For the second consecutive year, the Tabor College football team topped both the preseason coaches’ and media polls tabulated at the 2017 KCAC Football Media Day Thursday.
Coach Mike Gardner said he expects 138 players to report to camp. The Bluejays return 43 lettermen and 14 starters, eight on offense and six on defense.
Offensively, Gardner said the success of his team begins up front, anchored by the play of returning second team All-America selection and unanimous first-team All-KCAC honoree Spencer Baalman, and second-team All-KCAC pick Carlos DeLeon.
Ontre’Von Cooper and Drevion Cooper will bolster the running game. A second-team All-KCAC pick, Ontre’Von was Tabor’s second-leading rusher a year ago, averaging 54.7 yards per game.
Curry Parham returns at quarterback. He averaged 155.5 passing yards per game with a 55.1 completion percentage a year ago, recording 1,711 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. He earned All-KCAC honorable mention recognition.
Gardner said it will be important to find a backup under center.
“Last year we had Keith Thomas,” he said. “He did a pretty good job for us. This year we don’t have Keith, so we’ve got to find somebody that’s going to be able to fill that role.”
Zack Johnson returns to solidify the Bluejays’ receiving corps. Tabor’s leading receiver a year ago, Johnson averaged 90.1 yards per game and garnered All-KCAC second-team honors.
Most important defensively, will be establishing chemistry, Gardner said.
Evan Sprayberry, the KCAC’s sack leader a year ago, returns as a first team, All-America selection to anchor the defensive line. Tabor’s second leading tackler behind Alex Neuschafer, Sprayberry recorded a team-best 22 tackles for a loss and was a unanimous All-KCAC first-team pick.
DiMitri Bowie, a KCAC honorable mention selection, also returns on the defensive line.
Gardner said the Bluejays have lost experience at linebacker.
Gardner will need to replace two second-team All-KCAC special teams selections in kicker Jared Slavens and punter Trey Geiger. Slavens made 10 of 16 field goal attempts last season, the longest made from 36 yards. He was 47-for-49 on PAT attempts. Geiger averaged 36.5 yards per punt, recording a long of 60 yards.
“Kicker and punter, those positions are going to be up in the air,” Gardner said. “There’s going to be some freshmen and a couple transfers that are going to be vying for position there.”
Austin Conway returns and can contribute as long snapper, and the Bluejays return their punt returner and two kick returners.
Most importantly, Gardner said the team and his staff will need to embrace change.
“If we have to change offense, tweak that a little bit to accommodate our people, we will,” he said. “If we’ve got to change what we do defensively, we’re going to go ahead and do that, too.”
The Bluejays will be tested from the start as Morningside travels to Hillsboro for Tabor’s season-opener Sept. 2. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
Tabor’s season has ended at the hands of the Mustangs the past two years. The Bluejays suffered a first-round NAIA playoff loss to Morningside a year ago, 65-17, to conclude an 8-3 season in which all three losses were to ranked opponents. The Bluejays ended the season ranked 12th nationally.
In 2015, Morningside defeated Tabor in the national quarterfinals, 51-6.
“You run into those guys eventually in the playoffs anyway, so it’ll be a good challenge,” Gardner said.
The defending KCAC champion, Tabor was picked first in both preseason polls, receiving eight first-place votes in the coaches’ poll and 18 first-place votes in the media poll.