Just one year ago, Stetson football coach Roger Hughes talked to members of the media on the Monday before the Hatters faced Warner University in the first football game in 57 years.
That day there were a lot of unknowns – about the Hatters and the Royals, who were also starting a football program from scratch.
Flash forward 52 weeks and little has changed. The veteran coach knows a lot more about his team and what to expect, but is again in the position of knowing very little about the team his squad will face on Saturday evening.
Kickoff for the game between the Hatters and Royals to start the 2014 season is scheduled for 7 p.m. The game will be played at Lakeland Christian School’s Viking Stadium. Hatter fans unable to attend the game can listen to the game on the Stetson Radio Network with Matt Musgrove, Steve Ostermann and Ryan Rouse calling all the action. The game will be available on WSBB AM 1230 & 1490 in New Smyrna Beach and DeLand, as well as 740 The Game in Orlando.
Fans can also tune-in online by clicking on myam1230.com or through the IHeart Radio app.
Warner will be providing live video and live stats from the game through the web site http://portal.stretchinternet.com/warner/.
Fans can also follow the game through social media on Twitter by following @StetsonHatters, @StetsonFootball and @rhazel_SID.
While there have been plenty of changes around the Stetson football program, with five new assistant coaches and a new class of players, the Warner program went through wholesale change, with an entirely new coaching staff and more than 90 freshmen on the 2014 roster.
“Last year, we had no idea going in what either team was going to do,” Hughes said. “It was the first game for both teams. This year, we have no idea what the other team is going to do because they have a new coaching staff.
“We really don’t have a whole lot to go on from the standpoint of what their schemes are or what their personnel is. They have had a lot of turnover in personnel from looking at their roster, so it is going to be a game of adjustments, just like last year.”
So the Hatters will go into the game focused on doing what they do, and doing it well, rather than worrying about what the Royals will throw at them. That plan worked last year as Stetson walked away from a two-day marathon of a game with a 31-3 victory.
For the Hatters, that win is long in the past. The 2013 season turned out to be nothing like what the team had hoped it would be, and there is a determination going into the 2014 season to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“The biggest difference, I think, is the maturity,” safety Ryan Powers said. “This year, we have upper classmen and that is something we have never had before. I think that will help us. It has helped us in practice because we have guys who can show the younger players the ropes.”
Reality set in for this Stetson team in July when the preseason Sagarin ratings had the Hatters ranked at No. 252, or dead last, in all of Division I.
“It is definitely a weight on our shoulders, but we can only get better from here,” running back Cole Mazza said. “We have to trust in our coaching staff and the team. We are much closer as a family now and I think we will shock a lot of people this year.”
For the team to accomplish its goals in 2014, the key will lie along the line of scrimmage. Both the offensive and defensive lines took their lumps last year, and the defensive line goes into 2014 having last three starters from the 2013 team. Success for the Hatters will start with the big guys in the trenches.
“That is not unexpected because that is the place, in the offensive and defensive line, where we felt the physical growth was so paramount to our performance,” Hughes said. “We had 17-year-olds playing, and now we have 18-year-olds. The best thing that a freshman can do is become a sophomore. That is the one position where the physiological change is so crucial to your performance.”
The guys who work behind the line have noticed a difference, and all credit new coaches Matt Diniak (running backs), Tim Holt (offensive line) and Charles Huff (defensive line) for helping those groups improve.
“The offensive line has matured a ton,” quarterback Ryan Tentler said. “Coach Holt has done a great job of bringing them forward, making things more simplified and he is making them a lot better.”
On the defensive side, the emphasis from Huff has been on building speed.
“I like him,” defensive end Davion Belk said of Huff. “He is high intensity and he has us running every day. One thing I know we will be ready to do is run. He is teaching us a lot about coming off the ball and playing hard.”
If the defensive line play improves, that will free up the likes of Powers, All-American Donald Payne and Glenn Adesoji to make a ton of plays in the secondary. Payne said he knows that teams will key on him, but he has confidence in the others that he plays with.
“Ryan is going to make plays just like he did last year,” Payne said. “We also have Glenn, who is the other Dog safety, who will be making a lot of plays. The secondary is one tight unit, probably one of the tightest units on the team, and we just want to keep it going and make plays.”
That unit has lofty goals in mind, like being the best secondary unit in the Pioneer Football League. For that to happen, Powers, who led the nation in forced fumbles, and Payne will have to continue to make big plays.
“Neither of those guys have forgotten what it took them to get there,” Hughes said. “We are emphasizing fundamentals. We have a lunch pail, hard-hat, mentality. You bring your work clothes to work every day and we have to make sure that we remember to do the little things right all the time.”
Offensively, the expected improvement of the line should allow for more explosive plays and more production out of the running back positions. Last year Tentler, as the quarterback, led the team in rushing. While he will still get a chance to move the ball on the ground, the backs should be more involved in moving the ball this year.
“Blocking, compared to last year, is a lot better,” Tentler said. “I will have a lot more time to stand in the pocket instead of having to run out. “We are going to be a lot more explosive. It is not going to be just trying to throw the ball to get down the field. We are going to establish the run game, we are going to be better in the passing game. Everything is just going to be more crisp and more efficient than last year.”
Along with Mazza, the Hatters expect Mike Yonker, A.J. Washington and Jerami Singleton to all be significant contributors on the ground. The receiving corps is also bolstered by the fact that both Mazza and Yonker are strong pass catchers to go with a talented group of wideouts, led by returners Rob Coggin, Ryan Selimos, Darius McGriff and Chris Crawford along with freshman Darian Wright.
“Having players who can do so many things, we can line up in a formation that would usually be a run set and run the pass,” Hughes said. “My hope is that it forces defensive coaches to practice everything against every personnel group and not be able to hone in to what we are doing simply based on our personnel.”
Hughes said that it will be during the first three games of the season when he and the rest of the coaches will find out just what kind of team the Hatters will be in 2014.
“Every coach finds a way to love his team during August,” Hughes said. “You find out in the first three games if you can do what you think you can do. If you can take advantage of the talent you have and how your talent stacks up against the competition, you’ll be successful. Frankly, if it is 2-0 or 52-50, we really don’t care as long as we are on the right side of the scoreboard.”
Following the season-opener against Warner, the Hatters will return home to Spec Martin Memorial Stadium for consecutive home games against Florida Tech (Spet. 6) and Mercer (Sept. 13). Season tickets for all six Stetson home games, as well as four-game and two-game mini-packs, are available through the Stetson Athletics Ticket office.Season tickets start for as little as $90 each for all six games. Call 386-738-HATS or go online to gohatters.com/tix to get information about season tickets. The ticket office, which is located in the Edmunds Center on Pennsylvania Avenue, is open from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. each day to assist with ticketing needs.