Photo of Larry Harmon by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- It is not often that a head coach in 2022 brings up the exploits of a 16th century Spanish conquistador, but perhaps that is what No. 1 UMHB’s season opener against No. 11 Muhlenberg calls for.
“I kind of feel like Cortés,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon said as he opened his first press conference of the fall on Monday. “[They] burned the ships, and it made his people work harder to make a life there or they were going to starve [because they couldn’t turn back].”
Harmon is absolutely right. It is a mentality starting quarterback Kyle King recently echoed while on a podcast with “In the D3FB Huddle”: UMHB is aiming at a massive goal of consecutive national titles, and the Cru cannot look back at last season, in which they went 15-0, dominating in the Stagg Bowl. The focus is on the present, and the best way to approach a task such as this is to start with the first step. That initial step comes on Saturday evening in Belton, when Harmon makes his head coaching debut and the prominent national showdown with the defending Centennial Conference champions plays out.
“We’re just taking it one step at a time.” Harmon said. “A long time ago, I had a coach ask me, ‘Larry, how do you eat a big elephant?’ I kind of looked at him funny, and said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘One bite at a time.’ To say your goal is to win the national championship, that’s a big elephant. And you just have to take it one bite at a time.”
There were plenty of notables from Harmon’s first press conference of the fall, but here are three main takeaways as the season opener nears.
Scrimmages against UANL and Monterrey Tech should pay dividends in week one
The Cru officially opens its season on Saturday night, though UMHB did schedule valuable scrimmages against a pair of Mexican university teams last weekend, with a group composed of primarily newcomers battling UANL on Friday, and the returners facing Monterrey Tech Saturday. Both contests proved beneficial for a variety of reasons. With practice having begun just under three weeks ago on August 11, the Crusaders had very few contact practices under their belts. And specifically for the newcomers, adjusting to the speed of the game at the college level often comes with a period of adjustment.
”Our newcomers’ scrimmage on Friday was our 14th practice,” Harmon noted. “Six of those 14 practices were acclimation days, and we had five contact days out of those. To get out there and play a full game against really good competition, that’s how you get better. For those guys, it was an eye-opener. It was moving really fast for them in the first half, and I thought we settled down in the second half and did some good things. I’m excited about where the newcomers group is headed.”
He also mentioned the fact that the group of primarily varsity players struggled early against Monterrey Tech, one of Mexico’s premier college programs, but fought back and emerged with a victory as things began to click.
“For the older guys, on Saturday, we got down 10-0, and had to come back from some adversity. And did we ever. I think to get us in game shape, it’s a big-time advantage that we’re going to have over Muhlenberg on Saturday.”
The linebackers unit is young, but athletic
One of the major positions that was affected by the number of departing seniors from the 2021 team was undoubtedly the linebackers unit, where leading tacklers Jacob Mueller and Akeem Jackson were exceptional. Young talent has stepped up, however, in players such as Durand Hill, who improved tremendously over the course of his freshman year last fall. Hill is one of five linebackers, all returners, who were listed with a varsity jersey number on the roster released Monday morning.
“They’re younger, and not as experienced, [but] they’re highly athletic,” Harmon said of his linebackers. “We can run, jump and catch footballs. We’re going to be very athletic there. It’s just the knowledge pre-snap of seeing the formations, seeing where the back is at, reading the offensive linemen. Those are the parts that we’re behind with that position. It’s the football one-on-one knowledge of what a linebacker really needs to know.”
Harmon said the scrimmage was especially beneficial for the players at that position, who are still working to fine-tune their mental and physical approach to the position in a game setting.
“It was great to have the scrimmages because it was a teachable moment and we were able to make some adjustments. The linebackers picked up on it, took the coaching, went back out and executed later on in the game.”
King won’t just throw the football, he’ll also punt it for the Cru on Saturday
King is UMHB’s starting quarterback, but he is also the Cru’s starting punter, at least for the time being, Harmon said. A freshman is developing in the role, but on Saturday, it will be the senior team captain, the First Team Preseason All-American, handling the punting duties, keeping with tradition. For the last three seasons, it was All-American safety Jefferson Fritz who doubled up as the team’s primary punter. And even prior to that, in 2017 and 2018, Holten Einkauf, a backup quarterback, and Zane Boles, a quarterback and tight end, were UMHB’s starters at punter.
“Right now, early in the year, he will be our punter,” Harmon said. “But we have a freshman who is really talented who I think will be able to take over the reins at some point. But with the execution of the punt and his operation time-Kyle is the fastest operator we have- he gives us the best chance of getting the ball kicked.”
King has a history of success at the position, too. As a freshman at Howard Payne in 2018, he recorded 37 punts, averaging 40.5 yards per kick, with his longest punt traveling 74 yards. And Harmon says he has seen King record punts of even longer lengths during recent practices.
“He had a punt in practice that went about 70 yards in the air, hit the ground and rolled about 90. When he gets a hold of it, he can really punt it.”
And having King at punter creates just another challenge that opponents will be forced to contend with, considering his dual-threat skill set.
“If a punt return team is going to try to come after a block with Kyle back there, they’re taking a gamble,” Harmon said, “because we have about every fake punt possible in our repertoire right now.”
UMHB kicks off against Muhlenberg at 6 p.m. in Belton on Saturday night.