Returning for his second stint as Tabor College head football coach, Mike Gard?ner is taking on the challenge of rebuilding a program that fell upon hard times after he left in 2005.
Tabor has won three games in the past three seasons, which is a far cry from Gardner?s time at the helm.
In his first head coaching job, Gardner inherited the position from Tim McCarty in 2004 and stayed through the 2005 season. Gardner served as defensive coordinator on McCarty?s staff from 2001-03.
In Gardner?s first season, the 2004 Bluejays went 9-2 (8-1 KCAC), reached the NAIA playoffs and finished with a No. 14 NAIA ranking. Tabor followed in 2005 with an 11-1 (9-0 KCAC) season, a KCAC title, a first-round NAIA playoff victory over Graceland University and a final NAIA No. 6 ranking.
Gardner then took the head job at Malone University in Canton, Ohio, in 2006, where he posted a 23-18 record over the next four seasons.
The first two seasons at Malone were his best, finishing 7-4 in 2006 and 8-4 in 2007. Gardner returned to Tabor in December after his first losing season, finishing 2009 at 4-6.
His return to Tabor is under different circumstances. In his first tenure at Tabor, Gardner was returning a solid core from the 2003 squad that took Tabor to its first ever NAIA playoff appearance.
Now, coming off an 0-10 season in Mike Gottsch?s final year, Tabor will return 43 players from last year?s squad. Gardner has signed 70 new recruits.
In this first season, ?All our positions are wide open,? Gardner said.
Billy Hickman, an all-KCAC offensive tackle for Tabor in 2007, will direct the Bluejay offense.
Following his playing career, Hickman was the Tabor?s defensive line coach for Gottsch in spring 2008. In fall, Hickman moved to the Colorado School of Mines, where he was offensive line coach in 2008 and tight-ends coach in 2009.
In his first year as offensive coordinator, Hickman will try to rebuild an offense that finished ninth in the KCAC in total offense with 2,858 yards on 639 plays.
Returning for his senior season is quarterback Joey Erick?son, who saw action in seven games as a junior. He racked up 102 passing yards and 231 rushing yards.
?(Erickson) really had one game of experience, in which he played extremely well,? Gardner said at KCAC media day last month. ?But in terms of playing an entire season, that remains in question.?
Also contending for the quarterback role is freshman Ryan Stoutt from Coral Springs, Fla.
Stoutt spent most of his high school senior season on special teams and in the backfield at Alcoa, Tenn. The Tornadoes won the Class 3A football championship with a 15-0 record.
In his junior year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Coral Springs, Fla., Stoutt completed 63 passes for 469 yards in a 6-4 season. He averaged 24.7 yards per completion.
Quarterback is not the only question-mark position. Gardner is concerned with the offensive and defensive lines.
?If we?re short or thin in a group, up front is going to be one place where I think we need to improve the most,? he said.
Tabor does have some size on the offensive line with five of the six freshmen tipping the scales at more than 250 pounds.
The biggest player is Jordan Hackerott, a 6-foot, 6-inch, 300-pound senior from Kingman. Shodoe Solomon, is a 6-3, 310-pound sophomore from St. Petersburg, Fla., and Allen Pryor is a 6-1, 315-pound junior from Chicago.
With only two running backs returning from the 2009 season, six freshmen will compete for spots in 2010.
Among the seniors are Joaquim Hayward from Los Angeles and Andrew Herard from Brea, Calif. Hayward has the only offensive yards with one carry for six yards.
Tabor will look to improve on last season?s 982 rushing yards with running backs Kevin Wynn (Macon, Ga.), Frederick Williams (De Soto, Tex.), James Monroe (Brown Mills, N.J.), Brian Thomas Jr. (Houston, Texas), Chris Fluter (Wichita) and Sheldon Boone (Marion).
Hillsboro junior Spencer Brown is the Bluejays? leading returning receiver. Brown was fourth in receptions and reception yardage with 14 catches for 177 yards.
Nine freshmen wide receivers join Tabor in 2010. Key freshmen are Bruce Nix ( Sandy, Utah) and Alton Price (Tallahassee, Fla.).
Gardner will serve as the defensive coordinator in 2010, taking over a Bluejay defense that finished last in the KCAC. In 2009, the Bluejays gave up 4,720 total yards, including 2,110 rushing yards.
Tabor returns its second and third leading tacklers from 2009 in Hayward and Charles Urrita, a linebacker from Vallejo, Calif. Hayward is the top returning tackler with 63 tackles?49 unassisted, 14 assisted, 3.5 for losses.
Urrita made 36 unassisted tackles and 18 assisted for a total of 54. He also had one interception for 29 yards.
Up front, Tabor?s No. 6 returning tackler from 2009, senior Artivious Addison, will be joined by size and talent. The Bradenwood, Fla., defensive end finished 2009 with 44 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and one sack.
Also with experience at defensive end is sophomore Chris Sanderson (Pinellas Park, Fla.), who compiled 30 tackles, five for losses, two sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception, one pass deflection and one fumble recovery.
Sandborn and Addison will be joined at defensive end by Mississippi State transfer Keiron Bobb, who is 6-4, 227, and Joe Jimenez (San Antonio, Texas).
Senior defensive lineman Clark Wozick also returns to the Bluejay defensive front. He and Sandborn led the team in sacks with two apiece. He also had three stops behind the line of scrimmage for minus 21.5 yards while finishing with 22 tackles.
Tim King Jr. (Bakersfield, Calif.), Austin Laham, (Minnea?polis) and Alex Swatzell (Kenneth City, Fla.) enter their freshman seasons looking to fill some holes on the defensive front.
Returning in the secondary is sophomore Antonio Goodson (Eustis, Fla.), who recorded 15 tackles, and Mike Henry (Suisum, Calif.), the only senior.
Currently on the roster are 13 freshmen defensive backs.
?One thing we tried to emphasize was getting as much local talent as we could,? Gard?ner said. ?Obviously, if you look at our roster, you would see we weren?t able to do that this year. That?s something we want to put an emphasis on in the future.?
Tabor opens its season Sept. 11 at home against Kansas Wesleyan.