Brien has started his entire career.

In the secondary, Daniel Lindsey (19), Raheeme Dumas (12), Rashad Dunnigan (8) bring a wealth of experience. Brock Long made nine starts at linebacker in 2014 while Colby Hamel started all 11 games at center last season.

Beyond bringing an understanding from all areas of the field, this senior class comes from all different walks of life and has made for a great bond, Erbert said.

“Well, a lot of the senior class is guys that transferred in. We have, I think, six guys that have been here with the program since they were freshmen. It’s a lot of guys from various backgrounds, and it’s been kinda interesting to see everybody come together,” Erbert said. “It’s a good class, a really good group of guys I like being around. These are guys that can lead a program. I think we have a very good group and a group that we’re gonna be proud of this year.”

With every kid in the program having been brought in by fifth-year head coach Chris Brown, he has thoroughly enjoyed seeing the development from the time they were freshmen to taking the field as seniors.

“It’s awesome just to see how they mature. Just to see them start out as young men and they’re skinny and they’re frail,” Brown said. “Just seeing the maturity as they grow, too, from young men … and understanding what’s important in life and seeing them graduate. Those are huge things to see those kids do that. It touches my heart when I see those kids graduate.”

Last year’s senior class was Brown’s first group of recruits who were exclusively under his realm. He hopes, and expects, this class to build on what the ’14 class set them up for this year after a 7-4 season.

“It’s just another special group that kinda needs to finish off what the other guys finished and have a better season than what those guys before them did. I think they want that,” Brown said. “Their mentality is right. This is a good group of kids, man. They work hard — most of them were here all summer long. They wanna win and they’re bought into what we’re doing. They have a lot of pride in this program…”

The transformation of getting the program to where it stands in 2015 with a strong group of seniors did not happen overnight though. Since Erbert transferred in from Pittsburg State in the spring of 2012, he has seen tremendous growth.

“It was a lot different than it is now — just the attitude was different, the guys we had were different,” Erbert said. “Now we have guys that can compete in this conference at a high level and guys that wanna work hard — guys that are willing to put in all the effort. You can see it this summer, having a ton of guys here working out. It’s paid its dividends and think it’s really paid off this year.”

For most of the 17 seniors, this season will be the last 11, even as many as 15, games of their football career. Some of them have started and missed an extended amount of time with injury. Kevin Spain went down during the second game of the season in 2014. Dumas followed suit one game later. Some, like McPhail, have played extensively since freshman year.

No matter the experiences they bring to the team, they just want to have their names left in the program with a positive light beaming down on 2015.

“I think expectation-wise when it’s your last year, it starts to dawn on you like, “OK, this is the last time I get to do this and this is my last chance to leave my mark on the program.’ I think in that realm, there’s definitely some added expectations,” Erbert said. “There’s a little bit of pressure just to lead these guys.

“The seniors of 2015, people are gonna remember who those guys were depending on how the season goes. We just wanna leave our mark.”