While every season opener brings some unpredictability, preparing for Central Missouri has been somewhat of a guessing game for Fort Hays State.
With a new defensive coordinator and questions about who will start at quarterback, Central Missouri's plans on both sides on the ball are shrouded in mystery ahead of the No. 11-ranked Tigers' matchup with UCM at 7 p.m. Thursday at Walton Stadium in Warrensburg, Mo.
“It’s unknown," said Tigers' coach Chris Brown. "It’s really, really unknown.”
The question mark at quarterback stems from the status of Brook Bolles, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in last year's opener at FHSU, forcing him to take a medical redshirt. Bolles, a first-team All-MIAA pick in 2017, is back for the Mules but the Tigers aren't sure if he will be the starter.
“There’s a question mark there for our defense: Who’s going to be the quarterback?" Brown said. "Going into game 1, have they changed offensively a little bit or not? You just never know."
UCM also returns junior Kyle Bradley, who saw action in nine games at quarterback for last year's team that went 5-6.
“We’ve got to prepare for whoever’s going to be out there,” FHSU senior defensive lineman Sheldon Schmidt said. “We’ve got to take the steps to prepare for anything.”
The Tigers' offense is also facing some uncertainty in preparing for the Mule' defense, which is under the guidance of new coordinator BJ Campbell. UCM's defense surrendered almost 400 yards per game last year.
“Offensively for us, it’s a big struggle (preparing),” Brown said. “New defensive coordinator; you don’t know what you’re going to get. Are they going to run a 4-3 or the same defense they ran last year in a 3-4, or did they change to a 4-4? Are they going to be heavy blitz or are they going to be more zone?
“We got a lot of the Central Missouri offense on film so we should have a decent idea of what they’re going to do, but with this new guy coming in, you really don’t have any idea of what’s going to happen. It's a big disadvantage for us and I think it’s a huge advantage for them."
Brown and FHSU sophomore quarterback Chance Fuller said Fort Hays will have to be able to adjust on the fly against the Mules as the back-to-back MIAA champion Tigers begin another title defense.
“We really don’t know what we’re going to get, so for us, we’re going to have to learn as the game goes on," said Brown, who is entering his ninth season at Fort Hays.
“It’s going to be hard (to plan for UCM), but we’re going to do what we’re good at,” Fuller said. “They’ve got a new defensive coordinator, so we don’t really know what to expect there. They’ve got some returners that helped them last year. We just got to do what we do best and we should be fine."
The Mules return their top two running backs from a year ago —Devante Turner and Koby Wilkerson. They combined for 1,228 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground last year. UCM also brings back its leading receiver from last year in Shae Wyatt, who caught 42 passes for 769 yards.
Brown said the Tigers have avoided suffering any major injuries during fall camp.
“I think we’re pretty healthy,” Brown said. “We lost one kid (to injury) during camp but I think he was going to be a redshirt for us. The other ones are just bumps and bruises like every team probably has right now after going through camp. It’s just about getting those kids healed up from those bumps and bruises of camp.”
Central Missouri leads the series with Fort Hays 9-6 but the Tigers have claimed four out of the last five meetings with the Mules.
"(The season opener) has been built up for a lot of months now," Fuller said. "Now it's finally getting close and we're getting ready to roll."