Bigger, stronger, faster and deeper.
Will it be enough for McPherson College’s football team to rise from the ashes like a phoenix?
To use a professional sports term, the Bulldogs were an expansion team in 2015 in Paul Mierkiewicz’s first year as head coach. When he walked on to the field for the first spring practice of that season, it looked more like a backyard pickup game as there were just a smattering of players left from the previous regime, sometimes not enough to go 11-on-11.
Mierkiewicz’s first year, predictably, resulted in no wins. He was fielding what was basically a junior varsity team against other team’s varsities, as half his starters were freshmen.
Last year, with a full offseason of recruiting, the Bulldogs were slightly better record-wise at 1-10. But it was a deceiving 1-10 as six of the 10 losses were by 10 points or less, including the final game of the season when Bethany kicked a last-play field goal for an 18-15 walk-off victory, which was a microcosm of the season.
Now with back-to-back solid recruiting classes, Mierkiewicz won’t use the excuse that his team is too young — not that he did during his first two trying years as never once did he make excuses as his assessments were always honestly blunt and spot-on. Some of those freshmen starters of 2015 are now three-year starters and there’s been an upgrade in talent with some newcomers who will be on the field immediately.
The Bulldogs wrapped up their first week of workouts with a spirited scrimmage on Saturday and Mierkiewicz has his finger on the cautiously optimistic button.
“I think it went real good,” he said of the first week. “I think what we wanted to get accomplished was extremely good. We’ve got a lot of wrinkles to iron out. We got some young guys coached and we got some veterans coached up from the spring. We’re head and shoulders ahead of last year. I don’t know if there’s a team in the country that went through the whole first week of camp without having a guy quit. Our guys are 100 percent bought in.”
What has been evident so far is the Bulldogs’ offensive explosiveness. There’s few combinations better than quarterback Ed Crouch and running back Tyrone Campbell, who will be challenging for KCAC first-team honors.
Crouch has a howitzer arm and is amazingly gifted as a runner. He provided some magical moments last year, turning potential minus plays into positive yardage. With a full year under his belt, his decision-making improvement will perhaps be his greatest asset.
Campbell conjures up memories of the legendary Gerald Henderson with his ability to knife through the smallest of openings. He’s not a burner, but an effective north-south runner who seldom has minus plays.
What will help Campbell this year is that Mierkiewicz has beefed up the depth at the position. Campbell was worn out by the end of last season, but there’s some new backs on board who will provide fresh legs.
The receiving corps is looking solid as there are several returnees. The main question mark is how a somewhat light offensive line can hold up, as Mac probably is more undersized up front than the average KCAC team.
The defense has so many newcomers that only time will tell. Mierkiewicz is looking for leaders and playmakers, but the unit appears to be far more physically imposing than the defense of the last two years. How well it defends against the pass will probably dictate the unit’s success.
“I thought we tackled a lot better than we have in the past,” Mierkiewicz said of the first week. “They are all playing hard and playing as a unit. We’ll finish up with evaluations and get some depth and roles established.”
Mac’s first game is Sept. 2 when it hosts Texas Wesleyan. The school has not had football for nearly 75 years and used 2016 as a “redshirt” year as it’s trying to build numbers. According to the roster on the school’s website, the Rams will have nearly 100 players, most of them from football-crazy Texas.
“We don’t know a lot about them, but we know enough to start putting a plan together for them,” Mierkiewicz said.