BELTON — Football players choose Mary Hardin-Baylor because they want to be part of a successful program, typically biding their time as backups until it’s finally their turn to be starters in pursuit of a national championship.
For some, that process is being sped up considerably.
A rash of injuries and string of disciplinary dismissals have given way to a Crusaders lineup that will feature 10 first-time starters when No. 1 UMHB opens its season Saturday night at home against Albright (0-1).
“We’re young. There’s no question we’re young on offense,” said Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg, who begins his 22nd season in charge. “We’re making strides, but we have to make a bunch more. We have a lot of work to do. The good thing is that we have a bunch of talented guys.”
Most of the new starters — seven to be exact — are on the offensive side of the ball, where UMHB has to replace two key seniors from last year’s national championship team, plug holes left by the five-game suspension of wide receiver Aaron Sims, running back Marquis Duncan and tight end Tyvavion Russell, and fill voids caused by injuries to quarterback Jase Hammack, lineman DoRion Dreighton, running back Chidubem Nnoli and receiver Jonel Reed.
Penciled in as first-time starters are sophomore quarterback Ryan Redding, freshman running back Robert McGrue, junior tight end Gary Ruckman, freshman tackle Dakota Crawford and all three receivers — freshman Tavion Page, sophomore Cobe Burch and junior transfer Brenton Martin.
Redding appeared in one game as a freshman, running for 72 yards and throwing for 42, and earned the starting nod over senior Luke Poorman in Hammack’s absence.
“Jase is still rehabbing from ankle surgery and is still a work in progress,” Fredenburg said. “He’s just chomping at the bit to get out there, but I really want him to wait until he’s 100 percent. He’s not there right now.
“Ryan has a little different dynamic than Jase. He throws the ball well, but he’s more of a scrambler and runner. He does some things with his feet. Luke is still in the mix, too, and will play a lot.”
On the other side of the ball, the new starters are junior linebacker Jacob Mueller, sophomore strong safety Jayden Smith and freshman cornerback Isaiah Terrell, who moved up the depth chart when sophomore Chaka Watson was recently dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules.
“Depth is always an issue at this point in the year. We go through these kinds of things early in the year every year,” Fredenburg said. “It’s a process you have to go through. Some guys are starting for the first time and other guys are going to have to step up and be backups.
“Any time you lose some good players, it affects you. What we do is work hard to develop guys to be really great teammates and to care about each other. Sometimes being selfish carries a high cost. This team is going to be made up of players who care about each other. Guys who don’t want to fall in lockstep with us aren’t going to be here.”
Albright comes to Texas
Albright dropped its season opener to Salisbury 63-28 last week, and the Lions come to Belton a year after suffering a 91-7 loss at the hands of UMHB in Reading, Pa., where the Crusaders churned out 681 yards while giving up only 140.
Last season’s result and the Lions’ 0-10 record last year are not reasons for the Crusaders to get comfortable, though, according to Fredenburg.
“We have to take care of us. The critical thing is that our guys have to get better, and we have to do it fast,” he said. “All our guys have to do is watch film from this year and they can see that we’re a long way from even thinking about being a national champion.”
One area in which Fredenburg is eager to see improvement from fall camp is his team’s rushing attack.
“Robert McGrue or whoever the tailback is has got to be able to have some holes and take advantage,” he said. “It’s the same thing we always do. If (the opponent) puts six guys in the box, we have to throw it. If they don’t, we have to run it. We have to have success doing both, so the quarterback has to make those decisions.”
Several activities are planned in conjunction with Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 6 p.m. at Crusader Stadium.
Free T-shirts will be given to the first 2,000 fans through the gates, and the stadium’s newest national championship banner will be unveiled during a celebration involving members of last year’s team. Also, there will be a postgame fireworks show after the final horn sounds.
“This program has such a history, and the guys understand the badge they wear,” Fredenburg said. “To be able to play a game and see them in that environment is fun to watch.”