And while the consensus among KCAC coaches and media is that Friends, Kansas Wesleyan, Bethel and Sterling all have stronger teams than Tabor, head coach Mike Gottsch is ?looking forward to proving the pollsters wrong.?
His veterans are of the same mind, as is indicated by the Bluejay seniors? choice of ?Restore the Order? to be the theme from sideline to sideline and dormitory to dormitory this season.
With returning all-KCAC second-teamers Andy Bartell and Kyle Basinger and all-conference honorable mention Zach Peters, Tabor?s defense will have a familiar core.
Basinger will be a key defensive playmaker for the Bluejays.
?Kyle is a guy that brings valuable experience to the defense?he?s a very solid leader, a guy you can count on him getting his job done,? Gottsch said.
?When you watch Basinger on tape or in practice, you can tell he?s very physical and smart,? he added. ?He has good instincts and a good awareness about the ball.
?He?s not the typical 6-foot-1, 220-pound linebacker, but he plays that way. You can tell he?s intense.?
Senior cornerback Bartell will be another fixture on the defensive side of the ball.
?Bartell is a gifted player who has some great experience?he?s a heady guy with good speed,? Gottsch said. ?We?re expecting big things out of Andy this fall.?
Peters will anchor the defensive line from his end position.
?Zach Peters is a guy we?re really high on,? Gottsch said. ?He?s a workhorse, a relentless preparer, and has prepared extremely well for this year. He?s just a no-nonsense guy, a guy you?re going to see make a lot of plays this year.?
On offense, all-KCAC honorable-mention quarterback DeJaun Jones will be back for his senior season, as will honorable-mention wide receiver Caleb Marsh.
?DeJaun is picking up the system very well,? Gottsch said. ?He?s very comfortable with the things he does, and he really understands the game.
?Being around him, you can tell he has a tremendous know?ledge of the voids and where to attack the defense,? he added. ?I think he?s going to be a tremendous signal-caller for us.?
Marsh returns with some of the explosiveness that put Tabor at the top of the conference in yards per pass attempt.
?Marsh is very steady and consistent, and he?s very gifted in the fact that he does not drop many balls,? Gottsch said. ?He also has the ability to make something happen after the catch. We will be counting on him to make plays.?
All-KCAC first-team punter Derik Martinez, now in his senior season, also received honorable mention as a place kicker last year.
Tabor graduated 18 seniors, including six key starters that were feted by the conference: offensive linemen Grant Myers (first team) and Bobby Hurd; defensive linemen Alex Wallace (first team) and Chris Cook; and wide receivers Aaron Jenkins (second team) and Nate Owens.
The team is smaller in numbers and has larger holes to fill than last year?s squad, so the preseason search for opening-day starters is still wide open.
?We?ve got competition at every spot,? Gottsch said. ?And we?ve got a lot of new faces?some young guys and some transfers?that are really looking good.?
Gottsch sees the offensive line already beginning to function as a cohesive and capable unit.
?Seeing how these guys coming together as a unit within the team is exciting,? Gottsch said. ?Our offensive linemen are humble and unselfish in every part of the game.?
One senior blocker has made a strong impression early on.
?Billy Hickman (6 feet 4-inches, 280 pounds, offensive tackle) is really going to have a fine season,? Gottsch said.
Another junior, Darrin Fisher (6-3, 270), has adjusted quickly to fill one of the team?s most pressing needs.
?We had been hurting at the center spot?the position is kind of like the quarterback of the o-line?and Darrin moved over from guard in the spring,? Gottsch said.?He?s really taken the position over.?
With eight running backs listed on the roster, the matter of who will carry the load behind that line is still up in the air.
?We?ve got quite a few backs that we brought in, and we?re going to have to have some good evaluations,? he said.
Transfers Tommy Phillips, Demetrius Cox and Seth Ramsay, along with returning sophomore Mario Nava and incoming freshmen Devin Smith and Kevin Walker have each made an early impression on the new coach.
