And now the work begins.
Minutes after his McPherson College football team had outlasted Southwestern 10-7 on a cold-and-dreary Senior Day afternoon, first-year coach Steve Fox was already thinking about next year.
“Lots of work to do,” said Fox, whose team finished 4-5 in the KCAC and 4-7 overall, though that record is somewhat deceiving in that four of the losses were by a touchdown or less, three of them in KCAC play. “It’s everything. We’re going to go to work on Monday recruiting and working out with the returners. It’s 2015 from here on out.”
Fox realizes he and his young, hard-working coaching staff face a monumental task. In a season where his team was decimated by injuries and attrition, he had only 45 healthy bodies for the season-ender. That’s a far cry from the start of the year when some 80 players reported for the first practice back in August.
The strength of the team was unquestionably on defense as that unit was among the best in the KCAC. Fox, who employs a 3-4 alignment, loses two of his starting linemen in Evan Clary and Ben Kimbrough, but the returnee is Grant Narcisse, who should figure in some All-American talk next year. The Bulldogs lose the best 1-2 punch at linebacker in the KCAC in Trent Forrester and Jimmy Wilson, but return Ryan Duggan and Dalton Whitfield. In the secondary, longtime staples Trea Lott and David Anderson graduate, which leaves Ashton Serpas and Kavoderic McIntyre as the returning starters.
There was little depth on defense at the end of the year, but Fox does have three returning backup linemen who can step in. But the linebacker and secondary ranks are in drastic need of upgrade as the numbers were thread bare.
The offense has a base, but needs to inject some explosiveness and physicality. Three of the five starters in the line on Saturday were underclassmen — Calon Bibbs, Daniel Musika and Avery Goering — and sophomore Collin French was arguably Mac’s best lineman before being lost for the final three games. Replacing center Will Thacker is the No. 1 priority along with John Lauts, who made rapid improvement in his only year.
Fox has said repeatedly he’d like to have no less than a dozen linemen as it’s an area that seems to get hit with injuries every year.
The receiving ranks could be a plus as most of the wideouts return. It was an expected strength before the year, but injuries wiped out more than half of the unit. Mac basically had nothing but underclassmen for receivers, so this is an area that could shine with a couple of additions.
The backfield is in the most need of an upgrade. Fox used four quarterbacks this season, one of those a converted wide receiver Kelly Cordova. My guess is that Cordova was such a home-run hitter at receiver that he’d like to move him back there. Cody Groff ended the year as the starter and had some really good moments. Fox, though, figures to comb the juco ranks to find that next Shane Mascarenas, who led Mac to a 19-3 record in his two years as a starter. Mascarenas was one of those once-in-a-decade players who somehow fell through the cracks into the Bulldogs’ lap.
Running back also needs an infusion of depth and much-needed speed. Miles Balthazor may have been the best freshman running back in the KCAC, but Fox would like to add a physical back and one with lightning. Balthazor was a revelation, though, and he’s a between-the-tackles runner. He certainly gives the Bulldogs an outstanding starting point.
Fox would like to find a pure punter as he used linebackers Forrester and Whitfield in that capacity this year out of necessity. Freshman place-kicker Christian Guerra-Barbosa had a solid year by missing just one extra point and was 8 of 13 on field goals. He doesn’t have the biggest leg, but is accurate.
The foundation certainly is there. It’s imperative that Fox doesn’t lose many potential returnees as in the KCAC you never know who’s going to return from year to year. From what I saw, the Bulldogs played hard for him, which was one of their strengths. They competed in every single game, the only blowout being a 45-17 loss to Friends in which they trailed only 17-10 midway through the third quarter before the game got away in the final quarter.
I think it would be ideal for Fox to bring in a class of 40 to 45. The junior college ranks is where you find your skill and speed players, as there’s talented players out there who get overlooked. The high school ranks provide more of the linemen and linebacker types. I hope Fox can bring in about 15 transfers and 30 freshmen. While some squad sizes are in the 100-to-110 range, I think a program can operate successfully with 85 to 90.
Since the glorious run of 2009-10 when the Bulldogs made the national playoffs twice, they have had four straight losing seasons. Joe Bettasso’s final year yielded a 4-7 record, while Pete Sterbick was 5-6 in both of his seasons. Every year there’s a surprise team in the KCAC — it was Bethany this year with a four-game improvement — so maybe it will be the Bulldogs’ turn next year.