Fifteen members of the Truman State University football team were declared members of the GLVC All-Conference team this year.
Despite being eliminated early in the playoffs, the Bulldogs featured their largest representation on the all-conference team since 1990 and contributed at least 15 players to their conference for the ninth team in history.
Head Coach Gregg Nesbitt says having so many players recognized by the conference usually corresponds to winning as the 2016 Bulldogs claimed their first conference title since 1988 — a roster that featured 16 all-conference players. The other seasons that sprouted at least 15 all-conference Bulldogs were 1965, 1971, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1985 and 1990. The only season out of those nine where the Bulldogs didn’t win a conference title was 1990 finishing second with an 8-1 record.
Nesbitt says he is pleased with the honorees coming from different areas of his team. Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive linemen, offensive linemen, linebacker, defensive back and punter were all prime positions for the Bulldogs.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Jaden Barr was named to the second team and the conference freshman of the year. Nesbitt says Barr was the focal point of an “opportunistic” offense, along with fellow second team members freshman running back Jordan Salima, freshman wide receiver Drew Slager and senior wide receiver Joey Schenck. Nesbitt says he was pleasantly surprised how Barr absorbed the difficulties that came with being the team’s second leading rusher and primary passer.
“You never know how a kid is really going to perform until you get out there in between those white lines,” Nesbitt says. “He surpassed that.”
Nesbitt says this offense can evolve from a possession offense, second in the conference in average time of possession, to a more explosive offense in the future. The Bulldogs will welcome back Salima — sixth in the conference in all-purpose yards — and Slager — 10th in the conference in receiving yards.
As Barr starred on offense, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Sam Reeves created havoc on defense. Reeves was “lights out,” Nesbitt says, leading the team in sacks — 10.5 — while placing second in the conference. To put his performance more into perspective, if Reeves continues to rush the passer at the level he did this year, he would break the school record of 32 career sacks set by Ernie Myerson from 1984-1987.
Reeves, who is also a member of the wrestling team, was proficient in stopping the run. He had the most tackles for loss on the team — 16 — and tied for the fourth-most in the conference.
Senior Kyle Leckrone and junior Isaiah Hinton were two of Reeves’ linemates_ who made it on the conference teams, Leckrone on the second team and Hinton as an honorable mention. Leckrone was also named Truman’s nominee for the 2016 James R. Spalding Sportsmanship Award. Together, they contributed to the top run defense in the conference and No. 20 in the nation.
Besides Leckrone and Schenck, senior defensive back Austin Zoda and senior center Brad Wellman were the other Bulldog seniors to make the conference as first team members. Wellman, following his first team selection a year ago, was one of ten unanimous selections.
Nesbitt says this group of seniors was integral in making the Bulldogs competitive again. Nesbitt says his first season as head coach featured a team that won about a third of its games and finished eighth in the conference. His present day features a team that won its first conference title in 28 years.
“It’s easy to have a great year, but to consistently be competitive is problematic,” Nesbitt says. “They really set the table for our continued growth moving forward.”
Austin Zoda is an honoree who has seen the team’s growth. Zoda is only the 13th Bulldog ever to have four all-conference selections and the sixth all-time in total tackles with 318 during his four years.
“It is a testament to hard work and good coaching,” Zoda says.
He has been able to accomplish this mostly by staying healthy and being the “student of the game” that Nesbitt sees in him. Zoda has spent hours in the film room preparing for games analyzing the opponent’s game along with his own.
Like Nesbitt, Zoda thinks if the Bulldogs continue to produce all-conference talent, then this team will continue to be relevant.
“It was a bunch of guys being able to produce at an all-conference level that led to our success this year,” Zoda says.