KEARNEY — Last year’s 5-6 record was a notable improvement for the University of Nebraska at Kearney football team. It was the first time the Lopers surpassed the three-win mark in a season since 2011 and continued the program’s rise under coach Josh Lynn.
The Lopers will try to exceed last year’s win total this season. With 46 upperclassmen on the roster and 14 starters back from last year’s team, the Lopers eased into the season’s first practice Monday morning with an added confidence.
"We brought in 20 to 25 newcomers, and they’re playing catchup," Lynn said. "But for the most part, we are an older team, and I think it was very evident today. We got a lot of reps in a short amount of time."
This fall camp marks the first time in Lynn’s three years at UNK that there hasn’t been a quarterback battle. Redshirt senior Alex McGinnis started all 11 games for the Lopers last season and threw for 1,364 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also ranked second on the team in carries (157), rushing yards (471) and rushing TDs (six).
Despite leading the MIAA in rushing with 268.9 yards per game, the Lopers’ passing game was mediocre at best, ranking second-last with 128.6 yards per game last season.
McGinnis completed just 50 percent of his passes last year. He will have to improve, especially on play-action plays, in order for the Lopers to have success this season.
"I don’t think I was consistent enough in the passing game," McGinnis said. "There were some games we all want back, but I’m trying to put that all behind me and use it as learning material."
The return of three starting offensive linemen will help the Lopers’ offense. Redshirt senior Josh Stoltenberg is a three-year starter at left guard, redshirt senior Kolin Kenton is a two-year starter at right guard and redshirt junior Corey Hoelck is back at right tackle after missing the final five games last season due an injury.
Redshirt junior Lucas Troyer, who filled in for the injured Hoelck last season, will slide over to left tackle. Redshirt senior Jack McLeay and redshirt sophomore Collin Brown are in the mix for the starting center spot, Lynn said.
Lynn is high on redshirt freshman Kooper Reece. The Lopers also added graduate transfer Jake Grant from Division I University of Utah in the offseason, and he will compete for playing time.
"You have a lot of 21-, 22-, 23-year-olds, and they have been playing a lot of ball," said McGinnis on the offensive linemen. "Just knowing and seeing and just being familiar with what defenses are going to throw at you and the physicality it takes to win in the conference (is key)."
The Lopers have high expectations after last season and hope to produce the program’s first winning season since 2011.
Quarterback play and the acclimation of the Lopers’ two new defensive cornerbacks, who transferred from the junior college ranks, will be critical if they want to accomplish their goals.
The Lopers placed ninth in this season’s 12-team preseason coaches and media polls. They will open the season against Missouri Southern at 6 p.m. Sept. 5 in Joplin, Mo.
"That’s not where we want to be, and I don’t think that’s where we are at leading into the conference," Lynn said. "However, we haven’t done anything to prove that to this point. It’s pretty good fuel for the fire."