Homecoming is always a special day on campus, but for Stetson University, Saturday’s Homecoming festivities will take on an entirely new feeling this year.
For 56 years, Stetson’s Homecoming has not included that one marquee event that draws crowds to campuses all over the country. That changes this year. This year, there will be all the trappings and celebrations that go along with having a big football game on campus for students and alumni to rally around.
The only thing that will be missing this year is an opponent in a different uniform.
The Stetson football team, made up almost entirely of freshmen, will wear different colored uniforms on Saturday, but both sides will be unmistakably Stetson when the Green and White face off at 2 p.m. at the new Athletics Training Center on the Stetson campus.
While the Hatters will not face their first true opponent for another 300 days, Saturday’s scrimmage in front of a crowd expect to surpass 2,000 fans, is the day the young players and their coaches have been pointed toward since first arriving on campus in early August.
For Hatters coach Roger Hughes, there is much to accomplish on Saturday.
“We want to give the community an idea of what things are going to be like next fall on a game day,” Hughes said. “For the players, I want them to have an opportunity to have a home game, as best we can, so that next year it won’t be like their first game.”
There are other groups Hughes hopes come away with a feeling of excitement on Saturday.
“We have invited all of the former players to come back, and we are going to have a reception after the game for those guys as well as for the Hatter Fellows, which is a group of faculty members,” Hughes said. “We are especially excited to honor that 1951 Tangerine Bowl team. We want all of those people to feel like they are a part of the Stetson football family.”
To help get things started on the field, Bobby Marks and Jim “Booty” Nance, members of the 1951 Stetson team, will serve as honorary captains for the game. They helped take Stetson to the 1951 Tangerine Bowl championship with a 35-20 victory over Arkansas State.
"This whole project doesn't happen without the community here in DeLand getting behind it," Hughes said. "I want to be DeLand's team. The Cowboys are America's team, but I want Stetson to be DeLand's team. I want them to feel like they are a part of it and I want them to take pride, not only in the production on the field, but also in the way we do things and how we carry ourselves."
On the field, the Hatters also have some high expectations for Saturday. There are some specific areas Hughes identified as priorities, areas where he wants to see improved play. Those areas include the running backs, the tight ends and, on defense, the linebackers.
“We clearly need to see progress at the tailback position,” Hughes said. “Jerami Singleton and Joe Sweeney need to continue to improve and they have improved throughout the fall. Joey Rizzo has shown some good things this fall and has some explosiveness. Meyrick Lamb has also had some big runs. The big thing for that group is that we have to get better pass protection.”
Tight end is a position Hughes hopes to see turn into a strength, up to the point where they can look at some two tight end sets.
“Tight end has been highly competitive,” Hughes said. “We move Jonathan Strahl from quarterback and he has done really well. Taylor Dunn is improving as he gets more comfortable with the position and Eric Fitzgerald has been good there too. We have to see if we can use two tight ends.”
While those positions will be a focus on offense, special attention is always paid to the guys lined up behind the center. Two of the eight quarterbacks have started to standout from the crowd, but Hughes said the rest of the quarterbacks have continued to work hard.
“I am anxious to see how the quarterbacks do,” Hughes said. “Ryan Tentler has been the most consistent in game situations and I like Jonathan Jerozal because he has been getting better all the time.
“There is a keen competitiveness coming out in those other guys. I don’t know whether that is coming from a pressure to perform or whether they see Ryan and Jonathan improving and they have to keep up. The great thing about this game is that everyone is going to get a chance to show what they can do.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Hughes wants to see more consistent play in the base defensive sets, especially at linebacker.
“We have been moving some people around there,” Hughes said. “Julius Holder has shown that he is a great blitzer, but he needs to show that he can play in the base defense better. We played more base and coverage the last time and didn’t blitz as much. We have to shore up our run defense because the guys have been a little undisciplined and not in the right gaps at times.
“We have to find the linebackers we need, especially at Mike where we need a run-stopper. I am interested to see if someone steps up into that role.”
In addition to the game, which is free to all fans, there will be a full-game day atmosphere around the Athletics Training Center. Minnesota Avenue will be closed to traffic for a Food Truck Bazaar. There will be tents and tailgating. Stetson football merchandise will be available for purchase and fans can order their tickets for the 2013 season and pick their seats.
All-in-all, Hughes wants his team, as well as the fans, to have the full experience of a college game day.
“We are trying to structure everything like a real game,” Hughes said. “We will have officials, we’ll have a big crowd, the band, announcements, everything that you would have at a real game.
“I want people to go away thinking that Stetson did this the right way. I want them to understand that a lot of thought went into this program and this is a true Division I program. It is not Florida and it is not Florida State, but it is not meant to be. That being said, I want people to see that the way we do things is every bit as Division I as what they do.”
And, of course, he wants to get those fans excited about the return of Stetson football in 2013. After all, kickoff is just 300 days away.