Last year saw some of the best individual seasons in Missouri S&T history on the gridiron and luckily for the Miners, most of those star players are back in 2018.
Deshawn Jones had an electrifying season in the backfield where he set the single season record in rushing yards with 1,579 yards, while finding the end zone 16 times. Tyler Swart had a stellar season throwing the football, logging 3,165 yards and 22 touchdowns, despite being without his top target for about half of the season. The Miners will look to see those flashes yet again, as those big names and a lot more return to the S&T offense. With a lot of returning talent comes high expectations, but head coach Tyler Fenwick isn't worried about his players stepping up to the plate.
"The expectation, obviously, is that we want to compete for a conference championship. You want to do it every year. I think this year, compared to other years, we have a lot of experience, a lot of good players, a lot of returning All-Conference players on both sides of the ball. We've got good depth," said coach Fenwick. "The expectations are always there, but I think the guys know that they're close and that they can compete at the high level, physically. I think they're excited about this year."
The biggest surprise last season was Jones at the running back position. He came into the year expecting to get a lot of carries, but he blew all expectations out of the water with his record-setting season. As he gears up for his junior season, coach Fenwick thinks he has the chance to be even better.
"I think the biggest difference that we're going to see from last year to this year is just the development in his body. He's going to be bigger and stronger," said the Miner head coach. "Deshawn has worked extremely hard at putting on more muscle, but not heavy where he's slowing down. He's still got great speed and great agility, he's just going to be stronger."
S&T is also going to try to find a little more balance in the backfield so they don't have to work Jones too hard. Coach Fenwick thinks he has some strong options to give his star running back a break after ripping off big runs.
"It's a little bit scary when you give a guy the ball that much, how durable are they? We were very fortunate that he was as durable as he was last year. We've built some depth at the running back position with some kids that redshirted and a transfer," said Fenwick. "D'Luis West is back and he has the most experience back there and he's kind of a bigger back. Aaron Moya redshirted for us last year, traveled to all of our games, he was kind of the next guy, but we didn't have to burn him. He's very strong, he's fast, he's patient, good vision. He had a phenomenal spring.
"And then Payton McAlister, he's a kid that we brought in, he transferred in from Florida Tech and he has four years left," continued coach Fenwick. "He's a little bit like Braxton (Graham). Quick hips, change of direction, great vision. There's a little bit of a mixture between all of them."
A huge upgrade for the Miners will be the return of Braxton Graham. The S&T speedster was one of the best receivers in the GLVC last year before going down with an injury. Despite missing roughly half the season, he still earned second team All-GLVC honors after catching 36 passes for 603 yards and five scores. Coach Fenwick is excited to have his star receiver healthy heading into 2018, but there was a silver lining to his injury last season. After Graham went down, other players had to step up. In response, Justin Vaughn had an All-GLVC season with 40 catches for 806 yards. Players like Logan Armontrout and then freshman Josh Brown stepped into key roles as well. With Graham healthy, the Miners look to be well stocked at receiver.
"There's no doubt. He's healthy, he's had a really nice spring and he's really put a lot of effort into putting on more muscle just to protect himself," said Fenwick. "But I think the thing that I'm most proud of from our receiving corps is that Braxton went down and Spencer (Elrod) leaving after the second game, so you have two returners and then you see Justin come along and Logan Armontrout step up and have a big year and Josh Brown step up and have a huge year being a true freshman and Austin Griffin stepping in as a tight end and being able to use him in several different ways.
"You look at losing two guys like that that have had huge careers, you go 'oh man, what are we going to do?' Justin obviously had it in him, but he was just learning the offense and so he hadn't really caught up yet," continued the Miner head coach. "Those guys as a unit really stepped up and allowed us to be successful and allowed Swart to build some confidence in some of the new guys."
It helped those receivers to have an experienced quarterback to guide the way and the Miners have that again this season. Swart enters his senior year with two years of starting experience under his belt and coach Fenwick has seen continued development from his QB.
"(Swart) wasn't allowed to practice in the spring, but he was out there watching every practice and you can kind of see him on film going through reads and he can kind of coach up some of the younger quarterbacks," said coach Fenwick of Swart's leadership this offseason. "I think that, for him, seeing things happen from a different perspective has helped his growth just from a knowledge standpoint.
"Having all those receivers and Swart that have all worked together, they can perfect things now this year going through fall camp," continued the S&T head coach. "That's a big part of our system is making sure the quarterback gets the receivers on the same page as him and they have to communicate with each other."
The one spot on offense where the Miners don't have the same level of starting experience is the offensive line. Coach Fenwick has some of those spots ironed out, but S&T should have some good competition to keep guys hungry on the line.
"We have an idea, but there's going to be some competition at tackle. Obviously, Austin Holmes has been a three year starter at tackle, Josh Thornton has played a ton of reps, Josh Elam has played a ton of reps and been starters and all that," said coach Fenwick. "Probably the biggest shoes to fill are going to be at center with Adam Echele leaving, a multiple All-Conference guy. We feel good about Nino
Schmitt, who played a full game against Southwest Baptist and played well and has had a really good spring. He's got a chance to step into that center position.
"We'll have some competition at right tackle with Ebraham Salem, Garrett Miller, Alex Mauntel," continued Fenwick. "We've got some depth there that we're going to be able to play with and figure out who the top five are."
