Tabor football picked as KCAC title contender

These All-KCAC returners will form a solid core for the Tabor College football team this season: (from left) D?Marco Smith, Ben Gardner, Derrick Lawrence, Torrey Gill, head coach Mike Gardner, Dylan Delk, Dimitri Bowie, Jared Slavens. Not pictured: Trey Geiger. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press

At the start of a new season, head coach Mike Gardner and the Tabor College football team are hopeful for what 2015 may bring.

Sixteen starters return, as do 57 lettermen, bolstering a 122-man roster.

?I believe there?s strength in numbers, and getting guys to buy in is going to be the key for myself and my staff,? said Gardner, who is entering his eighth year at the helm.

?Our roster is finally dominated by Kansas players, and I do think in some cases it matters. For us, being in a small community, it does matter, because we have some local guys that have really bought in and have been in our program for a number of years.?

The Bluejays are tied for 22nd in the 2015 NAIA Football Coaches? Preseason Top 25 poll, coming off a 2014 season that began with promise but ended short of the post-season.

Offensive weapons

Tabor brings back nine starters on offense from last year. Quarterback Simon McKee, a KCAC preseason team selection, returns for his fifth season. Much hinges on McKee?s health, as the Bluejays seek to implement a more balanced offensive attack.

In 2012, a healthy McKee ran for 955 yards and passed for another 904, tallying 1,859 yards on the season.

Gardner said it will be integral for others to learn how to run the offense and be ready to contribute if needed.

The Bluejays, who had eight quarterbacks report to camp, currently have five on the roster.

?I feel really good about the guys we have coming in,? Gardner said. ?Once you get somebody that can buy into that system and be able to learn it, read it and run it, it can be very good. You don?t have to necessarily have a dynamic athlete doing it, but it does help if you have one. I feel like we?ve got two or three guys that are potentially going to be that dynamic guy.?

Running backs

Tabor has historically favored a run-heavy offense.

Last season, the Bluejays led the KCAC in rushing with a per-game average of 296 yards. They rushed for 3,257 yards for the season, compared to just 564 yards through the air.

Tabor will play without last year?s top two rushers in Marshall McShan and Owen Cole, but do return senior second-team selection and preseason pick D?Marco Smith, who tallied 469 yards on 92 carries a year ago.

Also at Gardner?s disposal out of the backfield are weapons such as Cody Coleman (52.7 yards per game), Jonah McKee (17.2 per game) and Ben Beber?meyer (10.4 per game). Senior Rustyn Kerbs and others may also be asked to contribute.

?We rotate guys,? Gard?ner said. ?We had nine different people get touches last year. Our offense is a team-oriented style where everybody?s got to do their job accordingly. I feel really good about the chemistry we have in that backfield, and we?ll just strive to continually get better.?

Wide receivers

Last year?s receiving corps did not see an abundance of action.

Two receivers surpassed the century mark on the season. Coleman tallied 156 yards on 10 receptions, while senior Torrey Gill had 126 yards on 12 catches, earning him All-KCAC honorable mention accolades.

Senior Kaden Anderson also returns, having played in just three games last year, but tallying 85 yards on six receptions.

?Playing wide receiver for us is all about being unsel?f?ish and about being able to do what they need to do on the edge first,? Gardner said. ?Block first and then end up getting rewarded.?

Offensive line

The Bluejays lost Matt Buckman from last season, Tabor?s only first-team selection on offense. Senior Jess Croley, a preseason selection, returns from injury and will replace Buckman at center. Senior Kevin Lowe and sophomore Spencer Baalman will also contribute on the line.

?We?ve got some guys that really stepped it up in the spring,? Gardner said. ?We also signed some guys that we feel like are going to be able to come in and contribute. Offensive line continuity and chemistry are huge.?

Defense

Last season, Gardner described his defense as ?playoff-caliber,? and the Bluejays will look to continue that tradition.

?We were second in the nation in defense last year,? Gardner said. ?We were in the Top 10 in every category that really matters.?

Tabor ranked among the Top 10 in as many as eight defensive categories, giving up just 15.3 points per game to rank second in NAIA Division I. They ranked third in total defense per game (255.8).

?The key to playing good defense is being able to have all three levels, your front, your linebacking level, and your secondary level, all be able to be on the same page at the same time,? Gardner said.

?Defensively, we do return quite a few guys. We do have a chance there to continually be successful.?

Tabor returns seven defensive starters, including two first-team selections.

Defensive line

Returning to anchor the line is senior first-team pick Derrick Lawrence. He ranked 10th last year in tackles for loss (19) and 11th in sacks (9).

Also returning is sophomore Dimitri Bowie, a second-team and preseason selection; senior Dylan Delk, who received honorable mention; and junior Mike Andrews. Delk ranked 24th in tackles for loss (16) and 25th in sacks (seven).

Tabor will play without second-team pick Shawn Johnston, and depth on the line will be key, Gardner said.

Linebackers

First-team selection Ben Gardner, also a member of the preseason team, returns for his senior campaign. Last year, he recorded 76 tackles, including 61?2 for loss.

Returning senior Wayde Snell posted 43 tackles with 31?2 for loss a year ago.

Junior Chad Hale returns from injury, and additional returners include junior Mark Hodges and sophomore Greg Benham.

Secondary

Gardner said the secondary is his biggest concern. The Bluejays sustained significant losses, including second-team selection Matt McElroy, and honorable-mention picks Collin Hodges, Donnell Davis and Jason Daughtry.

?We?ve got to find chemistry in the secondary,? Gard?ner said. ?We?re going to be more athletic than we?ve ever been, but we?ve got to get four guys who are going to be on the same page.?

In the mix are juniors Mike Griffin and Adrian Brown, a wide receiver on last season?s roster.

?We feel like that transition?s going to be very good for Adrian,? Gardner said. ?Hopefully it?s something he?s going to be able to work with and help us contribute there on that side of the ball.?

Special teams

Gardner said he feels ?really good? about his special teams unit.

The Bluejays return second-team punter Trey Geiger, a sophomore who is a member of the preseason team; and honorable mention kicker Jared Slavens, a junior.

In addition, Gardner has signed two quality long-snappers.

?We actually do have the numbers to have a quality special teams, our coverage units and our return units,? he said. ?We finished second in the country in kickoff returns using five different kids, and of those guys, we have a couple of them back.?

Outlook

The Bluejays were picked to finish second in the conference behind Ottawa by the coaches and second to Friends by the media.

Gardner said the real test will be what happens on the field and how players conduct themselves off of it.

?I know (in) the preseason ranking we?re high, and it doesn?t mean anything to me,? he said. ?You never know what can happen. I?ve won conference when we?ve been ranked seventh. I?ve lost conference when we?ve been ranked first.

?What matters to me is everybody being able to be on the same page and for our guys to not beat ourselves. We have to make sure that Tabor College is not an opponent that we play. We want to make sure that we?re only playing against the other team.

We?re not having internal issues, or social issues or this issue or that issue. Injuries happen. I understand that. But the things that we can control, that is going to make the difference in whether we can propel ourselves into a chance to maybe go to the playoffs again or win a conference title.?

Tabor kicked off the 2015 season with a 45-21 victory at Lyon College (Batesville, Ark.) Saturday. Lyon had not played a football game since 1951. The Bluejays will host 12th-ranked Northwes?t?ern Saturday at 7 p.m.

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