WARRENSBURG — One tackle in Hays, America imploded Central Missouri’s season last year and with this year’s season-opener, the Mules have a chance to deal a blow to Fort Hays’ hopes of contending for an MIAA title in week one.
UCM quarterback Brook Bolles was 14 of 22 for 197 yards and a touchdown in the first half of last year’s game, taking a 10-3 lead over the Tigers into halftime.
The arm injury Bolles suffered in the third quarter derailed UCM into its first losing season under head coach Jim Svoboda at 5-6. Fort Hays would go on to play in the first round of the playoffs after securing back-to-back MIAA titles in a 9-3 season.
That game now lies solely in the past as Central Missouri hosts Fort Hays at 7:05 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 5, to begin the 2019 season.
“To be honest with you, it doesn’t come up very often, we are really more focused on these kids and their approach, and their work ethic and raising the bar of the standard at practice and all those sorts of things,” Svoboda said. “That is where our focus has been and I’ve been pleased with how they have responded.”
Fort Hays comes into the game ranked No. 11 nationally and were picked to win the MIAA in the preseason coaches poll and second in the media poll.
“We haven’t seen the nineteen version of Hays yet, so the first game is always kind of a crapshoot in terms of new things teams are doing, new personnel that you might not have seen on film,” Svoboda said.
Bolles is back after a medical red-shirt following his Harlan Hill finalist worthy season as a junior.
The Mules return both of its top backs for the last two years in Devante Turner and Koby Wilkerson, who combined for over 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The wide receiver corps is led by returning All-MIAA honorable mention receiver Shae Wyatt. The redshirt sophomore led the Mules with 42 receptions and had 769 receiving yards, ranking ninth in the MIAA. Bolstering the group is Ryan Flournoy, Cameron Saunders, Jaeln Marsalis, Drew Slager — who was Truman State’s leading receiver as a true freshman — and Trevor Twehous.
“It’s been kind of fun to watch some of these young wide receivers come along,” Svoboda said.
The offensive line, which does not feature any seniors, returns starters juniors Dylan Scheirich and Jake Heckler and will mix in returners sophomore Dominick Puni, who started three games and appeared in seven, along with redshirt freshman Kyle Linville, who started four games last season before suffering a season-ending injury. Joining the bunch will be redshirt freshman Dan Sunderman.
“The only real question that we have coming in is our offensive line and they’ve been more physical than we’ve had in the past at this point in the season, so I’ve been real happy with their progress,” Svoboda said.
The X-factor for the UCM offense is tight end Zack Davidson. The Webb City, Mo,-native is coming off an 11 reception season with 239 yards and three touchdowns as the No. 2 tight end behind Seth Hebert, but at 6’7” stands to see an uptick in production as the main tight end.
“There is no doubt Zack is a mismatch for most defenses,” Svoboda said. “He’ll be a feature part of it. We are at our best when we can spread the ball around, there is no doubt about it.”
The Mules defense is under the direction of new defensive coordinatior BJ Campbell after finishing last season allowing an average of 398.2 yards per game to opposing offenses.
The linebacking core is helmed by last year’s leading tackler John Embrey and will get a boost from the addition of College of Sequoias transfer Kingsley Ayeni IV and the improvement of junior Deven Smith. Returners in the group from last year include Carter Nicoli, Kolesen Crane and Tommy Carter.
The front three brings back all three starters from last season in redshirt sophomores Jacob Wiggins and Zack Aschemann and junior Ubong Udom.
They are bolstered by returners sophomore Javon Kirk, junior Anthony Brown and Central Michigan transfer Dante Cleveland.
The secondary returners second-leading tackler Codie Bell, Joshua Terry, who finished second on the team in pass break-ups, and Trevore Sanders.
Fort Hays Offense
Fort Hays enters the Chance Fuller-era on offense as the redshirt sophomore takes over the quarterback role full time from Jacob Mezera.
“(Fuller) is pretty dang good, I’ll tell you that,” Svoboda said.
Fuller started two games as a red-shirt freshman — the Tigers win over Northwest Missouri State to secure the MIAA title and the NCAA playoff games — and appeared in 10 games throwing for 1,185 yards and seven touchdowns with four interceptions.
That will be the biggest change for the Tigers offense, who returns most of its offensive line, its top two running backs and wide receivers.
The senior running back duo of Charles Tigner and D.J. Hickman combined for just under 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2018 and are both back this season. Tigner got the bulk of the work, with 778 yards on 153 carries.
Fort Hays averaged 40 passing attempts per game and 34 rushing attempts last season.
Senior Haryley Hazlett was the Tiger top receiving threat, hauling in 91 receptions for 904 yards and six touchdowns.
Senior Layne Bieberle is also back after averaging 15.7 yards per catch in 2018 for 894 yards and six scores.
The Tigers special teams unit is also an offensive weapon for FHSU. Senior Dante Brown is back after being named Don Hansen Football Committee National Special Teams Player of the Year. Brown connected on 28 of his 33 field goals — his only five misses came from beyond 40 yards — and 39 of 40 point after attempts.
Fort Hays Defense
The Tigers defense returns just five starters from last season and will be without defensive back Doyin Jibowu, who spend time with the Chicago Bears in the preseason, line backer Jose Delgao, the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year and All-America selection defensive lineman Wyatt Parker.
The front four for Fort Hays features returning starter Sterling Swopes, who was second on the team in sacks with five, and Sheldon Schmidt.
At linebacker, the Tigers bring back Kolt Traschsel, the team’s fifth leading tackler in 2018.
Fort Hays returns two starters in the secondary with Keylon Kennedy and Tanner Hoekman, both honorable mention All-MIAA picks, looking to fill gap left by Jibowu and Aquil Knowles and Connor Sheded.
Odds and Ends
This is the 16th meeting between the program with the Mules owning the all-time series lead 9-6, but have lost four of the last five meetings between the two teams.
The game will be streamed on the NCAA Division II Twitter — @NCAADII — and Facebook pages as part of the Division II showcase games.