Bluejay football looking for consistent success

These seniors will provide leadership for the Tabor College football team this season: front row (from left), Keith Francis Jr., James Shep?hard, Colin Hodges, Brandon Johnson, Frank Galvez, Donnell Davis, (back row) Michael Pineda, Matthew Buckman, Shawn Johnston, Simon McKee, James Kawagoe, Matt McElroy, Lucas Farrell.
These seniors will provide leadership for the Tabor College football team this season: front row (from left), Keith Francis Jr., James Shep?hard, Colin Hodges, Brandon Johnson, Frank Galvez, Donnell Davis, (back row) Michael Pineda, Matthew Buckman, Shawn Johnston, Simon McKee, James Kawagoe, Matt McElroy, Lucas Farrell.
Consistency in all positions will be the key to success for the Tabor College football team this season, following a successful, yet injury-laden road to the NAIA Football Cham?pionship Series a year ago.

Last season Tabor overcame adversity with the loss of starting quarterback Simon McKee four games in, and later, backup Ryan Nelson briefly in early Novem?ber. That put Tyler Davis under center and eventually prompted a dual quarterback system the rest of the season.

The Bluejays also went through three punters, four or five offensive line combinations and seven defensive back combinations?and still found a way to win.

Tabor finished second to Sterling in the KCAC with a 7-2 record and advanced to the NAIA FCS, where the Bluejays gained the first KCAC post-season win since 2009.

Tabor concluded the season with a record of 10-3.

?When you are able to have depth like that and you?re able to find guys that can play roles, then your team itself becomes a microcosm of how sport really should be?not just a ?star? system but a complete system,? said coach Mike Gardner, who is entering his seventh season at the helm.

A complete system will be what Gardner and the Bluejays seek when they hit the field this fall.

Offensive strengths

Tabor returns seven players with experience on offense. Heading the list is Gardner?s ?field general?: quarterback Simon McKee.

?I?m expecting him to come in and really take this thing over,? Gardner said of the 6-foot, 3-inch, 180-pound senior. ?He?s just one of those guys who wants the ball and he wants to win. You cannot put a price tag on that.?

The Bluejays have big shoes to fill in the backfield with the loss of all-time rushing leader James Monroe Jr., a first-team selection last year. Monroe accumulated 3,927 rushing yards over four years, surpassing Rolland ?Bay? Law?rence?s 1972 mark of 3,008.

?Obviously, we?re going to miss James, but we have some guys we feel really good about that can split some time and share some role duty,? Gardner said.

Returning backs include senior Brandon Johnson (5-8, 190), junior Ben Beber?meyer (6-0, 185), and sopho?mores Cody Coleman (5-8, 175), Michael Wilson (5-9, 205) and Owen Cole (5-9, 186).

Gardner said a few newcomers are in mix, too.

Tabor boasts depth on the offensive line, which will be anchored by returning first-team All-KCAC selection Jess Croley (5-11, 275), a junior, who is coming off an injury last season.

?Jess is one of those kids last year that was really steady and consistent,? Gardner said.

Aiding the effort are senior Matt Buckman (6-4, 300), junior Joe Vargas (6-2, 285) and sophomore Spencer Baalman (6-4, 252).

Finding continuity may be a challenge, Gardner said.

?We?ve got depth at that position, which is very hard to do, but we?ve got it,? he said.

Returning at wide receiver are juniors Kaden Anderson (5-10, 180), also coming off an injury, and Darian Polk (6-1, 190). Gard?ner said he also feels good about some incoming talent at that position.

Gardner highlighted the need to solidify a tight end for the upcoming season.

Defensive weapons

On defense, the Bluejays return six athletes who have seen playing time.

Second-team All-KCAC selection Dylan Delk, a 6-3, 210-pound defensive end will seek to fill the void created by the departure of first-team All-KCAC selection Terach Antoine.

Also returning is linebacker Ben Gardner (5-10, 205). Both Delk and Gardner, Hillsboro products, are juniors this season and were named to the 2014 KCAC preseason football team.

?Both of them have been around this team long enough now to understand what?s expected on the field and what?s expected during games and preparation week,? Gardner said.

?I need to see consistency from both of them in terms of how they?re preparing themselves to play and with their conditioning.?

Joining Delk on the defensive line will be senior Shawn Johnston (6-1, 220), junior Derrick Lawrence (6-1, 230) and sophomore Mike Andrews (6-0, 340).

Expected to contribute at linebacker, in addition to Ben Gardner, is senior Michael Pineda (5-10, 225).

?We need to find a couple more guys at linebacker who are going to be able to help us, but obviously we?ve got some guys that are separating themselves as front-liners at that position,? he said.

Gardner said he has emphasized the importance of establishing consistency in the secondary. Gone is first-team pick Anthony Daniel from last year?s squad.

Contributors include senior safeties Matt McElroy (6-2, 190) and Colin Hodges (5-9, 185).

?They need to be physical,? Gardner said. ?I really believe that they can do that. I also think we?ve got some guys who?ve come in here that are going to be abso?lutely great over time.?

Providing consistency will be junior nickel-back Wayde Snell (5-11, 195).

?(Wayde) doesn?t ever make mistakes and he doesn?t do anything that really hurts you,? Gardner said. ?You don?t notice him a whole lot because he doesn?t show up in the stat sheet much. But he does a really good job of doing what we ask him to do.?

Junior Jason Daughtry (6-1, 180) returns at cornerback.

?We?ve got to find some continuity and consistency in the secondary,? Gardner said. ?That?s something that we put a lot of emphasis on.?

Special teams/newcomers

Sophomore kicker Jared Slavens (5-9, 150) returns for Tabor this season.

?Jared really stepped in and filled some huge shoes for us,? Gardner said. ?I couldn?t be prouder of him.?

In the running for punting duties is freshman Trey Geiger (6-0, 195).

Newcomer Jordan Brown (5-11, 180), a junior, may contribute on punt and kick returns as well as at wide receiver.

Additional newcomers vying for playing time are freshman Greg Benham (6-2, 220) at linebacker and junior Preston Powell (6-0, 190) in the secondary.

?We?ve got some good young players,? Gardner said. ?We just need to have them find a spot and just keep working with them.?

Conference outlook

Tabor was picked second in the KCAC preseason coaches? poll behind Sterling, and third in the media poll behind Ottawa and Friends.

All four schools, with the addition of Bethany, should be conference contenders.

Gardner?s goals for the season are: ?Stay healthy, prepare and compete every week to give us a chance to be as successful as we?re capable of.?

Gardner anticipates developing a system in which each player fulfills a role for the good of the team.

?We don?t have a lot of what I call superstars on this team,? he said. ?We?ve got a bunch of guys who have an opportunity to fill the positions we need filled and to play in the capacity we ask them to play.?

It will be crucial that players adapt to new roles and maintain selfless attitudes, he added.

?We just want to be competitive every week,? Gardner said. ?We want to put the best possible group we can on the field.?

Tabor will open the season Saturday when Nebra?ska Wesleyan comes to Joel H. Wiens Stadium for a 2 p.m. contest. Conference play begins Sept. 20 when Tabor travels to Leaven?worth to take on the Univer?sity of Saint Mary.