College Sports

Strong finish leaves Lynx’s football future with a solid base

Lindenwood University-Belleville coach Dale Carlson led the Lynx to a 4-5 season.
Lindenwood University-Belleville coach Dale Carlson led the Lynx to a 4-5 season.

By the time Dale Carlson signed on as the new head football coach at Lindenwood University-Belleville, he had little more than five weeks left to prepare the Lynx for their season opener.

That’s five weeks to cement a coaching staff, five weeks to implement a new playbook, five weeks to learn his roster.

Eleven weeks and 10 games since that first kickoff, the well-traveled coach is looking forward to a a full off-season in which to make the program his own.

“When the season is over there really isn’t any time to step back,” he said. “We have to do all our exit meetings with the players that will return and make sure everybody understands what the expectation is going to be for the offseason. Then you got to get out and start seeing the recruits we’ve been talking to. Those are the next steps.”

Carlson twice started college football programs from scrach and led each to a playoff berth within three years. He was the NAIA national coach of the year in 2007.

The Lynx lost four of their first six under Carlson by an average margin of 41 points. This includes a brutal 74-13 loss to St. Francis (Ind.), which ranks No. 4 in the nation and is the only remaining unbeaten team in the NAIA, and a 69-13 shellacking at the hands of No. 6 Marian.

“They had to learn how to play a full 60 minutes, they had to learn how to do those things we were asking them to do, and they had to learn to make plays in those crucial situations,” Carlson said of his team. “We were never as strong as we wanted to be in the second half of games, but we got better.”

The improved execution reflected in the Lynx’s results, even as the schedule got harder.

Turnaround

Following the loss to Marian, LU-Belleville finished a string of three straight games against top 20 teams with each game a little better than the one before.

The Lynx took No. 18 St. Francis (Ill.) to the final whistle, eventually losing 35-34. A week later, they knocked then 14th-ranked Robert Morris out of the polls with a 20-16 upset victory. They closed out the season with a 34-31 win over Concordia.

Carlson twice started college football programs from scrach and led each to a playoff berth within three years. He was the NAIA national coach of the year in 2007.

The way Carlson sees it, the Lynx were “a play here, a break there” away from closing out their season with four wins over quality opponents.

“What our players saw is that we can line up against the best teams in the conference and in the country and if we do what we’re supposed to do, we have a chance,” Carlson said. “The St. Francis (Ill.) game solidified that in their minds and look what happened — we came out the next week and got the big win against Robert Morris.

“They had to see that they could compete.”

The Lynx finished 4-5 overall, which ties the best record they’ve had in their four years as a program.

A great season? No, said Carlson, but added that the Lynx finished a long way from there they started. It’s a finish that sets a solid foundation for 2016, which will be Carlson’s 30th in collegiate football.

“We have a group of guys we can really build on,” said Carlson. “Now it’s about filling in the gaps from the players that are leaving and developing the kids that are staying. The advantage we have this time is that we’ll have the kids all offseason, we’re going to have them in spring practice, we’re going to have the same offense two years in a row, which they haven’t had before.

“There is a lot of momentum we can build on.”

A look ahead

The Lynx will lose starting quarterback Tarean Austin and all-time leading rusher, Kam Harris, an Althoff graduate.

Three incoming sophomore, including 5-foot-8 Jacob Smith, will line up for their chance to start at quarterback. Armani Tufaga, a converted defensive back, is Harris’ heir-apparent, though other backs will get plenty of opportunities.

Otherwise the offense will remain mostly intact.

Defense will be another story, however, with the graduation of 6-4, 260-pound end James Brown, 317-pound tackle Adrian Ming, and linebacker Matt Blacharczyk, a product of Belleville East.

“Those are three pretty big losses,” Carlson said.

The Lynx will hope for the return of senor linebacker T.J. Onstott, who missed most of the season with an injury and may be eligible for an added year of eligibility. Defensive back KaRa Stewart, a junior from O’Fallon, also will return.

The rest is up to recruiting, Carlson said.

“We want to build on those freshman who will be here for four years and fill in with some of the transfers here and there,” he said. “But we do have a very good core group. I told them the other day that they are the foundation of the team and the group that is going to win a conference championship here. They have to work to get there, but it’s a challenge they can meet.”

Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

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