As you move from the big guys on offense to the big guys on defense, the Miners have some experience coming back on their defensive line, as well. Tershawn Warton was a machine last seaosn with 21 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks to lead the charge up front and he'll have help from fellow returner Joseph Boettcher.
"I think defensive line-wise, obviously Tershawn coming back is a big deal. He's one of the best in the country, I think. And then Joe Boettcher is coming back. He and Matt (Mata'u) rotated last year, so Joe is just as good at that position. He's over 300 pounds with great feet and he's quick," said coach Fenwick. "We lose Ashton Smith, but Chandler Anderson got a bunch of reps last year as a backup and he's in great shape and got stronger. He's ready to anchor down that third D-line spot. Then we'll have some freshmen, kids that redshirted last year, when we thought we had a really good D-line class. They're ready to step in and compete."
Behind them, the Miners have some great experience at linebacker with Landon Compton, but they're losing two big guns in Austin Truvillion and Nate Brown. One big shift to help fill in that linebacking corps will be Bo Brooks, who will shift from safety to outside linebacker and should step in nicely. Outside of that, the Miners have a few different players in the mix.
"Landon Compton coming back, that's obviously a big deal. He's kind of the leader of the group on defense. We're losing Austin Truvillion, so we have a couple of guys who will compete there. Dontay White, Jack Hayes," said coach Fenwick. "There's some guys that we're not sure if they're going to play outside linebacker or inside linebacker. Ben Straatmann can go either way. We've just got to find the linebackers that best fit our personnel and where we can line them up to put us in position.
"We moved Bo Brooks to outside linebacker. We moved him closer to the ball so he can play a little bit closer in the run game and get into the pass game," continued Fenwick. "He can get more involved in a down to down situation."
Rounding out the defense is an experienced secondary that includes one of the best ball hawks in the conference in Roderick Chapman, as well as returning starters Vidal Daniels at corner and Ryan Kirkendall at safety. Justin Onwugbufor was a rotation player last year that will have the chance to step into a starting role at safety, as well. Adding to all of that experience will be a rotation of some new faces in the secondary.
"Roderick is obviously a playmaker. He's a guy that you can put on their best receiver and lock them down and he's going to compete and he can go up and get the ball, I think he had five interceptions last year," said coach Fenwick. "Then at safety with Kirkendall and Justin Onwugbufor. Justin has huge big time leadership ability and athletic ability, played as a redshirt freshman last year and got a lot of experience. He's kind of settling in now and had a great spring. A guy that you can really count on and trust.
"And then Vidal Daniels is the other corner that had a really good junior year last year. Bryce Stevenson is a kid that redshirted last year and he's going to be big time. Good size, good length, he's a 187 pound corner," continued the Miner head coach. "I think we've got some pretty solid depth back there and we'll get some competition going for one of those cornerback spots."
S&T also has a huge key back in the special teams department in Ben Styron at kicker. He set a new school record in points by a place kicker with 86 last season as a junior and will continue to be a rock for the Miners in the kicking game.
"Ben's been reliable, we can count on him to get points on the board when we need to. He's a great team guy, he's got leadership ability," said coach Fenwick of his kicker.
The Miners will also have a slew of guys in the return game that will help give them excellent field position all year long. Graham was the GLVC Special Teams Player of the Year two seasons ago and will lead an extremely deep group in the return game.
"We always talk about Braxton because he was the Special Teams Player of the Year a couple years ago, but I don't know that there's anyone that has more return depth than we do in the country," said coach Fenwick. "When you look at obviously Braxton, Roderick returned big returns in punt and kick return game, you've got Justin Vaughn that's done punt returns for us that's extremely fast, Josh Brown is probably the fastest on the team that's a big threat in the return game. Aundray Henley, who redshirted last year, is fast and can do that stuff. There's just a lot of weapons we can put out there."
While S&T has a ton of star players back, coach Fenwick thinks he's got a few players that might be flying under the radar now, but will have a chance to really shine this year.
"I think we're all impressed with Aaron Moya at running back. I think he's a guy that's obviously sharing time with Deshawn, so you probably won't see him as much as what we did with Deshawn last year, but he'll be a presence back there," said coach Fenwick. "I think Bryce Stevenson is another one that a lot of people don't know about, because he hasn't played yet, but I think he'll be impressive. I think there's a handful of young guys that we haven't seen yet that are ready to explode."
The Miners have a few new teams on their non-conference schedule this season. S&T opens the season with a Thursday night game before Labor Day Weekend against Eastern New Mexico, before three straight road games against Northwood, Drake and Tuskegee. Coach Fenwick is looking forward to the competition level all three of those teams bring.
"Three of them are DII games. Eastern New Mexico with the opener at home, we're at the point where we feel like we can compete. When you look at last year and we played Indianapolis as close as we did and West Florida as close as we did, we want to make sure we go in and put on a good show and be competitive," said coach Fenwick. "Those are good teams, Eastern New Mexico is a good football team and so we wanna try to get off on the right foot, but at the same time there's going to be a lot of those positions where they're going to get their first reps against somebody else. We'll have to figure out and learn from those games."
As has been the case in years past, Indianapolis is pegged as the team to beat in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, but coach Fenwick is confident that his team has a chance to compete for a conference title.
"They did the preseason rankings, so just going off of that Indianapolis is tough and McKendree has had a great program the last few years and has been right in that hunt every year. Southwest Baptist has been there, Truman has been right up in there," said coach Fenwick. "I don't think you can overlook anybody in this conference. It's been proven that anybody can beat anybody at any given week."