Nava, Julius Williams and Hector LaBoy split the lion?s share of the carries three ways last year.
But with a new system, the prerequisite skills for the running back position have changed.
?A running back in our system requires a special athlete,? Gottsch said. ?You have to be sort of a fullback-tailback hybrid.
?You have to have courage to run inside and power enough to take some hits, because there isn?t a lead blocker in front of you like there would be with a two-back set,? he added. ?So you have to have physicalness and durability to survive, and you have to have the speed and athleticism to hit small holes.
?On top of that you have to be able to catch the ball, because we like to throw to our running backs,? he said.
Nava is working hard to make the transition.
?Mario is a guy with a relentless work ethic,? Gottsch said. ?At practice you know Nava will give you 100 percent effort 100 percent of the time.?
Cox and Ramsey have also stood out so far, although for different reasons.
?Cox is looking pretty quick,? Gottsch said. ?Ramsey is more of a power runner.?
It was reported on the Tabor Web site that Phillips, a Peabody native, would not be joining the program. But Phillips changed his mind, and Gottsch is pleased to have another high-impact option in a well-stocked backfield.
?Tommy was a player-of-the-week while he was at Hutch juco before he went to San Diego State,? Gottsch noted.
Another player vying for an opportunity in the backfield is transfer quarterback Jason Aubrey.
?He?s got a very live arm,? Gottsch said. ?And he?s always going to push the players around him. He?s got some good leadership qualities.?
The group of receivers is also large in number. In addition to Marsh, transfers Lance Stubbs (5-11, 190), Jay Medellin (5-7, 170) and Phillip Robben (5-6, 165) are in the mix, as are returning sophomore Matt Dean (5-10, 190) and incoming Hillsboro standout Troy Frick (6-4, 190).
?(Frick) has nice height,? Gottsch said. ?He?s young and we need to work on his footwork, but he?s a gifted athlete. I can see him coming a long way in a hurry. I think he?ll become a fine wide receiver for our team.?
Gottsch sees a talented group of 19 returning and incoming linebackers as the strongest and perhaps hardest to define part of Tabor?s 2007 defense.
?Like the offensive line, linebackers are a unit that have to learn to work together,? Gottsch said. ?We have a lot of them to work with.?
The unit has four linebackers returning to the position in addition to Basinger: Mike McNatt (5-10, 175), Jon Ramos (5-9, 190), Zach Coon (6-0, 240) and Kaleb Sullivan (6-2, 210).
Two will move to linebacker from other positions: T.J. Jack?son (5-11, 225) and Tim Funk (6-2, 195). Two others come new to the program as transfers: Dustin Brooks (6-0, 210) and Justen White (5-10, 205).
Another 10 are freshmen: Chris Bloss (5-9, 210), LaJamal Dixon (6-0, 190), Pedro Flores (5-10, 190), Clayton Kessler (6-3, 205), Michael Lahiti (5-10, 180), Timothy Sheppard (6-0, 200), Brendon Smith (5-10, 180), Michael Suderman (6-0, 205), Teal Stutzman (6-2, 210) and Kyle Townsend (6-0, 180).
The picture is clearer along the defensive line, where Gottsch noted two incoming defensive linemen: Bradley Tyler-Clark (6-1, 280) and Phil Jones (6-1, 275). Gottsch hopes that along with Peters and defensive end Lance Baar (6-5, 225), the two will be able to wreak havoc in opposing backfields.
?These are big guys that move well, and they will be very active,? Gottsch said. ?Bradley is going to be a force to be reckoned with.?
Joe Wuest (6-0, 235) and John Wilborn (6-0, 225) will both see significant action along the defensive front.
The departure of a number of elite players and the reduction of the overall roster size from more 100 total players to under 90 certainly contributed to the preseason lower ranking, as did the introduction of a first-year head coach. But both coach and team may be better prepared than those polled give them credit for being.
Tabor is slated to open the season at Reimer Field on Sept. 7 against Ottawa University.