STORY BY AUSTIN CANNON
Drake enters 2015 with perhaps the most seasoned roster in the Pioneer Football League, and now its coach can boast some experience of his own.
Rick Fox has completed his first full year at the pinnacle of Drake’s football program and is now in his second season as the Bulldogs’ head coach.
“The second year is a lot better than the first,” Fox said. “I get to pro-act a little more than react to things that I wasn’t expecting. I feel a lot more comfortable. I hope the guys feel more comfort with me.”
Fox’s team finished 2014 at 7-4, 6-2 in the PFL and finished third in the conference. The Bulldogs won back-to-back PFL titles in 2011 and 2012.
Winning the conference again would mean an automatic spot in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Playoffs, but that rule was not implemented until 2013.
Experience, seasoning, age, whatever you want to call it, the Bulldogs have plenty. With 16 returning starters (eight on both offense and defense), Fox said that his team would respond well to the unexpected.
After a dip in production last year, the offense will need to step up its performance in order to take pressure off the defense if Drake wants to become a championship contender again.
If the season goes according to plan, Fox should see an improved offense.
Fifth-year senior Andy Rice’s return for his third season at quarterback will be a crucial aspect in the Bulldogs’ offensive philosophy this year, along with a veteran supporting cast.
Rice threw for 2,261 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, a regression from 2013 when he recorded 2,801 yards and 21 touchdowns. 2014’s leading receiver Michael Hudson will be returning as well, looking to improve on last year’s 365 yards. Also returning are tight ends Eric Saubert (6-foot-4) and Lee Snell (6-foot-5), who both caught more than 30 passes last season.
“We play to our size as an advantage as much as we can. We’ve got a lot of big receivers,” Saubert said. “We’re hoping that that matchup against other defenses is going to be advantageous for us.”
While it was somewhat pedestrian, Drake’s passing attack was balanced: Five players recorded at least 200 yards receiving.
“There’s a lot of competition and a whole lot more depth than we had year ago at receiver, and that’s just going to help us tremendously,” Fox said.
During the offseason, Rice and a group of receivers, including Saubert, would meet periodically to polish their timing and strengthen their on-field connections.
“We worked really hard this offseason,” Saubert said. “I think we’ve meshed well this camp. We’ve got a great relationship on and off the field. Big things are coming this season.”
One possible reason Rice’s touchdown number dropped was the rise of running back Conley Wilkins. He ranked second in the PFL with 13 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2014 while running for 669 yards. Fifth-year senior Gary Scott Jr. will be returning as well, adding to the seasoned backfield. After leading Drake in rushing in 2012 and 2013, Scott battled injuries throughout 2014, but should be healthy going into this season.
If nothing else, the offense will try to build off its success in last year’s final two games, two Drake victories including a last-minute, come-from-behind win over Dayton on Nov. 8.
“We want to pick up where we left off, not take a step back,” three-year starting lineman John McMahon said. “That’s easy to do with eight returning starters. It’s exciting.”
While the offense has plenty to prove in 2015, the guys on the other side of the ball will look to continue a tradition of stout defense.
Over the past four years, the Bulldogs defense was ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in yards allowed in the PFL each season. In 2014, Drake finished with the top overall defense and was third in both pass and rushing defense.
Because of the — you guessed it — returning experience, the Drake D will likely be at least near the top of the PFL.
In the middle of the defense, linebackers Taylor Coleman and John Hugunin teamed up in 2014 and acted as if they were robots specifically designed to take down ball carriers. The two combined for 18.5 tackles per game last season.
“With more experience, I think you can make more plays because you’ve been out on the field longer,” said Hugunin, who led the PFL with 10.3 tackles per game in 2013. “You know what to see. You know what to expect.”
The entire starting secondary from a year ago returns, hoping to create even more turnovers than the 28 the defense forced last season.
“That’s something we’ve been good (at) in the past on defense, but I think we can get to the next level if we start getting turnovers, maybe creating points for ourselves but also putting our offense in better situations,” cornerback Brad Duwe said.
The defense is good enough that losing two key players in the offseason doesn’t alter expectations. Interior linemen Matt Acree and Brett Park now both play professionally after combining for 14 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss in 2014.
In their place step fifth-year senior Colton Rodgers and senior Al Wegener. The two played in five and seven games, respectively, last year with limited contribution. But Hugunin thinks their addition is an instrumental part of the defense that he feels will be superior to the 2014 Bulldogs.
“We’re excited about them,” he said. “I think, collectively, we’re a better defense than we were last year.”
The Bulldogs open the season Saturday night, hosting William Jewell College. With all starters healthy as of Saturday, their second-year coach has cause to be optimistic.
“Our guys have done a great job through the offseason, managing themselves and working hard and all those kind of things great teams will do in the offseason,” Fox said. “They’ve positioned themselves to be successful.”