Gardner reflects on another strong season

The 2016 season began with many unknowns, perhaps none bigger than who would fill the role under center. Coach Mike Gardner opted to go with two quarterbacks this season, with junior Curry Parham and freshman Keith Thomas alternating snaps.

“I really liked the two-quarterback system this year,” Gardner said. “A lot of people are not a fan of that—and in the past I haven’t been—but as a head football coach, your job is to try to figure out what your personnel can do, and I was very pleased with how, offensively, we were able to mix it up and move the ball.”

While still rushing (2,772) more than passing (2,037), Tabor transitioned away from the run-heavy, triple option, instead fielding a more balanced attack.

Tabor ranked seventh in rushing offense this season, behind the contributions of a number of backs.

“We knew what we had in our run game with Joe Donnell and (Cody) Coleman and Jonah McKee and Ontre’Von Cooper and Drevion Cooper,” Gardner said. “We knew we had some guys there, and that needs to continue in the future.”

Tabor passed for an additional 2,037 yards with Johnson hauling in 44 receptions for 991 yards to rank 13th in NAIA Division I, and Beale catching 30 passes for 493 yards.

“We knew we had a really good athlete in Zack Johnson,” Gardner said. “He was able to make some plays. Charles Beale did a tremendous job, not just as a receiver, but as a punt-returner as well. He saved us a lot of field position throughout the year.”

Gardner also spoke highly of his offensive line.

“Our offensive-line gelled a little bit quicker than even what I anticipated,” he said. “We lost (All-American) Jess (Croley) off of that team last year, and then we had to move some guys around. Jose Licon and Carlos DeLeon and Zach Andrew. Those guys played major roles for us and played different positions. Obviously Josh Davidson and Spencer Baalman did a good job.”

Gardner credited first-year coordinator CJ Hill for orchestrating a defense that started the season ranked 63rd nationally and ended it ranked 25th.

“We took, basically, some junior college transfers that had played safety their whole life and we converted them into corners and linebackers and different things like that,” Gardner said. “We moved around people in positions and things because we knew we had a good offense, and our job was to get off the field.”

Next year, Tabor will play without kicker Jared Slavens, who ranks eighth nationally in field goals (10), and punter Trey Geiger, who ranks 46th in punt yards per attempt (36.5).

“Jared Slavens and Trey Geiger are probably the best kicker/punter combination in the conference,” Gardner said. “Those guys are going to be sorely missed.”

In the return game, Beale ranked fourth in punt return yards per attempt (15.5), while Johnson ranked 15th in kickoff return yards per attempt (25.9).

“There’s a lot of positives that we can take from this (season),” Gardner said. “My goal is to try to win two games in the playoffs in the same playoff year. If we’re fortunate enough to get back there next year, then that’s going to be our emphasis because nobody’s ever been able to do it in this league.”

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