BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor has been a perennial national championship contender for almost two decades, and there’s no reason to believe the Crusaders’ habit of chasing the crown will be broken in 2021.
All but two of the starters from last spring’s American Southwest Conference championship game — a 23-15 victory over rival Hardin-Simmons to cap a 5-0 spring record — are back after the NCAA granted all athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic.
The quarterback position seems to be settled. The already stingy defense is getting comfortable in some additional schemes, and a few transfers should make the talent-rich program even more so.
Oh, by the way. UMHB also is the No. 1-ranked team in the country heading into the Sept. 4 opener at home against Simpson.
In other words for the Crusaders, it’s another season with a target on their backs. And nothing short of lifting that walnut and bronze trophy after the 15th game come mid-December will satisfy them.
“It’s 20 in ’21. We want to win 20 ballgames in the year 2021,” said Pete Fredenburg, the program’s only head coach since its inception in 1998. “Trying to win 20 ballgames says a lot about these seniors and these coaches. Last year was so incredibly hard. It shows the resilience and desire of these youngsters that love to play the game.”
Ten of the unit’s 11 starters from last season’s ASC title game are back. The lone spot to fill is at center, where senior Jeffery Sims is expected to replace Steven Sellers.
The triggerman will be senior quarterback Kyle King, who threw for 613 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 181 yards and six scores last spring despite making just two starts after taking over for Tommy Bowden.
“Kyle has really come into his own. He’s not a flashy guy but is a great leader and really loves this place,” Fredenburg said. “We still think Tommy is talented, but he just has to be able to throw the ball.”
The offense’s deepest position might be running back, with the return of sophomores Montana Miller (209 yards rushing) and Kenneth Cormier (203 yards) and the addition of junior Aphonso Thomas, who spent time at SMU and Trinity Valley before transferring to UMHB in the summer of 2020. After injuring his Achilles heel last fall, he’s now healed and available.
“Aphonso is really talented, and we also like Kenneth and Montana,” Fredenburg said. “I think we have three guys that are really good prospects there.”
Catching King’s passes will be a whole host of returners — including senior receivers K.J. Miller, Brenton Martin and Romello Cook and senior tight end Gary Ruckman — along with speedy Cameron Yoe product Aaron Sims, a senior who is finally on the field again after missing all of 2019 with an injury and sitting out last spring.
“I think we’re OK at wide receiver, but I don’t think we’re as talented there as we were in 2018,” Fredenburg said. “We’re very talented in the slot, though, and at tight end.
“Aaron is healthy physically. I’m really challenging him to come on as a leader. He’s such a competitor and such a robust guy that he needs to establish himself. K.J. has done that, much more than he ever has before.”
The offensive line will be the biggest work in progress. Jeffery Sims is the only upper classman in the bunch that includes Ethan Ruckman, Reuel Tandoh and Jesse Hoke, a trio of starters in the ASC title game as true freshmen.
“The line is a concern just because most of those guys are so young,” Fredenburg said. “We need some guys to step up there.”
Like the offense, the defensive unit is filled with experience — 12 guys started at least one game last spring — that should help as it continues to evolve after a few years of relying almost solely on its “Tampa 2” scheme.
“We had gotten to a point where we were playing so much Tampa that we had a harder time stopping the run,” Fredenburg said. “Don’t get me wrong. Tampa is great. We won two national championship games and played in a third one with it. But in 2019, opponents started coming on.
“Against Wisconsin-Whitewater (in a 2019 quarterfinal playoff loss), there were 13 times when they had third or fourth down and less than 3 yards, and they won all of them. They were really talented of course, and we were still physical with them but couldn’t get it done in short-yardage situations.”
One of the benefits of the evolving scheme — which was partly installed for last spring — will be having All-American senior free safety Jefferson Fritz closer to the ball. The UMHB and ASC career leader in interceptions will continue to make plays in coverage but also have more chances to blitz and help against the run.
“If we just stayed in Tampa during practice, our offense is so good that it would go up and down the field on us,” defensive coordinator Larry Harmon said. “So by going against our offense every single day, it’s allowing our defense to work on it.
“Nothing is good, though, if everybody on the other team knows what (coverage) you’re in. So we’re working on how to disguise it and what works and what fits.”
Fritz will be joined in the secondary by fellow senior safety Jayden Smith and senior Keith Gipson and junior Titus Dunk on the corners.
Senior linebackers Akeem Jackson, Mikkah Hackett and Jacob Mueller — the Crusaders’ three leading tacklers last spring — are back along with seniors E’Monte Smith, Khevon Shepard, Sante Parker and Pete Smith and sophomores Josh Patteson and Tristan Green along the line.
“I think Khevon and Sante are really coming along as defensive ends,” Fredenburg said. “We’re a long way from being dominant there right now, but we have a good nucleus of defensive lineman.
“We’re really excited about (former Temple standout and new transfer) James Judie. I think he has a chance to really help us.”
Senior Anthony Avila and junior Brandon Cunningham are back to handle the kicking duties, and Cunningham and Fritz should share time again at punter.
The return game was a dynamic component of UMHB’s national championship team in 2018, when K.J. Miller and Aaron Sims combined for eight touchdowns. Having the two of them together again should be a boon for the special teams.