CHADRON, Neb. — Although lots of finishing touches remained on the stadium and pressbox as of Monday, the football season is definitely approaching.
More than 140 players reported at Chadron State College over the weekend, making sure they’re also ready on Saturday, Sept. 1 when the season will kick off at home. Their first workouts were Monday afternoon.
The construction project is almost a once-in-a-century occurrence. The old stadium dated back to 1929.
Head Coach Jay Long said everyone involved with the Eagles is “fired up.” He called the new complex “top of the line” and believes the Eagles also will be impressive.
The new facilities, complete with a huge video screen and lights, will be spectacular, everyone agrees. Hopefully, the football team will be special, too. If it isn’t, it won’t be for lack of effort.
About 45 of them—more than ever before—remained in Chadron this summer and worked out under the tutelage of E.J. Kreis, the Eagles’ strength and conditioning coach.
Kreis said the players’ dedication was amazing. Although nearly all of them had jobs, he said a vast majority of them showed up five times a week to lift weights and run.
“The players Jay and his assistants recruit are already hard workers. I just try to help them become just a little bigger, stronger and quicker,” Kreis said. “I am really impressed by this group. The competition amongst themselves made them work that much harder.”
This year’s outlook is particularly bright on offense, where nine starters are returning from last year’s 6-5 team. Three Eagles—offensive linemen Jake Giel and Travis Romsa along with tight end Colt Foster—were placed on the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference’s preseason all-star team last week and punter Zack Kozlik was voted RMAC’s Preseason Special Teams Player of the Year.
The CSC defense won’t be nearly as experienced, but that’s the way things work in college football. Players graduate. Nine regulars on defense were seniors last fall.
But the cupboard’s not bare. Eight of the team’s 19 leading tacklers from last fall are back and the coaches believe that by blending them with a lengthy list of younger players who showed promise during spring drills and a few transfers the Eagles will have a capable defense.
“We’ve got some stellar players returning on defense and we’re going to give a lot of young guys a chance to play. They lack experience, but I’m eager to watch them develop,” Long said.
Much of the task of rebuilding the defense belongs to that unit’s coordinator, Jeff Larson. He’s eager to tackle the situation.
Last spring, he was impressed by the enthusiasm and spirit shown by a bevy of younger players—most of them redshirt freshmen—who will be helping fill many of the empty shoes left by last year’s seniors.
“They’re still learning, but have what it takes,” Larson said of his proteges. “We’ve got 23 days to get them ready. We’ll try to get all the ingredients (schemes and strategies) installed during the first 10 or so practices and then refine and fine tune. We hope they’re like a well-oiled machine by game time.”
Larson said he’ll know the players are catching on when he sees and hears them talking to one another when they’re working together in practice.
“The more they understand, the more they communicate,” he noted. “If they’re talking, we figure they’ve picked up the concepts.”
How does a candidate for playing time impress a coach? Larson was asked.
“We want them to work hard. To fly around and hustle. To play fast and hard, but not overthink,” he replied.
Led by three veterans, linebacker will be the defense’s strong suite.
Merritt Crabtree, Keenan Johnson and Tyler Lewis have been the Eagles’ top three linebackers each of the past two seasons. Crabtree is a prototype of consistency, the rugged Johnson, a hometown product, has been the Eagles’ leading tackler both seasons and the alert Lewis has converted a blocked punt, a fumble and an interception into touchdowns.
Senior end Kyle Temple is the only returning regular in the defensive line and gets high marks for hustle and leadership.
“He’s a smart player who knows where to be,” Larson said of the Norfolk native. “He’s always around the action.”
The tackle candidates are led by sophomore Brendan Hopkins, who appears to be a rising star. Two redshirts, Alex Mai and Steve Shields, made much progress this spring, Larson said. The coach added that Keith County natives Grant Packard of Ogallala and Emmit Rosentrater of Paxton aren’t far behind and are expected to play this fall.”
A couple of transfers will also be given a long look.
“We think we’ll have enough D linemen to keep them fresh,” Larson said. “That’s crucial because they’re going against, bigger, stronger players. But O linemen usually play the entire game and we hope our smaller, quicker guys can wear them out if we have more of them.”
While four leaders in the secondary are gone, three return. The latter are safety Zech James, who participated in 37 tackles, and cornerbacks DeAndre Barthwell and Demetrius McFadden, who combined to break up or defend 20 passes last fall.
Other safeties penciled in as likely starters are transfer Tyree Fryer and junior Micah Scherbarth, a Gordon native, who was injured part of last season but blossomed in the spring.
“We made a lot of progress in the spring,” Larson said. “More players figured out our schemes and were in the right place at the right time more often. We’ll work with them a lot more these next three weeks to help get them ready.”
Besides having lots of experience, the Eagles’ offense is expected to be explosive. The skill position player are fast and elusive.
The receiving corps should be one of the RMAC’s best. Five juniors who combined to catch 189 passes last season are among the returnees. Leaders include Chadron native Jackson Dickerson, who caught 78, second in the RMAC last season and also second all-time at CSC, for 746 yards, along with Foster, the Hemingford product who grabbed 42 tosses for 561 yards last fall.
One of last year’s top receivers, Casper native Stevann Brown, moved to tailback during the spring and displayed the ability to both run hard and make would-be tacklers miss.
Another junior, Priest Jennings, missed most of last year because of an injury, but he was the star of the spring game, ripping off runs of 15, 60 and 65 yards for touchdowns.
“If he gets away, they won’t catch him,” offensive coordinator Chris Stein noted.
The Eagles also have a power back in senior Kevin Coy, who is 6-foot, 215 pounds. He’s carried almost exactly 100 times each of the past three years and accumulated 1,447 yards for a 4.8-yard average and 14 touchdowns.
Quarterback is another reason for optimism.
Dalton Holst, a 6-3, 190-pound Gillette, Wyo., product, completed 200 passes for 2,337 yards last fall, both the most for a freshman quarterback at CSC. He’s got a strong arm and moves well in the pocket.
With the aid of the offensive line, he was sacked just 12 times, lowest in the RMAC.
Also available is TD Stein, Chadron High’s all-time leader in passing yards. Now a senior who has been plagued by hard luck. He was the starter in 2015 and ’16, but was injured early in the schedule both years and then missed most of last season because of a freak accident in the summer.
There are 65 freshmen on the early roster, the most ever. Long said about a third of them are walk-ons who either asked for or accepted the chance to join the Eagles.
“We believe in giving everybody who wants it an opportunity,” the coach noted. “You never know who may emerge.”