BELTON — Of all the possible outcomes to a college football season, there exists only one conclusion that will keep Mary Hardin-Baylor from disappointment.
It makes for a very narrow road UMHB must navigate to find its destination, but such is life in the driver’s seat. And as a new season pulls onto the highway, the Crusaders aren’t riding shotgun to anyone.
“We embrace it all. If the fans and everybody hold us to a high expectation, then we need to come out and play and give them what they want,” senior cornerback Keith Gipson said.
What the program’s supporters and the Crusaders themselves want is to hoist the NCAA Division III championship trophy for the third time in four years.
UMHB posted a 44-1 record over the past three seasons and enters 2019 as the defending national champion and ranked No. 1. But to clutch the prized hardware come mid-December, the Crusaders have to spend four months focusing on the daily tasks at hand while carrying the weight of a university and a growing fan base on their shoulders.
“We don’t talk a lot about national championships,” said Pete Fredenburg, the only head coach in the 22-year history of the UMHB program. “We talk to the guys more about today and how they can be better players and better teammates. But they also know there’s a huge standard that’s been set. They know what the expectation is.”
The Crusaders open the season Sept. 14 at home against Albright.
Finding a way to keep the offense churning
UMHB ran the table last season with the country’s highest-scoring offense, averaging 53.4 points per game. The unit returns six starters from last December’s championship game — senior quarterback Jase Hammack, junior linemen Steven Sellers, DoRion Dreighton and Azaviar Carter, junior tight end Tyvavion Russell and senior wide receiver Jonel Reed, plus sophomore kicker Anthony Avila — but must find a replacement for All-American running back Markeith Miller and wide receiver T.J. Josey, the Stagg Bowl MVP.
Miller ran for 1,864 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior last season, accounting for more than half the Crusaders’ rushing production, and Josey had a team-best 800 yards receiving and 10 TDs. Both players left gaps that are going to be tough to fill.
“You can never say you’re going to find another Markeith Miller, but we’re looking for another Markeith Miller. He is the measuring stick,” Fredenburg said. “I think we have some really talented kids, and we have to find a few guys who can fill that void.”
The primary candidates are former backups Olan Vining and Marquis Duncan and junior transfer Chidubem Nnoli, although Duncan — along with Russell and sophomore receiver Aaron Sims — is suspended for the first five games of the season for a violation of team rules, and Nnoli has been hampered during fall camp by a thigh injury.
For his part, Hammack seems unfazed by the search for replacements.
“Our offense all starts with our line. It’s a veteran group of guys, and they’re working hard,” said Hammack, who threw for 2,065 yards and 18 touchdowns with only four interceptions as a junior last season. “We’re further ahead now than where we were last year at this time. Us as quarterbacks getting comfortable with the receivers will help, and we have a bunch of running backs who are ready to go at any time.
“It’s different without Markeith, but we have guys that are hungry and have been waiting for their turn.”
With a different primary ball carrier and new players on the perimeter — including receiver Brenton Martin, a junior transfer from Merrimack who has been impressive during camp — the offense will undoubtedly look at least a little different.
Just how much is anyone’s guess.
“You build the offense around what you’re going to have, and we’re spending this time during camp figuring out what we have,” Fredenburg said. “We’ll find a way to be productive on offense.
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. We lost some of those little quick guys in the slot, but we gained some tight ends. We think we’re going to be able to do more with a tight end on the field. It adds a dimension to the running game and the passing game as well.”
Defense: the backbone of the Crusaders
For all of the attention given to UMHB’s offense through the years, the primary reason for the program’s sustained success — a 218-26 record and .893 winning percentage over the past 19 seasons — has been its ability to consistently shut down opponents.
Last season, the Crusaders ranked fifth nationally in total defense (219.5 yards per game) and second in points allowed (8.5 an outing). They’ll try to produce similar numbers this year with a unit anchored by Gipson and preseason All-Americans Joey Longoria at tackle and Jefferson Fritz at free safety.
Fritz had 12 interceptions as a sophomore last season, and Longoria recorded a team-high eight sacks among his 67 tackles as a junior. Now a year older, they’re expected to spearhead a defense that also features returning starters Elijah Cross and Khevon Shepard along the line but needs to find another cornerback, a strong safety and all three linebackers.
“Joey is such an over-achiever. He doesn’t have the size that some of our tackles in the past had, but he does it with quickness and incredible intelligence,” Fredenburg said. “Jefferson is already a really great football player for us, and I think he’ll be even greater. He studies the game so much and has great skill.”
The return of senior Tevin Jones — a Belton product who earned third-team All-America honors in 2017 — after a year away from the program should help plug the holes at linebacker. Sophomore Jayden Smith is currently the top prospect at strong safety after missing all of last season because of injury, and sophomore Chaka Watson is penciled in at cornerback.
According to Gipson, the names and ages of the new starters don’t matter as long as each of them does his job.
“We just come in day to day and try to get better. We just worry about making sure everybody bonds and understands how we do things,” he said. “For me, I have to be more of a leader this year. Whatever it takes, I have to serve my team and help lead us to another national championship.”
The road to Shenandoah
For the second straight year, the national championship game will be held on the edge of Houston, where an overflow crowd of purple-and-gold-clad fans cheered UMHB to a 24-16 victory over Mount Union just eight months ago.
Now, another celebration in the chilly December air is the only thing that will appease the Crusaders.
“It will be a work in progress. I really enjoy that part of it, though, fitting all the pieces in,” Fredenburg said. “Any time you have great success, it’s easy to overlook things when you come back the next year. You just can’t do that. You can’t. It’s all about the chemistry and the process. You have to keep pushing the envelope.”