Missouri Southern coach Daryl Daye says that building a winning football program is a process.
Well, the Lions had a nice start to that process, finishing 6-5 in Daye’s first season as head coach. It was the program’s first winning season since 2007 and the third winning record in the past 16 seasons.
“Winning is precious,” Daye said. “That’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to win.
“It’s a process. Usually with taking over programs, they start with not believing to kind of believing to really believing. That third phase is when they walk out on that field and they expect to win. That comes from a lot of depth on your team, years of recruiting and having really quality leadership.”
In some ways, however, the process is starting over for the Lions. Missouri Southern does boast some veterans with five returning starters on offense and seven on defense, but it also welcomes more than 60 new players to the roster and several new assistant coaches.
“I looked around the coaching staff room the other day, and I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know a lot of these guys just yet,’” Daye said at MIAA Media Day earlier this month. “A lot of them were here this spring, though. And, of course, I’ve known a lot of them over the years. But it’s new. There’s a new mentality with a lot of them. There’s a new approach to coaching. And these kids need to learn and adapt to new coaches. We have 64 new kids coming in. It’s all going to make for an interesting next month on evaluations, getting people in the right positions and teaching them schemes.”
Just a week before Missouri Southern’s opening game against Central Oklahoma at 6 p.m. Thursday at Fred G. Hughes Stadium, the Lions were still working through a lot of the new. Daye said after Wednesday’s practice that many of the starting spots on offense and defense are still undetermined.
“There are a lot of positions still up for grabs,” Daye said. “It’s very competitive. We have close to 40 junior college transfers, and they’re all battling it out. We’re just trying to determine who our front four will be on the D-line. There are still some linebacker questions. There are still some secondary challenges. A lot of the decisions will probably be made up until game time.”
If one thing is for certain, it’s that the Lions are going to run the football.
In Missouri Southern’s first season running the triple option, the offense set school records for rushing yardage (3,043) and rushing attempts (581), while tying the school record for rushing touchdowns (32) in a season. The offense also set marks for highest-average gain via the rush with 5.2 yards per carry, as well as in a single game where the Lions averaged 9.2 yards in a win over South Dakota Mines.
The Lions boasted the best rushing offense in the MIAA with 276.6 yards per game. As more and more conference teams go to the air, Missouri Southern has focused on the ground.
But that has as much to do with defense as it does offense.
“It’s ball control,” Daye said. “If you look at the majority of our games, we had the time of possession swing in our favor and that’s critical for us. We’re trying to shorten the game and keep our defense off the field. We want them to play 50 or 60 plays a game instead of 70 or 80. We’re still not at the point where we have the depth to play 80 plays a game on defense. Until that time comes, we’re going to stay ball control, run the football and teams will have to deal with the triple option.”
Daye has not given any official word on who will be directing that triple option offense. Sophomore Jay McDowell and junior college transfers Ty’Quan Hayes and Detavis Buggs have been competing throughout fall camp.
Daye said he feels confident with any of the three at quarterback, but that McDowell has held a slight edge since spring drills.
McDowell (6-2, 190) completed 8 of 15 passes for 152 yards and rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown as a reserve last season.
The Lions graduated their top four leading rushers from last season, but do return senior Travis Hurd (5-8, 180). As a junior, Hurd ran for 275 yards and three touchdowns on only 45 carries, which was good for a 6.1 yards per carry. Hurd also averaged 23.9 yards on kick returns, including a 90-yard touchdown.
Daye said Hurd is an elusive runner.
“He’s a guy you can’t hardly tackle in a phone booth,” Daye said. “He’s a very good player, and he’s great on special teams.”
Anthony Thayer, Giresse Forchu and J.J. Jones are back after limited action last season.
The running game will be led by a veteran offense line, which includes four returning starters in center Caleb Benner (6-0, 265, jr.), guard Austin Wolfe (6-0, 282, sr.) and tackles Will Flores (5-11, 255, sr.) and Beau Bonous (6-6, 250, jr.).
Daye said the Lions boast good depth on the offensive line as several players are competing for starting roles.
“We feel our offensive line is really our strong suit,” Daye said. “We’re working very hard on our cut blocks. That’s a key to our success, to keep them on the ground. They’re looking very good.”
Will Cuffee is the Lions’ leading returning receiver with four catches for 44 yards in 2012.
H.T. Kinney and Bob Howell will be co-offensive coordinators.
The Lions return seven players who started on defense last season, but they lose one big starter — figuratively and literally.
Brandon Williams, a 6-3, 335-pound defensive tackle who was named NCAA Division II Defensive Player of the Year last season, is gone after being selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the third round of the NFL Draft this past offseason.
Without the hulking Williams up front, the Lions will turn to a speed-oriented attacking scheme under new defensive coordinator Wally Ake.
“It’s a pressure-style defense,” Daye said. “It’s built on our ability to run the football. We have a lot of quality athletes on the field with this style of defense. It’s always how good you are up front first. We just got to be able to get pressure with our front and then be able to run to the ball on the back end and tackle well.”
Senior Gatlin Ridgway returns at linebacker after recording 57 tackles last season. Senior Demon Haire and junior Breon Matlock lead a experienced secondary.
“I’m anticipating him making a big impact,” Ake said of Haire in the secondary. “Because he’s kind of the anchor. He’s the senior. He’s the one with the experience.”
Ryon Phillips (6-2, 230) and Paco Varol (6-3, 270) return to the defensive line. Phillips registered four sacks and nine quarterback hurries, earning an all-MIAA honorable mention.
“He’s the most consistent one we got,” Daye said. “He’s a leader. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s one who leads by example. He does things exactly how you want him to. He’s probably not the fastest guy on our defense. But he makes up for it with his energy. He’s in the right spot and doing the right things. He’ll make plays that maybe you wouldn’t think he’d make athletically, because he’s just doing the right thing. He has great ball vision and great football sense.”
Haire said the defense is picking up on the changes and is growing as a unit
“It’s been a good time,” he said. “We communicate well together, and we’ve come together as one.”
The Lions return punters Dominick O’Neill and Stewart Quinn. Kicker Sean Seefeldt transfers to Missouri Southern from Division II’s Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. Benner and Ridgway are options at long snapper. Hurd is a dangerous return man.