Based on practice, Fort Hays State coach Chris Brown fully expects the handful of inexperienced players on the Tiger defense to seize the opportunity for bigger roles and make immediate impacts.
But Brown won't know for sure what those players can bring to the table until he sees them in action, and he'll finally get that chance when the Tigers open the season against Central Missouri at 7 p.m. Thursday in Warrensburg, Mo.
The two-time defending MIAA champions will look to newcomers and underclassmen to fill voids after losing several standouts off last year's defense including Jose Delgado, Doyin Jibowu, Wyatt Parker and Connor Shedeed.
“You’ve always got to look at this first game to see what those kids do," Brown said. "With practice, practice, practice, you kind of get comfortable sometimes. When you see the same offense for three or four weeks, you learn what the offense is doing.
"We’ll be seeing if those guys can play for us or not. When the lights come on, some kids really change. Some change for the worse and some change for the better. I think this group is going to change for the better just because of their mentality, their aggressiveness and their love for the game as well."
The Tiger secondary will feature the most new faces. Senior bandit Tanner Hoekman is the only player in the secondary with significant playing experience. Sophomores Jordan Starks and Jhimon Preston and redshirt freshman Will White are among the players expected to step into key roles, as well as junior Isaiah Creal-Musgray, who redshirted last year after transferring from Diablo Valley (Calif.) College.
“Defensively we had a lot of changes with different players coming in, seeing their progression as camp went on and seeing their improvements and them getting more comfortable with the defense was a good thing to see," Brown said. "Here toward the end of camp they have really improved tremendously. You can tell they play with more confidence, more enthusiasm, more excitement. I thought our defense, toward the last part of camp, really improved and gave our offense some fits."
"I think we do have some young guys that are going to have to step up and make some plays," added Sheldon Schmidt, a returning starter at defensive end. "I think they're very capable of doing that."
At linebacker, the Tigers brought in KU transfer Drew Harvey, who joined the team during fall camp. Harvey, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound native of Crete, Ill., played in two games last year for KU. He's set to play alongside Kolt Trachsel at inside linebacker.
Trachsel, a Goodland native, is poised to help lead the Tiger defense after starting the last two seasons.
"I think Kolt's really improved, just this year alone with what he's done during the summer and his preparation," Brown said. "Now he's the guy. You can really see him buying into that leadership role and being the guy that people count on. He's seeing things quicker now and has more confidence when he's blitzing and getting into coverage. He's so much quicker than he was last year.
"That's a plus for us, because we need a guy like him to step up and do those things, and he's done it for us."