UMHB's first practice

UMHB defensive tackle Joey Longoria works through a drill Saturday during the Crusaders’ first practice of the season in Belton.

BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor is the reigning national champion, a moniker it celebrated throughout the offseason but one the Crusaders know will mean little when foot meets leather to kick off the 2019 season.

So on a warm, muggy morning Saturday, UMHB — winner of two national titles over the last three years — was right back at Square 1 in hopes of designing a path to the NCAA Division III championship game for the fourth consecutive season.

“It’s a process every week and we go through it every year,” said junior safety Jefferson Fritz, a first-team preseason All-American. “You have to take it week by week and day by day. When it all adds up, hopefully we’ll be in the national championship game again.”

The first day of workouts featured 202 players split into two practices, the first one for newcomers and the second for a group of 74 returners and transfers. The Crusaders return six starters on each side of the ball from last year’s undefeated team but will be without the services of sophomore receiver/kick returner Aaron Sims, junior running back Marquis Duncan and junior tight end Tyvavion Russell for the first five games of the season after the trio was suspended because of a violation of team rules.

“I want them to practice. I want them to be a glowing example of what it takes to be a Crusader and get on the field,” head coach Pete Fredenburg said of the suspended players. “They’re obviously very disappointed, but they’re going to do everything they can to regain their teammates’ trust.”

Also up in the air is the status of starting quarterback Jase Hammack for the season opener Sept. 14 at home against Albright. The senior underwent surgery during the offseason to repair ankle and shoulder injuries and continues to work his way back.

“I’ve had to recover, but the process went well. The trainers worked with me here all summer to build my strength back up,” said Hammack, who threw for 2,065 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. “It feels good to be back out here with my teammates.”

That being said, Fredenburg doesn’t plan on rushing the quarterback into action.

“Jase might still be a little bit unsure of his ankle,” he said. “We’re going to bring him along cautiously and see how he does.”

The Crusaders must replace all three starting linebackers, and the return of senior Tevin Jones after a year away from the team should aid that process.

The other glaring holes are at wide receiver — after Sims’ suspension and K.J. Miller’s decision not to return to school — and running back. Duncan’s suspension means Olan Vining is the top returning rusher after running for 267 yards last season, but the arrival of Chidubem Nnoli should be a boon for the rushing attack.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior transfer from Linfield ran for 1,996 yards over past last two years and was the Northwest Conference offensive player of the year last season.

“What I really liked was that (Nnoli) came in — after I had just met him — and said, ‘Coach, I want to talk to you. I am not a flighty guy, and I want you to know that. I work hard and do all the things necessary, and I’m going earn the trust of the coaches and my teammates,’” Fredenburg said. “I thought it was a great statement.”

The Crusaders know a thing or two about making a statement. They are 44-1 over the last three seasons but are more intent on looking ahead rather than in their rearview mirror.

“We know what it takes to get there for sure, and we’re not focused on last year,” Hammack said. “We’re focused on the first scrimmage, then it’s Albright, and it carries on. We’re focusing on ourselves right now so that we can be the best that we can be because that will take us where we want to go.”

NOTE: UMHB continues fall camp with practices every day leading up to scrimmages next Friday and Saturday against a pair of teams from Mexico. “Everything is so compressed because we had to start practice later because we don’t play until Week 2, but Mexico is in a hurry because they play a game before we do. We’re going to be rushed,” Fredenburg said.