A Tabor College football team that struggled to gain and sustain momentum last season hopes to hit the ground running this year behind a broad base of experienced seniors.
“We actually have an identity going into the season, which is something we were kind of lacking last year,” said Mike Gardner, who returns for the third season of his second stint as Tabor’s head coach. He led the Bluejays to a 20-3 record as headcoach in 2005 and 2006.
Key to the Bluejays finding their feet this season will be sophomore quarterback Simon McKee, who stepped in halfway through last season to help Tabor snap a six-game losing streak and gain back-to-back wins over Bethel and Southwestern.
“Simon is a very good athlete who really understands (the game),” Gardner said. “We’ve had a full spring with him and feel really good about Simon and what we’re doing, offensively.”
It’s uncommon to see the traditional option in college ball outside of the service academies or Georgia Tech,?Gardner said.
“Simon does a good job with it and he’s extraordinarily athletic,” he said. “He can run, he’s fast. We’ll see how durable he is. He’s going to take some shots.”
Completing the dynamic duo is junior Cordell Simons, a 6-foot-4-inch tight end who has the athleticism to get open and make things happen downfield
Gardner said Simons has a “big body, big target and great feet” for a guy who weighs 240 pounds.
“He really did a great job in the off-season and I could tell when he came back in to camp that he spent a lot of time in the weight room over the summer. So I’m excited to see what he can do.”
The Bluejays will attempt to move the ball with the strongest backfield Tabor’s seen for several years, according to Gardner.
“James Monroe, Nate Harrison and Brandon Johnson are as good a running backs as any I’ve ever had,” Gardner said. “They all complement each other really well, they have great chemistry and they do things that I think are hard to defend.”
But football is a team sport, and the success of the running backs depends on the strength up front, which is populated with underclassmen.
However, Gardner said the system the Jays are now using fits the offensive lineman on their roster, so he’s hopeful the backs will be finding plenty of holes.
“Offensively, I would love to see us be able to sustain drives and field position much better than we did last year,” he said.
The defense, meanwhile, will field an abundance of depth and talent, according to Gardner, who believes he has the most talented secondary he’s had since 2007.
“With those guys back there, and the speed we have, here’s the difference: We can do less scheming and more playing,” he said.
Providing leadership at defensive end will be 6-3, 245-pound senior Chris Sanborn.
“Chris Sanborn has one of the best motors on our defensive line,” Gardner said. “The thing that makes Sanborn so valuable is that he can play inside and outside. He literally knows the entire defense, which is really unusual for a defensive lineman.”
Leading the secondary is junior defensive back Cody Godshall, who is “as good an open-field tackler as I’ve seen in a long time,” Gardner said.
Anthony Daniel, a junior free safety, will be another one to watch as he brings athleticism and defensive knowledge to the gridiron.
Talent aside, Gardner said his defense needs to be better at taking the ball away. Last year’s six interceptions was an all-time low for any team Gardner has coached. The previous year, Tabor had snagged 21 interceptions.
“I don’t think that has as much to do with schemes as it does ball skills,” Gardner said. “I didn’t think our ball skills were very good.”
But the defense still packs a wallop, which Gardner hopes will give them a safety net if the offense struggles.
“Coach (Dan) Hromada does such a great job with our defense and that’s something we’re going to really lean on—that secondary and defensive line,” Gardner said.
“If we can stay healthy at those positions we’re going to be better than we have been, and I think we’ve been pretty good on defense the past couple years.”
Tabor brings back experience on special teams in senior Tanner Giffin, but adds a fresh face to the mix in redshirt freshman Joe Cannon.
“(Cannon) is obviously a good kicker,” Gardner said. “He’s going to be a guy who is going to step in. I’m really excited to see what he can do.”
The Jays are solid on long snappers, but the biggest question mark remaining is who will punt, Gardner said.
Ultimately, the Bluejays’ success this season will depend on how each position on the team comes together—and the team faces a tough test right out of the gate with a road game Aug.25 against Bacone College, a 5-6 team in 2011.
“It’s going to come down to how well we can get through the early part of the season,” Gardner said.
His team needs to gain the momentum it hasn’t been able to muster the past two seasons, he added.
“This year I feel like we have an identity. It’s just a matter of us getting some time behind it, getting some repetitions and seeing how it goes.”