Anticipated Approach – Spartans look to 2018 with confidence

Anticipated Approach – Spartans look to 2018 with confidence

The pages on the calendar can't turn quick enough in Nate Jensen's office.

"We can't wait to get going again," he reflected as he looked towards the start of preseason camp over the second weekend of August. "There is a lot of excitement. We're coming off our second winning season in three years … there's a buzz out there in recruiting, on campus, when we talk to high school coaches as they look back at what we've done [of late] and so on. The prospect of the new football stadium moving forward adds to that excitement."

"It's been hurry up and wait since the 2017 season ended," he added.

Looking around the field at the new edition of Black and Gold football, there are positives at almost every turn. That's especially true in what could be a rock-solid defense.

A strong defensive line is led by the likes of senior Jacob Cooper (Fairland, Ind.), senior Garrett Walker (Valparaiso, Ind.), and junior Nolan Sipe (Fort Wayne, Ind.) guiding the unit. Cooper was a menace to opposing offenses with five and a half sacks and 49 total tackles which led to all-Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference honorable mention honors; Walker, looking to return to the starting rotation after injuries kept him off the field at times in 2017, has seen action in seven-or-more contests as a sophomore and junior; and Sipe tallied 22 tackles with four going for opposing losses to join Cooper on the all-league honorable mention list.

The defensive line will be supported by a veteran secondary. Senior Austin Coughlin (Fairland, Ind.) tallied four picks as a junior and was responsible for five more break-ups; sophomore Nick Tillman (Lawrenceburg, Ind.) made the most of his freshman playing times with 28 tackles; senior Dillon Nelson (Fairland, Ind.), a regular starter in the area and second team all-loop honoree in 2017, is back with impressive career numbers that include over 130 tackles and 11 interceptions; and junior De'Lon Barnes (Los Angeles, Calif.) registered 42 tackles and a fumble recovery during an active sophomore slate.

"It's always nice to have that kind of returning experience along the line and in the secondary," Jensen said. "However, as is always the case, competition will still be important [in camp] between those returners and some fresh faces that can make an impact."

The most prominent spot with some question to it is linebacker. Graduated standouts Jack Kay and Mitch Oskam made the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference offenses dizzy with their tackle numbers and defensive prowess over the last two seasons. Junior Justin Thomas (Lowell, Ind.) and sophomore Conner Sherwin (Pierceton, Ind.) give defensive coordinator Brad Higginson and the coaching staff some building blocks to work with.

"You can't replace what guys [like Jack and Mitch] meant to the program," Jensen admitted. "However, Justin and Conner have both seen success, and they will need to play an important leadership role as we start out."

The Burt Field scoreboard saw the 2017 offensive average almost 25 points a game due to over 350 yards of production in each instance. Even with losses like standout receiver Dakota Nelson along with Jared Bourff, Eric Beard, and others, Jensen feels offensive coordinator Vince Cashdollar has plenty of options.

"[Coach Cashdollar's] biggest key will be how quickly the young guys step in and understand what we do," the head coach said. "We're going to need to rely on some new people due to graduation losses, but the talent is there. Our players' leadership is vital all over the field, but especially on offense, to the season's success."

The Spartans return junior quarterback Alex Downard (Indianapolis, Ind.) who is 8-5 in his last 13 starts; junior wide receiver Austin Roberts (Indianapolis, Ind.) who was named honorable mention all-conference as a sophomore; junior running back Donovan Henderson, Jr. (Hollywood, Fla.) who was just shy of 1,000 yards and a 100 yards per game and was second team all-league; and an offensive line unit that includes senior Brady Nyland (Avon, Ind.) and sophomore Conner Bettis (Rockville, Ind.) each of whom have seen a significant amount of playing time.

"There are some other possibilities we can look to," Jensen hinted. "We looked at some defense to offense changes over the spring, development of our young men this offseason and this freshman class has plenty of ability."

Beyond the linebacker two-deep setup, the special teams' corps will be up in the air as camp begins. Sophomore Kody Graham (Indianapolis, Ind.) did achieve 22 extra points and a field goal as a freshman but more will be needed with an opening at punter. The return area is also up for grabs, according to Jensen.

"We were able to turn the field in our direction many times due to what our kicking and returning people did [last year]," he noted. "We need to find a combination that works and quickly."

"The overall key for the team is how quickly can we gel together and how quickly they can mature," he added. "This senior class has stayed through the coaching change and bought into our philosophies. This freshman class will do the same. If we can do that, we could be pretty doggone good."