Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- The beginning of every season inevitably brings along with it a plethora of questions.
For UMHB football, ranked No. 3 in the country by D3football.com, many of those questions have been heightened with the graduation of a veteran senior class that included program record holders. Many of the leaders in UMHB’s recent success–K.J. Miller, Sante Parker Jr., Kyle King, Brandon Jordan, Jeffery Sims Jr. –hung up their cleats following the 2022 season.
But around the program, optimism is plentiful. Head coach Larry Harmon met with the media for the first time this fall on Monday, and he noted that the offensive line will be solid, the defensive front is a year older, which is valuable, and for extra measure, this might be the fastest team UMHB has ever had.
“We feel like we have weapons at every position,” Harmon told reporters.
Saturday’s season opener, a Top 25 road matchup at No. 23 Wisconsin-River Falls, is expected to be a formidable test for both teams right out of the gate. UWRF has promoted this matchup, and a capacity crowd is anticipated at Ramer Field for the 1 p.m. kickoff.
While battling a Top 25 opponent in Week 1 has its challenges, UMHB is comfortable in this position. A year ago, the season opener featured a duel with then-No. 11 Muhlenberg. The result? A 62-13 victory by The Cru.
“It lets you know where your weaknesses are,” Harmon said, when asked about playing nationally-ranked opponents early. “It gives your kids who have to be able to step up, it gives them a reality check of what it’s like to play playoff football.
“I see it as nothing but a positive. We get a chance to play a really good team. A team that we think is a Top 10 type team. We’re going to find out a lot about ourselves going into a hostile environment.”
With the first gameweek of the season upon us, here are three takeaways from Harmon’s press conference with the media on Monday.
Scrimmages provided key feedback, but Week 1 has a different feel…and approach
Though the Crusaders’ regular season opens on Saturday, UMHB has taken the field in each of the last two Saturdays against Mexican university teams. And those two scrimmages were valuable, as it gave The Cru an opportunity to go up against players who they had not seen on a regular basis in practice, as well as a chance for the coaching staff to further evaluate each position group.
But neither of those matchups were approached in the same way that this week’s contest against UW-River Falls will be. As Harmon noted, the Crusaders have been “in camp mode” the last two weeks, working on developing chemistry and fine-tuning technique.
“We’re not game-planning our scrimmages,” Harmon said. “We’re in camp mode. We’re still trying to find out who our guys are. It’s not like we practiced for three days solid trying to prepare for either one of our two scrimmages. So the preparation and the kids identifying pre-snap things to make us successful are going to be a lot better.
“There’s going to be a big-time improvement between last week and this week, just because we are going to put our attention solely to River Falls for the next three days and put together a great game plan and go out and execute.”
Of the areas he is seeking improvement in following the preseason matchups, Harmon mentioned the offensive execution in certain situations, as well as overall conditioning and technique.
“We have to get a lot more consistent on offense,” he said. “I thought we would break down, either in pass protection, run-blocking, the back would make a mistake, or a receiver would run the wrong route. That was kind of our struggle on Saturday on offense.
“[On] special teams, we were pretty good. We did have a bad snap that cost us a field goal and we had two touchdowns taken away due to holding, and just being tired, not running out feet. So going into this week, conditioning and just cleaning up our technique are the two things we’re really focusing on.”
Tingler will start at quarterback against UWRF, though there is not yet one clear-cut QB1
The first question of Monday’s press conference brought up the quarterback conversation, and who will take the reins of the offense in 2023.
Succeeding Kyle King, who holds single-season program records in passing yards, completions, passing touchdowns, and passing efficiency, is no easy task. But the coaching staff has two capable signal callers in senior Jackson Tingler and junior Landon Howell.
Both are smart, Harmon said, with high GPAs in the classroom, and both bring notable arm strength to the table. Tingler, who threw 11 passes with nine competitions in 2022, will start Saturday’s contest. But at the same time, there is not yet a clear-cut No. 1 quarterback.
“To say that I just definitely have a No. 1 quarterback, at this moment, I don’t feel like I have a clear-cut guy,” Harmon said. “There might be some ‘quarterbacking-by-committee’ until somebody in that room just decides to take it over. But Jackson Tingler will be the guy that will get the start week one.”
As Harmon noted in answering another offense-related question, the success of an offense is not placed squarely on the shoulders of one player. While quarterback play is going to be critical in a matchup against a consistently-tough WIAC defense, it will take all 11 players on the field staying on the same page in order for points to be produced.
“You have 11 guys out there, and if one guy doesn’t do his job, and it happens to be the most critical part of the play, it may cause us to be unsuccessful. Our offense has done some good things. It’s just the standard we have and expect. We’re not quite there yet.”
A more-experienced defense will be a strength for The Cru in 2023
UWRF quarterback Kaleb Blaha is regarded as one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the WIAC, having both thrown and run for over 1,000 yards last season. The junior, who stands at 6-foot-2, has drawn comparisons to famed Florida quarterback Tim Tebow due to his exceptional running ability outside of the pocket.
Blaha and the UWRF offense are certain to be a factor in the matchup, but UMHB has a stout defense to counter with. The Crusaders are led by D3football.com Preseason All-America linebacker
Durand Hill, who along with Johnny Smith-Rider, will anchor the defensive front. Both enter 2023 in a very different position than 2022, having now experienced a full season as starters.
“We’re really athletic on the edges, and we’re big and strong inside,” Harmon said of UMHB’s defensive front. “Mark Carey and Nick Brace do a great job with technique and pre-snap reads.
“[Our defense] has experience. They’ve gone through that freshman year where you’re kind of lost, but you make good time. That’s how we played last year. Our two linebackers, it was their first time starting last year. So they’re more seasoned.”
UMHB’s entire defense made strides last season with a fairly young unit, and gained beneficial playoff experience against a handful of strong offensive teams in Trinity, Bethel, and North Central. That is one factor that Harmon believes will serve his team well on that side of the ball.
“There’s something to be said for playing 14 games, and playing against the national champion,” Harmon added. “All of that makes you better. We know that we’re going to have to play really well on defense [against UWRF]. We need to give our offense some short fields to where it gives them a higher percentage to get down and get points.”