His Bluejays ran the table in the KCAC a season ago with 9-0 conference record. Tabor rattled off 10 consecutive wins—including a first-round playoff win over Doane in Hillsboro—before succumbing to top-ranked Morningside in the national quarterfinals. The Bluejays concluded the season ranked eighth in the nation.
This season will involve putting new puzzle pieces in place—finding chemistry and assigning roles—to help the Bluejays build on that tradition of success.
Although 38 lettermen and 12 starters return from last year’s 11-2 team to highlight a 120-man roster, the Bluejays have holes to fill. Tabor lost 20 seniors from last season.
However, Gardner expressed optimism in the team’s depth and his ability to assign roles that will lead to success.
“I’m really big on roles and trying to give our guys roles as early of a role as we possibly can, so we can develop that throughout the season,” he said.
Tabor returns six starters on offense. A year ago, the Bluejays rushed for 3,308 yards, which ranked fifth nationally, and passed for 1,643 yards. Tabor averaged 380.8 yards of offense per game, scoring 47 rushing touchdowns and nine through the air.
Perhaps the biggest question mark this season is at the quarterback. Tabor will need to find someone to fill KCAC Offensive Player of the Year Simon McKee’s role under center.
Three quarterbacks, and possibly more, are battling for position, Gardner said, including junior Trey Schmidt, Tabor’s backup the past few years; freshman Clay Atwood out of Ardmore, Okla.; and Curry Parham, a junior transfer from Allan Hancock.
Known for running the triple option offense, Gardner said other offensive schemes may be on the table, based on the skills of his new signal-caller.
“Obviously, we’ve run the triple option the last few years,” he said. “Now if our quarterback can do that, great. If our quarterback can’t do that, we’ve got a plan in place.”
Up front, the Bluejays will play without second-team All-American Jess Croley, an All-KCAC first team selection who now serves as an assistant coach for Tabor. The Bluejays will also play without second-team selection Kevin Loewe and honorable mention recipient Joe Vargas.
Senior Zach Andrew will be one to fill the void.
“Obviously losing Jess is going to be big,” Gardner said. “But we feel good about (Zach).”
Also returning are juniors Spencer Baalman, an honorable-mention, All-KCAC recipient, and Josh Davidson. Both have been with the program for multiple seasons.
Newcomer Carlos DeLeon, a junior out of Modesto Junior College, may also be asked to contribute, as may junior tight end Austin Conway, a transfer out of Laney College.
Gardner said he has around 18 offensive linemen on the roster.
Senior Joe Donnell returns to anchor the Bluejay backfield. A second-team selection, Donnell was Tabor’s leading rusher a with 1,032 yards and an average of 86 yards per game. Also returning are seniors Jonah McKee, an honorable-mention selection, and Cody Coleman.
Junior transfer Jason Logologo comes to Tabor from Los Angeles Harbor College. Gardner will also look to sophomore Austin Kurtz and others to play increased roles.
With the loss of second-team pick Kaden Anderson and honorable mention recipient Torrey Gill, Gardner will look to junior Charles Beale and newcomer Zach Johnson to contribute in the passing game. Johnson comes to Tabor from Chabot College (Calif.).
Six defensive starters return for new defensive coordinator CJ Hill. Last year, Tabor’s defense ranked fourth in opponents’ third-down conversions (26), and fifth in sacks (37), defense per game (289.5) and scoring defense per game (16.1).
Tabor will play without some big names this season.
“Defensively, we lost a lot there,” Gardner said. “Any time you go through that transition, you’ve got to find chemistry.”
It will be crucial to establish roles early.
“We feel confident that what we can do is figure out who needs to play where to give ourselves the best chance to try to take away what the offense does,” Gardner said. “Then it’s just a matter of teaching it, and it’s a matter of kids buying their roles.”
Two big voids were created up front with the loss of Dylan Delk and Derrick Lawrence, both first-team All-KCAC selections last year. Delk was named KCAC Defensive Player of the Year and became just the second AFCA-NAIA All-American in Tabor history when he earned a spot on the 25-man All-America team. Lawrence was recognized as a second team All-American.
However, senior Mike Andrews, junior Dimitri Bowie and sophomore Evan Sprayberry return from last year’s solid front. Bowie and Sprayberry earned honorable mention recognition last season.
Joining them are newcomers Taylor Ratzlaff, a senior from Central Missouri State, and freshman Cliffton Coffey out of Cedar Hill (Texas).
Last year’s linebacker corps became a revolving door due to injury. The Bluejays lost Ben Gardner, a 2014 All-KCAC first team pick and preseason selection, three weeks in. Two games later, his replacement, Mark Hodges, succumbed to injury.
This year, Hodges returns for his senior campaign. Coach Gardner also will look to seniors Alex Neuschafer and Maurice Payne, as well as three newcomers: freshmen Lincoln Ibanda and Allen Armstrong and sophomore Kaleb Neuschafer.
Last year’s secondary was posed questions heading into the season, and Gardner said the same is true this year.
The Bluejays sustained significant losses in first-team selection James Foote, honorable-mention pick Wayde Snell, Jordan Brown and Guillermo Silva.
Senior Michael Griffin returns at free safety, and Hodges may be asked to contribute as well.
“We lost some kids that we felt like were pretty good, but Tim Clapp, Brandon Trapp, Sean Kelley and Kevin Golden, just to name a few, are guys that are going to vie for some playing time,” Gardner said.
Clapp transferred from College of the Redwoods (Calif.), while Kelley is out of Mt. San Antonio College (Calif.). Trapp and Golden come to Tabor from West Los Angeles College. All four are juniors.
Also available are redshirt freshman Brendan Giesick and freshman Chase Crawford, a Kansas All-State Class 5A honoree out of Valley Center.
“We are relatively multiple with our system, so maybe those guys end up playing a position maybe they didn’t get recruited to play or we move them in camp,” Gardner said.
Tabor returns two seniors, first-team kicker Jared Slavens and punter Trey Geiger, to solidify its special teams.
Beale, a second-team selection, returns from injury, having served not only as a wide receiver for the Bluejays, but also a kick and punt returner.
Tabor was selected by both the KCAC coaches and the media to finish first in the conference.
Heading into the season, Gardner said his team’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness.
“The biggest strength we have is these kids don’t know anything other than success,” he said. “That’s a positive, but that can also be a negative.”
Gardner said it is now time for new role players to step up and make their mark.
“Obviously, we’ve had some success over the last few years,” he said. “But the thing that I’ve told our guys (is), ‘No entitlement, no guarantee, no excuses.’”
Tabor will open its season on the road at No. 16 Dakota Wesleyan Saturday, who ranks No. 16 in the Aug. 8 preseason poll. Tabor ranks No. 8 in that same poll.
The Bluejays’ home-opener will be Sept. 17 when Ottawa travels to Joel H. Wiens Stadium for a 7 p.m. kickoff.