Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- A day after the 2022 schedule was announced, the UMHB football team took to the practice fields for its final workout of the spring. And it proved one thing: this team might have areas to improve in, but the Crusaders are in fighting form, playing with the focus expected from the reigning national champions. And that is with five months until the season opener.
The spring practices were largely beneficial for first-year head coach Larry Harmon’s squad, who had not been given a practice-only semester since the fall of 2020. Last spring, UMHB played its abbreviated five-game conference slate, before coming back in the fall with a 15-0 record en route to a Stagg Bowl victory. With several new faces on the coaching staff, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, having multiple weeks to get them acquainted with the current roster was critical, and Harmon felt the entire team took away positives, both character-wise and skill-wise.
“It was really important,” Harmon said Thursday of the spring workouts. “We got to have our spring bootcamp, which is about eight practices in the morning where kids are learning leadership, getting outside of themselves and working hard together. The unity council got an opportunity to be leaders. And I thought they did a good job of that. That was important to get this 2022 team bond together.
“The other thing we really got accomplished was the new offensive coaching staff coming in. I thought they did a nice job of implementing the offense and the offensive kids did a good job of picking that up. We have nine of 11 returners on offense, so for them to feel comfortable with it, and say. ‘This was a good hire,’ means a lot to me.”
Former Bowling Green and DeSoto High School Offensive Coordinator Andy Padron leads the offense, as the coordinator on that side of the ball. Jeremy Harness takes over for Steven Thrash, now at Abilene Christian, as the wide receivers coach. And Matt Cannata, who played under Padron at Texas Lutheran, is coaching the offensive line.
“They all have great personalities,” Harmon said. “They all have done a great job of building relationships with the players. I’m really happy with the hires we’ve made.”
Harmon himself has ventured into a new territory, after being promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach upon Pete Fredenburg’s retirement in January. But outside of a slight adjustment to his day-to-day duties, he did not feel too dramatic of a transition in his first several weeks guiding the Cru on the practice fields.
“There really isn’t [a different feeling],” Harmon said. “That probably sounds strange. But in ‘18 I wasn’t trying to change culture and in ‘22 I’m not trying to change culture. I was with Pete for 22 years, and when you’re with someone that long, you believe what they believe or you’d leave.
“You’re not involved in the Xs and Os as much and more in administration-type things. I’m still getting my feet wet in how that fits and how I can get back into being on the defensive side and helping those guys out. I’m looking forward to it. Just on the staff, we still have some work to do to gel and get this thing going and accomplish what we want to accomplish that has been set by years past.”
At the forefront of those goals is an obvious one: getting back to the Stagg Bowl, set to be held in Annapolis, Maryland. That road will begin uphill for the first month of the schedule, with UMHB battling three of 2021’s Top 10 ranked teams. Muhlenberg, the nation’s seventh-ranked team, makes the trip from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Belton in week one, and seven days later, the Crusaders will make an equally far trip to Wisconsin-Whitewater, in a rematch of last year’s NCAA semifinal. Hardin-Simmons, in ASC play, follows on Sept. 24, with that rivalry matchup coming on the road. Several media members have called the two-game non-conference slate one of the toughest they have seen in quite some time. Harmon acknowledges that, and understands the risk of opening the year with that level of competition on consecutive weeks, but sees great benefit in the challenge.
“Back in ‘07, we played Whitewater in week one or two, and went to Wisconsin and got beat really badly,” he recalled. But then we went back to Wisconsin in December in the semifinals and played them within seven. When you play good teams and programs early, it really helps you know where you are as a team and a program. And the kids know where they are.
“I’ve always felt that playing good people early is a good thing. Even if you get a loss, it’s a good loss. Because you know where your team is and they’re motivated to learn. The schedule will help our team, I think, stay focused in the summer and know we’re pretty much playing a playoff type non-conference to start the year.”
There was plenty to like about the development of the team this spring on both sides of the ball, particularly offensively. The running backs and receivers performed well in various drills, and Harmon called those two position groups “the base and foundation for us coming into the 2022 season.”
“They pushed and knew that the expectations of them are really high,” Harmon said of the team’s running backs and receivers. “They’ve answered it. [Quarterback] Kyle King is the leader of our team and he did a great job doing what he needs to do.”
Defensively, UMHB graduated a number of standouts, who each had multiple years of experience on the roster. Those remain holes that need to be filled, but Harmon expressed a great confidence in the current talent level at both the defensive end and linebacker positions.
“Some of the things we made some ground on, but we still have a long way to go,” Harmon added. “We still need some guys to step up at defensive end and linebacker. That’s where we lost a lot of experience. The kids that are there are very athletic. One thing that you can see with what we did in the spring, is we can run fast, jump high and catch footballs. We’re not quite sure just how physical we are on the defensive side of the ball, but we’ll find that out in August.”
The Cru might be several months away from the first games of the 2022 campaign, but the success of the spring puts the team in a good position for fall workouts, which begin in August. The preparation for next season is well underway, and Harmon is confident UMHB’s status as one of D-III’s elite programs will be put to the test.
“We believe we’re a program that’s elite,” Harmon said, “and can play anybody, anytime, anywhere. A lot of people say it, but we put action behind our words.”