Tabor, who began last season with 56 players on the roster, enters the 2008 campaign with 82.
“We aimed to have 90, and we worked hard to get there,” Gottsch said. “We set an ambitious goal, but not everyone comes.”
Improved depth in many areas will be key. Injuries beset the Bluejays from the outset a year ago, as Tabor lost senior quarterback DeJaun Jones and offensive-line transfer Zach Helgesen to in the first game. Jones returned to action later in the season, Helgesen didn’t.
Helgesen is healthy entering this year, but the injury bug has already bit the Bluejays—sophomore wideout Troy Frick will miss the season with a wrist injury.
But should the team avoid further injuries, Gottsch’s squad may be tighter-knit than any in recent years.
Contributing to the hoped for cohesiveness was a set of off-campus team-building exercises at Morningstar Ranch near Florence.
Gottsch praised the ranch staff, noting that they, along with several guest speakers and help from 15 members of Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church, contributed greatly to the coaches’ efforts to introduce the Bluejays to each other in a way that promoted unity, growth and mutual accountability.
During his presentation to the Kansas Collegiate Athletic media day crowd at the Salina Country Club Aug. 8, Gottsch articulated two on-field goals that the team must work together to accomplish: reducing turnovers on offense and stopping the run on defense.
In the middle of the run defense is all-conference honorable-mention linebacker Kyle Basinger, one of the few remaining holdovers from the trips to Sioux City. Senior Joe Wuest, a Goessel High alum, will be the most experienced anchor on the defensive line.
“Joe told me that he really didn’t play in many high school games,” Gottsch said. “That he’s a fine player for us tells you how hard he has worked at being a football player.”
The defensive-line rotation will not include one recruit that generated giant-sized excitement during the off-season: thunderous defensive lineman Buddy Tuamasaga (6-foot-4, 320 pounds) decided instead to play in California.
But alongside Wuest, a bigger and deeper rotation will likely include Aaron Munch (6-4, 320), James Stovall (6-1, 255), Manase Tuinukuafe (6-0, 230) and Terrence George (5-11, 235).
The effect of the additions along the line will ripple into the defensive backfield, as Teal Stutzman and Hillsboro High alum Adam Dirks get set to play as linebackers in Tabor’s new 4-4 alignment.
“Adam was playing out of position last year, and I think having him play a more natural position for his size and skills will make a big difference for us,” Gottsch said.
So, despite having to replace three linebackers—T.J. Jackson, Mike McNatt and Zach Coon, who combined for 117 tackles—the Bluejays may see more effective play at the position. With Basinger in the middle of the defense, the Bluejays bring back their top tackler.
Stepping into the holes will be some combination of Raphael Manous, Justin Dupes, Brandon Lewis, Stutzman and Dirks.
“Pride of Peabody” Mario Nava will line up either as an outside linebacker or a safety, Gottsch said.
“Along with Kyle Basinger, Nava is a guy that we will be looking for to make clutch plays on defense,” Gottsch said.
The graduation of last year’s second-leading tackler, John Mark Phelps, opens a significant hole in the secondary. Between senior cornerbacks Seth Mills and Sean Retting, Nava, and incoming defensive back Michael Henry and Nick Brown, Gottsch believes the Bluejays have the skills and speed to get the job done.
Retting earned all-conference honorable mention a season ago. Mills made one of the most astounding plays of the season, turning on the afterburners to chase down Sterling’s all-KCAC first-team offensive utility player Tyler Degenhardt in the open field, tackling him from behind to prevent a touchdown.
Perhaps the biggest shoes Tabor will have to fill at any one position on offense are the wide receiver cleats formerly worn by all-conference wideout Caleb Marsh.
“We are going to miss him,” Gottsch said. “You can’t go out and replace a guy like that, so we’re hoping to have four guys who will be steady, possession-type receivers, so that we can run our West Coast offense.”
Hillsboro High School standout Spencer Brown has made enough of an impression in the early going to throw his name into hat, along with fellow wideouts Adrian Clay, Tommy Quist and Marquis Smith.
Two tight ends may also make sizable contributions to the Bluejay passing game: Tristan Burrow (6-3, 220) and Dustin Brooks (5-11, 220).
With running back Demetrious Cox and quarterback Jason Aubrey returning to the backfield, Tabor will have experience at two skill positions.
“Jason tried to force too many throws last year, but he looks more settled out there, so far,” Gottsch said. “Demetrious came in with 15 more pounds of muscle and running the 40 in 4.5.”
Freshman Mark Amos (6-1, 205) is one of several newcomers vying to be Aubrey’s backup.
The offensive line will be a key group for Tabor to keep healthy, as the Bluejays do not possess great depth at the position. Darrin Fisher, Helgesen and Drew Looper return with experience to starting roles. The play of such newcomers as Mustafa Abu-Khadier (6-3, 300), Matt Stuck (6-0, 280) and Jacob Dietrich (6-1, 305) will factor significantly into the strength of the line.
In addition to catching passes, Marsh filled the role of special teams return ace. Punt coverage ace Lance Stubbs will also not be back. But Tabor has kickers Marcus Manny and Kevin Carroll back. Carroll started one game in place of graduated former all-conference kicker Derik Martinez, putting up a perfect 3-for-3 mark in both field goals and extra points, as well as posting a 40-yard per punt average.
Given the number of new faces it is probably impossible to accurately evaluate the team’s strengths and weaknesses before the team puts on its full pads. But if their commitment to each other allows the Bluejays accomplish one or both of the tactical goals that Gottsch has laid out—reducing turnovers and improving against the run—Tabor may have what it takes to win a few conference games.
Including a 29-27 loss to Bethany, Tabor had three losses by a touchdown or less last year. The Swedes placed fourth in the final standings, giving the Bluejay faithful good reason to believe that Tabor can compete with most of the teams in the conference.
The Bluejays will be faced with a tough task in closing the gap that separates them from the conference’s elite teams: Friends, Bethel and Kansas Wesleyan.
But should the Bluejays show improvement against those teams at the top of the conference, they may find themselves competing more favorably against those at the bottom.
“If we can take care of those things—run defense and turnovers—I feel like realistically we can win three or four games,” he said.
Tabor’s Demetrius Cox bulls his way for yardage during Tabor’s 29-27 heart-breaking loss to Bethany last October. Cox is back for his senior season 15 pounds heavier and with 4.5 time in the 40.