Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- The regular season is halfway over for the fourth-ranked UMHB football team. Of course, if the Crusaders have it their way, this past Saturday’s 38-7 victory over Austin College will mark the first third of a 15-game journey in 2022, and for the most part, UMHB has looked every bit of a national title contender, entering its Week 6 matchup at ETBU with a 3-0 ASC record.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” UMHB head coach Larry Harmon noted at Monday’s press conference.
With its next two games on the road, and now into the heart of conference play, Harmon told reporters that the road ahead will not necessarily be a smooth journey, as the effects of the season begin to surface. But perhaps some testing is necessary for a team that is aiming at another deep postseason run.
“The question I threw out in front of the team yesterday was, ‘Where do we want to go?’ Because now it starts to get hard, and I don’t necessarily mean just your opponents, but the grind,” Harmon said. “It’s not fresh anymore. It’s not new. People are banged up.
“There is a mental toughness and a true sense of love for the grind of what is fixing to hit these guys. It’s the senior leadership, it’s the leadership of this team, that needs to carry us through this. That’s where we are and time is going to tell.”
With UMHB looking ahead to its sixth game of the season, here are three takeaways from Harmon’s Oct. 3 press conference.
Improving and enhancing competitive maturity is a focus moving ahead in the season
One of the things that Harmon mentioned postgame on Saturday, and brought up in the opening minutes of Monday’s press conference as well, was the “competitive maturity” and leadership of his team. It is a current area in which he and the coaching staff are seeking improvement, as they gear up for the second half of the regular season that Harmon spoke of above.
“My biggest concern is, I still worry about our competitive maturity and leadership,” he said. “That’s what we’re working on right now.
“What I mean by getting [our competitive maturity and leadership] better, is those guys have to start handling some of the adversity that we’re dealing with a little bit better. When a coach comments to them about practice dragging or this isn’t right, how they respond to that coach is what I’m talking about. That’s more important to me because if they react to it in the right way, the rest of the team is going to see that [and follow].”
In addition to the leadership, the number of personal fouls that UMHB has accumulated over the past two games plays into that same topic. Picking up penalties on late hits, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, and other such calls goes against the culture that has gained the program respect nationally.
“We had four personal fouls Saturday, and I think we had six against Hardin-Simmons the week before,” Harmon said. “In my opinion it’s just not part of the culture of what we do. We’ve got to get guys to understand that we don’t need to be doing that. We’re the defending national champs. We got our destiny in our own hands. All we have to do is go out and play hard between the whistles and everything else will take care of itself.”
“He’s a special guy”
In a historic moment on Saturday, K.J. Miller became the NCAA D-III all-time leader in career punt return yardage. His 49-yard return before halftime allowed him to eclipse the previous mark of 1,550 yards, set in 2001, by Muhlenberg’s Joshua Carter. He added a 16-yard return midway through the third quarter, and is now just 176 yards short of the NCAA record in that category for all divisions.
Editor’s Note: In addition to his four years at UMHB, Miller also played one season at ETBU in 2017. During that season, he tallied 265 punt return yards. The UMHB athletics department confirmed Thursday that this does make Miller the NCAA record holder across all divisions of the NCAA. To do it at one school, however, as previous record holder Wes Welker did at Texas Tech, he needs 176 more yards.
Harmon was asked what Miller means to the program and about the senior’s record-setting return on Saturday. .
“I told him I was taking timeouts trying to get them to punt the ball right at the end of the first half,” Harmon said. “I told him, ‘KJ, this is going to be your last opportunity, so you better go score because you won’t return any punts in the second half.’ He took that to heart.”
Though he did not score, he brought the ball past midfield and up to the AC 14-yard line before being tackled, weaving around blocks and defenders as he sprinted up the field.
“He’s a special guy,” Harmon added. “Everybody knows that he is special. His attitude and love for his team is unbelievable. I hope our guys enjoy coaching him, because people like him don’t come around very often.”
A look at the Tigers
Saturday’s matchup at ETBU will be UMHB’s third road contest of the season, and the second in ASC play. The Tigers are 2-2 overall, with wins over McMurry and Southwestern, but don’t let that fool you. Based on Harmon’s assessment, ETBU has athleticism to match the Crusaders, meaning UMHB will be looking deeper than the surface, looking to draw out success from the intangible qualities of intensity and grind. Also notable, the last time UMHB ventured out to Marshall, in the spring of 2021, ETBU nearly shocked the Cru, leading 28-27 with 7:27 in the fourth quarter. Anthony Avila came through with a go-ahead field goal at the 2:12 mark, and the defense then kept the Tigers out of field goal range.
Many of the key pieces from that team have since graduated, but ETBU has also played just one home game this season: last week’s 31-10 win over Southwestern. With ETBU playing on its home field for the second straight week, the Cru will be expecting the Tigers’ best in the 1 p.m. contest.
“East Texas Baptist has always been really athletic on both sides of the ball and on special teams,” Harmon said. “They have a group of receivers that are talented, and a couple running backs who run the ball really well. Defensively, they have a really good defensive line that can get pressure with just sitting four.
“So the challenges for our offense are going to be protecting Kyle, still being able to stay balanced with the run and pass. For us defensively, it’s going to be not letting [ETBU] stay two-dimensional [and] run it or throw it when they want. We’ve got to make them one-dimensional and not give up big plays when they are throwing the ball.”
Through the air, ETBU quarterback Cornelius Banks has completed 61 percent of his 101 passing attempts, with five touchdowns and three interceptions. He has a solid group of receivers to throw to, led by Kaleb O’Bryant, a senior who has 18 receptions. Former Crusader running back Melek Hamilton, in his first season as a Tiger, leads the team in rushing, with 224 yards. And linebacker Joey Johnson was named the ASC Defensive Player of the Week, after tallying 10 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss against Southwestern.
Said Harmon: “Athletically, they’ll probably be able to match our athletic ability, so it’s just going to come down to assignment football and technique.”
UMHB’s matchup at ETBU kicks off at 1 p.m. from Ornelas Stadium in Marshall on Oct. 8. Tickets can be purchased here.