This time last year, Lindenwood University-Belleville head football coach Dale Carlson was still learning his players’ names.
He was hired into the job on July 23 with barely a month to prepare the Lynx for their first season in the rugged Mid-States Football Association, known to many as the “SEC of NAIA.”
But if nothing else had changed, Carlson says the 12 months he’s had to recruit and build continuity among his players and coaching staff will make a substantial difference.
The Lynx open the 2016 campaign with a noon game Saturday against the Siena Heights University Saints in Adrian, Mich.
“When you look back, everything was virtually brand new last year,” he said. “It’s nice to have a year under the belt this time. Everything kind of smooths out and makes things easier once you’ve been here for a while.”
A full-year’s buildup to Saturday’s season kickoff at Sienna Heights isn’t all that’s changed at LU-Belleville. Roster turnover will be evident.
There’s a new quarterback in Austin Peay transfer Darrien Boone and an influx of metro-east talent who will give the Lynx youth, speed and a solid base for Carlson to build on for the future.
When you look back, everything was virtually brand new last year. It's nice to have a year under the belt this time. Everything kind of smooths out and makes things easier once you've been here for a while.
Dale Carlson, second-year head football coach at LU-B
“We have a couple of guys not coming back either by their choice or by my choice,” said Carlson, who has twice led programs from start-up to national prominence. “What I do like, though, is we do have a good mix of players who were here last year and some new freshmen and transfers who will help us quite a bit. The thing I really like is that we’ve improved our overall team speed. We may not be as experienced, but we’re much faster than we were last year.”
One former NCAA Division I quarterback replaces another with Boone assuming the place left under center by graduated New Mexico transfer Tarean Austin.
Boone (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) is a graduate of Hales Franciscan High School in Chicago and appeared in 11 games last season at Austin Peay, though not as the starter. He completed 43 of 81 passes for 420 yards and was the Governor’s fourth leading rusher with 119 yards on 60 carries.
“They made a coaching change at the end of last season so we were able to bring him in,” Carlson said. “He really got down here early in the summer so we could go though the offense with him. He’s looked really good. He is an extremely talented player.”
Carlson has yet to find a replacement for the Lynx’s all-time leading rusher Kam Harris, a former Althoff standout. Until one emerges, he’ll use a rotation of up to six running backs. Jahleel Griffin (33 rush, 71 yards, TD) and Armani Tufaga (14 rush, 57 yards) bring the most experience. But Dustin Hotle (5-7, 230 pounds), a 2004 graduate of Belleville West, and Robby Vall, a red-shirt freshman from Freeburg also will be in the mix.
This defense is very interesting. We've got some good players coming back and it all starts up front.
Other metro-east players who will factor into to Carlson’s “air-raid” offense include Donnie Foster, a 6-1, 220-pound tight end from Belleville West who missed last season with a knee injury. He’s expected to make an immediate impact his sophomore season.
“He’s just been chomping at the bit,” Carlson said. “He lost all of last year with the knee injury and is really looking forward to playing Saturday.”
The offensive line returns from 2015 intact with plenty of youth, but experience. The group is anchored by left tackle Cruz Gonzales, a 5-11, 290-pound junior from Wood River.
“The offensive line comes back pretty much intact. We had some injuries last year so we got some young guys some playing time. We’ve got a lot of snaps and that’s the thing I feel best about. They have played together and know the offense.”
The defense also will have a noticeable metro-east influence.
Belleville’s Vinton Harris, a 6-foot, 300 pound senior, is brother to the aforementioned Althoff running back. He’ll anchor a defensive line that represents a particular area of strength for the Lynx in 2016.
“This defense is very interesting,” Carlson said. “We’ve got some good players coming back and it all starts up front.”
The linebacker core loses Belleville’s Matt Blacharczyk, but gains former O’Fallon standout Mike Cotton, who played two seasons in Northern Illinois and another at Southern Illinois in Carbondale before transferring to LU-B.
He was an all-state and all-Southwestern Conference selection his senior season at O’Fallon.
Trey Parker, a senior out of Belleville East who was among team leaders with 39 tackles in 2015, returns at cornerback. Marico Cowans, also of O’Fallon, brings his 49 tackles back at safety.
“He got better as the year went on last year and we’re expecting more from him this season,” Carlson said.
The Lynx, 5-6 last season and still looking for their first winning season, were picked by league coaches to finish sixth in the seven-team MSFA Mideast Division. Defending NAIA national champion Marian received 10 of 12 first-place votes.
LU-Belleville will have five home games this season, including its Lindenwood Stadium opener against Olivet Nazarene University, Oct. 10 at 6 p.m. It will host Military Appreciation Day Oct. 17 which it plays host to the St. Ambrose Fighting Bees for a 1 p.m. kickoff.