The Truman State University football team kicks off its spring season Thursday traveling to Southwest Baptist University.
The Bulldogs make their long-awaited return to the field after a season for the record books in 2019 during which they won 10 games and secured their first bowl game victory since 1961.
Head Coach Gregg Nesbitt said it would be hard to follow that up, but maintaining that high level of success is the main objective this season.
It has been over a calendar year since the Bulldogs last took the field in a competition after the Great Lakes Valley Conference pushed the 2020 fall season to the spring in response to COVID-19.
Nesbitt, who has been coaching for over 35 years, said the move to the spring has thrown off his internal clock a little bit.
Nesbitt added, however, that the team is younger this year, and his players are resilient and have adjusted the best they can.
Linebacker Reed McBroom said the preseason has been a little different, especially early on. This year, he said, has been more about taking care of the classroom, getting in the weight room and then going out to practice.
“It’s been a bit of an adjustment, but I think we’ve handled it well,” McBroom said.
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Typically when the beginning of the season was this close, the focus would be much more on the field action and “all about football,” McBroom explained.
With the extra time away from the field, McBroom said he was doing anything he could to maintain the shape he was in for the season.
McBroom elaborated, saying whenever he could get into a gym was great, but he often went for runs on his own and simply did some pushups and situps at home.
With a younger roster this season, Nesbitt said the coaches have relied a lot on the veteran players they have to help lead the less experienced group.
One of those veteran players is senior McBroom, who said he is ready for the challenge of taking that extra step in his development.
Last season McBroom led the team in tackles with 89, tied for the most tackles for loss with 13, and was second in sacks with 6.5. McBroom also had an interception in the Bulldogs bowl game.
McBroom said there were a lot of fourth and fifth-year guys who had that leadership role last year. He said he wants to do all he can to fill that role, particularly being more encouraging to his teammates.
“I’m a pretty quiet guy, you know,” McBroom said. “I don’t say a whole lot out on the football field, so for me, I want to be more vocal.”
McBroom added that he takes pride in leading by example in every aspect, whether in drills or small groups and he needs to get his job done first.
On defense, the Bulldogs’ roster features a secondary that includes just two sophomores and two redshirt freshmen along with nine true freshmen.
In a practice scrimmage against McKendree University, Nesbitt said despite their age, the secondary performed well in the full-padded scrimmage.
“We tackled live and our secondary really flashed,” Nesbitt said. “They were a pleasant surprise.”
Nesbitt said his defensive coaching staff was selective with its blitz packages in the scrimmage, testing how reliant its young secondary can be without an extra player.
McBroom, who is usually the player tasked with making the final call on the field, said the team wants to be as aggressive as it can.
McBroom added that the team has been implementing more disguises this season than usual in its pre-snap looks to keep opposing quarterbacks guessing and potentially exploiting a younger secondary.
Last season, the Bulldogs had one of the best defenses in the nation, allowing just 18.58 points per game and only 5.2 yards per play.
McBroom said as long as he and his teammates execute their roles in the play call, they should be able to duplicate those numbers.
“I think we’ll find ourselves a top three or two defense in the league,” McBroom said. “Right in there where we were in ’19 with a top-25 defense in the nation.”
McBroom said the team just needs to trust in Defensive Coordinator Kellan Nesbitt’s calls and make big-time plays when it can.
On the offense, the Bulldogs averaged 35.83 points a game, good for third in the conference, and moved the ball roughly five yards per play.
With the departure of quarterback Jaden Barr, the position battle began between a young group of players to maintain the high level of success from last season.
Behind Hair in the depth chart will be sophomore Chad Briden for some veteran experience, Nesbitt added.
In a written statement, Hair said it’s always fun to be in a competition with his teammates, and he’s excited to be back out on the field.
“The nerves are definitely there,” Hair said in the statement. “It has been almost three years since my last game, so I’m excited to compete again.”
Hair added that the college game is nearly 10 times faster than high school, and the defenses he has seen from the Bulldogs in practice have been more complex.
Nesbitt said a handful of other players on the offense who have stepped up so far this preseason are offensive linemen Jacob VanDoren and Dane Eggert, and wide receivers Spencer Newell and Dante Ruffin.
VanDoren and Eggert are both former all-conference players.
One often overlooked area Nesbitt said should be solid this season is special teams. Nesbitt said the team has placekickers Josh Scheiderer and Taylor Cornish, unanimous first-team all-conference punters, returning this season.
Scheiderer nailed all 52 of his extra-point attempts last season and hit 14 of his 21 field goal attempts.
McBroom said he has high expectations for himself and his teammates this season, and he wants to win the conference championship this year.
“I think the only person standing in our way is gonna be ourselves,” McBroom said. “We got a bunch of young guys … but they’re gonna get better each week, and we’ll get out there and hopefully win another ring.”