With returning skill on offense and depth on defense, the Tabor College football team will look to be competitive in every game this season under sixth-year head coach Mike Gardner, who earned KCAC Coach of the Year honors last season.
The Bluejays posted an 8-2 overall record last season, a season overshadowed by the death of teammate Brandon Brown in September. Tabor went on to achieve a 7-1 KCAC record, finishing second in the conference behind Ottawa at 8-1.
The Bluejays return seven starters on offense, led by junior quarterback Simon McKee (6 feet, 3 inches, 180 pounds).
A second-team All-KCAC selection last year, McKee rushed for 955 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. McKee completed 72 of 132 passes for 904 yards and eight touchdowns.
?Simon brings a lot of athleticism to what we do,? Gardner said. ?The thing that Simon does so well is he can not only run the offensive system, but he can also throw it. That?s something that when we installed this last year, we really wanted to make sure we weren?t just going to be limited to running the option.?
Anchoring the running game will be senior running back James Monroe (5-11, 205), a first-team All-KCAC selection last year and a unanimous pick for the 2013 preseason team.
Tabor topped the NAIA last year in rushing yards per game with an average of 338. Monroe led the team with 1,074 yards. He averaged five yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns. Monroe has a chance to exceed 3,000 career yards at Tabor.
?This is (Monroe?s) fourth year of having significant playing time,? Gardner said. ?He reads where the hole?s going to be so fast, and he does a great job of being able to get to where he needs to be to help our option go.?
Junior Brandon Johnson (5-8, 190) will join McKee and Monroe in the backfield.
Gardner looks for seniors Scott Bauer (6-3, 218) and Roger Mujica (5-10, 195) and sophomore Kaden Anderson (5-10, 180) to contribute at wide receiver.
?I like the way Kaden Ander?son?s coming along,? Gardner said. ?I think he?s going to be pretty good.
?Roger Mujica is another guy that really helped us last year.?
The Bluejays lost three starters from last season?s offensive line, and thus will face some inexperience up front. Gardner also highlighted the need to solidify the tight end position.
?If we can do that and we can maintain some consistency on the offensive line, I think we?ll be OK,? he said.
Tabor returns eight defensive players, led by senior Nik France (6-0, 235), a first-team All-KCAC selection last year and a unanimous pick for the 2013 preseason team.
?Nik is a very good football player,? Gardner said. ?He plays pass coverage at the middle linebacker spot as well as anybody I?ve ever had. He can also read run-pass extraordinarily quickly.?
Other linebackers to watch include sophomore Ben Gardner (5-10, 205) and newcomers Michael Pineda (5-10, 225), Aaron Quick (6-0, 225) and Josh Ringer (6-3, 235).
Gardner anticipates a talented secondary. The Bluejays return senior Anthony Daniel (6-0, 200) at safety. Junior Donnell Davis (5-9, 165) and sophomore Jason Daughtry (6-1, 180) return at cornerback.
?I think we?re as good as (we?ve) ever been, just in terms of guys coming back with experience and our ability to run coverages and do that kind of thing,? Gardner said.
Although Tabor will have some inexperience on the line, senior Terach Antoine (5-11, 195) will be a force at defensive end, where he earned second-team All-KCAC honors last season and was a unanimous choice for the 2013 preseason team.
?I?m expecting a lot out of Terach this year,? Gardner said. ?Not just in terms of what he does on the field but how he can lead off of it.?
Other contributors on the defensive line could include junior James Shephard (5-11, 275), senior Adam Sainz (6-0, 220) and sophomore Dylan Delk (6-3, 210).
?We?re going to have to find some interior help,? Gardner said. ?We lost a couple guys from last year?s team that were really good. That?s going to be a problem area.?
Handling kicking duties this season will be freshman Jared Slavens (5-9, 160).
?Jared Slavens is going to have to perform,? Gardner said. ?I lost a kid that did a good job kicking off last year, and that?s a thing that we?re really going to have to work on.?
Punting will be either Slavens, France or Ben Gardner. Long snapper will be returning senior Jordan Costa (6-4, 255).
Junior Donnell Davis (5-9, 165) is expected to contribute on kick and punt returns.
Tabor sits at No. 17 in the NAIA Football Coaches? 2013 Preseason Top 25 poll, and the Bluejays have been picked preseason No. 1 in the KCAC in the coaches? and media polls.
?Preseason polls are just that, preseason polls,? Gardner said. ?It doesn?t matter to me if we?re picked first or 10th because we?re going to prepare and do the same things we normally do. The only thing that preseason poll says is that we have some experience coming back.?
While depth is a strength this year, Gardner said it will be important for the team to play together.
?We really are in a position where we can play a variety of guys,? he said. ?What we need is we need to find chemistry.?
He said limiting turnovers and creating takeaways is another key area.
Gardner listed additional factors for success: ?Stay healthy, find team chemistry, play with confidence, eliminate mistakes that are going to beat ourselves, convert third downs, get off the field on third down, and have our special teams keep us in good field position.?
Preseason polls aside, Gardner?s outlook for the season remains unchanged.
?My expectations are always going to be the same, and that?s to try to find a way to be competitive in every game, regardless of who we have out there.?
Tabor will face the hardest non-conference schedule in school history, Gardner said.
The Bluejays open Sept. 7 at Nebraska Wesleyan University at 1 p.m. Their home-opener will follow a week later when Tabor hosts 10th-ranked MidAmerica Nazarene University at 7 p.m. Sept. 14.
Conference play will start at 7 p.m. Sept. 21 at home against the University of St. Mary.