KEARNEY — For the first time in more than five years, there’s a sense of optimism surrounding the University of Nebraska at Kearney football program as the regular season approaches.
Last season marked the first time the Lopers exceeded the three-win total since 2011, which was their last year in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. They posted a 5-6 record last year to narrowly miss out on their first winning season in seven years.
The program’s progression during the last two years is a testament to the culture third-year coach Josh Lynn has built. He’s increased the Lopers’ win total by two games in each of his first two seasons, and the Lopers hope that trend will continue this season.
“We want a winning record in the MIAA,” Lynn said. “When you look at a winning record in the MIAA, that’s a pretty good accomplishment for where we’ve come. We are not talking about national championships or MIAA championships, we are talking about one game at a time and getting that win every week.”
The Lopers’ defense played a critical role in last season’s success. The unit ranked in the top five in the conference for the fewest points and yards allowed per game.
The defense’s ability to limit opposing offenses was a major reason the Lopers, who’s offense ranked ninth in the 12-team conference in scoring, increased their win total.
Once again this season, the Lopers’ biggest strength is their defense. They return seven starters, including four players who received all-conference honors last season.
Senior middle linebackers Sal Silvio and Rakid Hill and senior defensive linemen Hinwa Allieu and Jordan Ingraham will be the leaders on the defense this season.
“This year, we are just working together to come together as one and rally behind those guys up front,” Silvio said. “They are the key to our defense. Those front three or four really keep everything in check and get us started, and we just follow them.”
The offense’s evolution will dictate the Lopers’ success this season. The Lopers’ inability to throw the football last year hurt them in numerous games.
Last season, the Lopers lost three games where they led at halftime. In two of those losses, the Lopers failed to score in the second half.
It was the Lopers’ passing game that hindered them. The Lopers ranked second to last in the conference in passing yards per game and overall passing touchdowns. Senior quarterback Alex McGinnis has to provide more consistency this season, after completing just 50 percent of his passes for 1,364 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions in his first full season as the starter last year.
Completing a high percentage of play-action passes will be critical, especially with every running back returning from last year’s team that led the conference and ranked ninth in Division II with 268.9 rushing yards per game.
The Lopers return their most dynamic offensive player in senior running back Darrius Webb. He earned first-team all-conference last season after rushing for 998 yards and 10 touchdowns on 162 attempts.
Speedster Montrez Jackson is another player to watch at slot receiver, along with former 6-foot-3 dual-threat quarterback Cody Summers, who they moved to receiver this preseason. The Lopers also hope their younger receivers, like sophomore D’angelo Shepherd and redshirt freshman Malik Fofana, take the next step this season.
With plenty of weapons at running back and receiver, Lynn said the passing game has to improve this season.
“We just need more consistency,” Lynn said. “We need to be very successful at our intermediate pass routes, and when we have guys running down the field in play action, we have to hit them.”
The Lopers open the season against Missouri Southern on Thursday in Joplin, Mo. They will host their home opener against Central Oklahoma at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at Ron and Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field.
“Our goal is to just go 1-0 in every game we play in,” Silvio said. “We need to learn from those mistakes we made last year with letting up some leads at halftime. We are looking forward to this year and putting the past behind us.”