ROCK ISLAND — The last three seasons have allowed those in the Augustana football program a chance to grow.
This fall, those players hope that process is rewarded.
“We set our goals as high as they possibly can go and that's to win a national championship,” said senior defensive end Daniel Tjaden, who prepped at Davenport Assumption.
But those big goals start small. And to a man, those in camp say that starts with focusing on each rep in every practice and “getting 1% better every day.”
The Vikings have 18 returning starters led by a solid class of 26 seniors who have put in the time. There is a ton of experience and depth across the board. So it would seem as if the Vikings have all the tools to craft the first winning season in coach Steve Bell's fifth year.
“It's a very motivated group,” said Bell, shrugging off being picked seventh in the CCIW coaches poll. “Where we're at right now is learning how to win. We've been in that mode for the last two seasons. We didn't do a good job of that two years ago when we let games slip that should have been won. Last year we let a few slip that should have been won. Now, it's time to win all of those.
“We have some lofty goals in terms of what we'd like to accomplish.”
Bell feels as if one critical ingredient is having the experienced players ready to make key plays at the right moments. And with so many guys back, he is hoping they are ready to do just that and shine under the bright lights.
“The good thing is we have a lot of experience,” said Bell, lamenting having to play a number of these guys as freshmen before they were ready for the college game. “Good, bad or indifferent, we have a lot of snaps under our belt. To me, that trumps everything.”
The offense returns nine starters, including the entire offensive line, which could get an infusion from some younger players, according to Bell.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Zach Fuller has an experienced stable of returning receivers, including Max Uranich (44 catches, 619 yards, 3 TDs last season), Tom Dolis (24-219-1), Ethan Jennings (21-328-2) and Alek Jacobs (12-60-1).
Bobby Jarosz has drawn rave reviews from his coach and is expected to carry the workload at running back after the graduation of Geneseo's Ryan Pitra.
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“Bobby is extremely capable of playing at a high level in this league,” said Bell of the senior from Mount Prospect, Ill., who rushed for 372 yards last year and led the team with eight rushing touchdowns.
And then there is Jacobs. The junior from Rock Island led the team with 1,196 all-purpose yards last season seeing time at QB, running back, wideout and kick returner. Bell insists he could have an even larger role in the offense this season.
“We have to get him out there. That kids is as talented as all get out,” said Bell of Jacobs, who will still be used in the kick return game. “It's our job to work with him to get him out there – quarterback or anything. He needs to have touches. In my opinion, he is one of the best athletes in this league. When he has the ball in his hands, he is a special kid.”
“I'm confident in all those guys,” said Fuller. “We just have to go out there and prove that we've been there before and show what we can do instead of just talking about what we can do like we've done in past years.”
The defense is also loaded with eight returners and a number of others who saw plenty of action last year when it allowed fewer than 21 points in five games.
That group is led by senior linebacker Luke Sawicki, who far-and-away was the team's leading tackler last season with 99 stops. The line is anchored by locals Tjaden and Xavier Holley. All three of those guys are three-year lettermen and captains.
“Do we have all the perfect pieces of the puzzle? Absolutely not,” said Bell. “No one does. Everyone has a weakness, whatever that might be. You just have to understand what that is and play to your strengths.”
Does Augie have enough pieces to make this a memorable season?
“I definitely think we do,” said Holley.
However, that builds from a myopic approach.
“Our main thing is to go 1-0,” said Sawicki. “What I mean by that is every game is a victory. You don't look ahead; you go 1-0 each week. At the end of that, we hope to be in a position to win a CCIW championship.”