More than four hours before the start of Missouri Southern’s first football practice of fall camp, Jeff Sims was openly eager for its arrival.
“This is exciting and it’s new,” said Sims, already dressed out in his practice apparel as he fielded questions from media members inside his office of the North Endzone Facility at Fred G. Hughes Stadium.
“This is my first MIAA practice as a head coach,” he continued. “It’s a new challenge with a new group of guys. And I don’t know that there’s a team in the league that, when they look at their schedule, they’re not putting a ‘W’ by (us) and expect to beat us. So that’s kind of cool that they think they can beat us, and now we get to take on that challenge.”
Part of the challenge the former Garden City Community College coach faces heading into the 2019 campaign? Revitalizing an MSSU program that has been a bottom dweller in the MIAA since 2014.
The Lions, coming off a 1-10 season, have been picked to finish 10th in the conference by both the media and the conference coaches. And much like the preseason polls indicate, the belief of most people familiar with the MIAA is that it will take considerable time before Southern’s rebuild translates to more wins.
Sims, however, isn’t keen on agreeing with the majority.
“I don’t know that I’m supposed to accept that this process could take a long time,” Sims said. “My biggest issue with people saying that is that it’s not fair to our seniors. I don’t think that’s fair to our freshmen, our sophomores, juniors or seniors. We need to have the approach that we’re going to go out there and be at our best, and we’re going to go out there to win every week.”
For a program that finished the 2018 season ranked last in the MIAA in scoring offense (7.4 points per game) and second-to-last in scoring defense (46.4), change is welcomed. And that was reflected with an abundance of new faces during Friday’s practice session.
“The biggest stride we made during the offseason is that I believe we found guys that football is important to,” Sims said. “My job is to develop a football program, and when you come here, we’re trying to develop service-minded champion graduates. That’s what I’m supposed to produce. So it means a lot to me, and I believe this spring that we were able to find the players that it meant a lot to.”
MSSU returns nine starters from last year’s team, including a pair of all-MIAA performers in defensive lineman Levi Marlay and punter Riley Hathorn. Overall the program is returning 26 of its 91 lettermen from 2018.
In early February, Southern announced a 64-player signing class for the 2019 season that consisted of 45 signees from the high school ranks and 19 college transfers. Sims indicated that more players have been added since.
One high-profile acquisition for MSSU was revealed by Wednesday when the team released its fall camp roster. Jacob Park, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound quarterback who either started or held a significant role for Iowa State in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, took part in his first practice as a Lion when the team opened its fall camp.
Park passed for 1,181 yards while completing 61.7 percent of his passes — fifth-highest percentage — in four games in 2017. In 2016 he split time for the first half of the season before becoming the starter the last five games. He finished the year with 1,791 yards and a 58.8 completion rate.
Park will take part in a QB battle in the coming months with Garden City transfer Dwayne Lawson, who threw for 2,120 yards and ran for 1,068 as a starter last season in — as well as last year’s MSSU starter Sean Kelley and freshmen Dawson Herl and Sean Stephens.
“I think adding Jacob to our team is a benefit to everybody, especially a guy like Dwayne,” Sims said. “If you’re a guy like Dwayne or Sean Kelley, or you’re our freshmen quarterbacks Sean and Dawson, competition breeds success. … Bringing in Jacob makes all of the other quarterbacks work hard. It makes everybody on the team understand what the level needs to be.
“When it comes to every individual and position battle within this team, we’ve just got to find out who we are. We really have to find out who’s going to be our starters, who’s going to be our backups. We have to find everyone’s role and then sell them on the role so we can be successful this year.”