The Fort Hays State University football team is tasked this season with replacing a handful of elite players in program history.
The key losses include an NFL Draft pick (defensive lineman Nathan Shepherd), a leader on the offensive line (Travis Talley), a standout running back (Kenneth Iheme) and a go-to receiver (Monterio Burchfield).
While those are huge voids to fill, the cast of returners make it a little less daunting for theTigers, who bring back 12 All-MIAA performers.
“I’m confident all the guys are going to do their job,” Tiger defensive back Doyin Jibowu said. “I think the ceiling’s always high with this team.”
The biggest loss figures to be Shepherd, a third-round pick by the New York Jets and the 2017 MIAA defensive player of the year.
Senior Wyatt Parker is the lone returning starter on the defensive line.
“I think the potential is the same, if not more,” Jibowu said of the defense. “Coach Ike (Eguae, defensive line coach) is pretty fortunate. He’s a great coach obviously, but every year he’s had some type of standout player, and this year it’s going to be Wyatt Parker. Every year (Eguae) molds somebody.
All-American Jose Delgado and Kolt Trachsel return at the linebacker spots while the secondary returns a wealth experience with Jibowu, Tanner Hoekman, Connor Shedeed and Aquil Knowles.
“Honestly, last year the D-line was our strength and we were kind of falling behind them and just following suit,” Shedeed said of the secondary. “This year I hope for the back end to be out in front and be the strength of this defense.”
Offensively, Iheme and Burchfield were the Tigers’ top threats last year. Iheme rushed for 1,380 yards yards and 13 touchdowns while Burchfield, who was dismissed during the offseason for a violation team of rules, had 54 catches for 1,003 yards with 9 TDs.
Charles Tigner is set to pick up more carries this year after rushing 631 yards last year. Layne Bieberle is the Tigers’ top returning recover after catching 40 passes for 484 yards, while tight end Matt Wendelberger made 22 catches for 252 yards and Harley Hazlett made 19 receptions for 273 yards.
“We’ve got a lot of guys,” said FHSU quarterback Jacob Mezera, who threw for 2,824 yards with 23 touchdowns as a junior for the 11-1 Tigers. “We got Harley (Hazlett), we got Layne, we got Wendel and we have guys that need to pick up the slack a bit. I got to distribute the ball a little bit more to different guys and find the guys in man coverage who are going to win that route.
“It’s just all a group effort. I can’t do anything without the line and it goes from there. We just all have to step up a little bit more. I feel good about what we’re doing.”
On the offensive line, Pat Kelly and Romello Burke are set to assume leadership roles.
“We just have to make sure Jake’s comfortable back there,” Burke said of the line. “Because if Jake’s comfortable, we’re rolling.”
FHSU coach Chris Brown said the offensive and defensive units fed off each other last year and expects to see the same in 2018.
“You always talk about offense helps defense, defense helps offense, and special teams, you’ve got to help everybody,” Brown said. “I think we do a good job of that, helping each other as the game goes on and doing our part to win ball games.
“Sometimes there’s going to be a lot points scored, where the offense has got to step up and score points. Or there’s not going to be any points scored and the defense has got to keep points off the board. I really think our two groups work together and understand what’s going on."