KEARNEY — University of Nebraska at Kearney football faces Missouri Southern in the first game of the regular season at 6 p.m. Thursday in Joplin, Mo. Typically the matchup would favor the Lopers heavily, especially with the Lions winning just one game during the last two seasons.
But with a new coaching staff in place and plenty of new players, the Lions are harder to prepare for in the season’s first contest. Last year, the Lopers defeated the Lions 45-0 at Ron and Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field. With the game being played in Joplin and the unknown of what to expect from the Lions’ offense, this year’s contest could be closer.
Here are three areas to watch in the Lopers’ matchup against the Lions:
Last season, the Lopers led the MIAA and ranked ninth in Division II with 268.9 rushing yards per game. The Lopers return every one of their running backs from last season’s team, including 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.
Despite their success on the ground, the Lopers finished toward the bottom in scoring. They averaged 28 points per game. Their struggles to score typically fell on the passing game.
The Lopers ranked second to last in passing yards per game last season, as starting quarterback Alex McGinnis completed just 50 percent of his passes. The senior QB is back this season after passing for 1,364 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions in his first full season as the starter last year.
With the addition of offensive coordinator Drew Thatcher in the offseason, head coach Josh Lynn believes the quarterbacks and passing game will feature more consistency this season.
“For the most part, a veteran group,” Lynn said. “I believe our passing game has gotten better since he’s been here. He’s been a good addition to what we do in the passing game and overall with executing at a high level.”
With seven starters back on defense and five on offense, the Lopers had few position battles this spring.
The Lopers had two openings — center and left tackle — on the offensive line. Although redshirt junior Lucas Troyer was the favorite to land
the starting left tackle spot after starting five games at right tackle last year, redshirt freshman Kooper Reece earned the starting left tackle spot this spring.
“He is big and physical, and he finally caught grasp of the offense and started to get going,” Lynn said.
Redshirt seniors Jack McLeay and Jacob Browne vied for the starting center spot with McLeay winning the No. 1 spot.
Senior Malik Ransom and junior Terrell Williams will start at the two cornerback spots. Williams and junior David Tolentino are junior college transfers and joined the program this preseason. Tolentino and redshirt freshman Armani Webster will serve as the backups and likely will receive regular playing time.
For the second consecutive year, the starting place-kicker duties was a preseason position battle. Transfer and sophomore Junior Gonzalez will be the Lopers’ place-kicker after showing notable leg strength and accuracy in preseason camp. He beat out redshirt junior Treygan Gowen, who also competed for the spot last year and lost to then-freshman Brian Covarrubias.
Missouri Southern’s offense
Jeff Sims is the new coach at Missouri Southern after four years at the helm of Garden City Community College where he led the program to the 2016 NJCAA national championship and a runner-up finish in 2018.
Sean Kelly started at quarterback last season, but the senior quarterback has had competition this preseason. Dwayne Lawson started his collegiate career at Virginia Tech before playing at Garden City under Sims. The Lions also added Jacob Park, who didn’t play football last season after being a starter at Iowa State. Park is the projected starter for Thursday.
With two former Division I quarterbacks in the mix, it makes the Lions a difficult matchup to prepare for.
The offense should be more productive this season, especially after averaging just 7.4 points per game last year. The Lions also were shutout in their final three games of the season last year.
“What you do is you go back and look at what they’ve done in the past as coordinators, you look at the personnel from their two-deep chart, and you just piece together a game plan of what you think they are going to do,” Lynn said.