KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nebraska-Kearney showed last year that it is no longer that team that you can just pencil into one of the bottom three places in the MIAA standings every single year.
In the Lopers' first six seasons as a member of the MIAA, they never won more than three games in a single season. They hit rock bottom in 2015 with a winless year and only managed one win the year after.
The program began to show signs of life in 2017 with Josh Lynn taking over as head coach and quarterback Steve Worthing leading the Lopers to a 3-8 record.
The lead up to the 2018 season delivered what could have been a fatal blow with Worthing slated to be the starting quarterback again, but deciding to retire during the summer with injury concerns. That thrust junior quarterback Alex McGinnis into the spotlight and he took the reins of the option-based offense and led the Lopers to a 5-6 conference record.
“He got put in the position last year where he just jumped into the pool,” Lynn said. “He didn’t dabble, he went in there and executed. He really got our offense the way we need to run it and he has just built on that.”
Now with a bulk of their option offense returning, the Lopers want to make the leap from the middle of the pack to an upper-echelon squad.
Nebraska-Kearney has a bevy of proven ball carriers to complement McGinnis, led by All-MIAA running back Darrius Webb. The senior rushed 998 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Along with Webb, McGinnis rushed for 471 yards, David Goodwin rushed for 428, Dayton Sealey had 395 and Luke Quinn had 295. And they all return in 2019.
“We have multiple weapons,” Quinn said. “We have four or five great running backs and I’m confident in every running back we have.”
Lynn hopes that the next step for McGinnis and the offense is to add a passing element to the mix. Sophomore Montrez Jackson gave the team a big-play threat last season with 18 grabs for a team-leading 397 yards — a 22.1 average per catch.
“With what we do rushing the ball — you can ask any of these coaches in the room today, we are going to run the football — but to counter that, we have to get better throwing the ball,” Lynn said. “We have an explosive offense, but with that explosive option offense, the play-action game needs to be a big part of what we do. That is something we need to improve on.”
The defense returns seven starters, including First Team All-MIAA linebacker Sal Silvio and his 108 tackles from a year ago. Hinwa Allieu also returns to the defensive line after earning All-MIAA honors twice.
“Moving into year three, our young men have been in the system and they have been doing the same thing for going into three seasons now,” Lynn said. “We just feel a lot more comfortable and our guys are flying around the football field.”
The Lopers open the season with a trip to Joplin to face a very new-look Missouri Southern team before testing their mettle when they welcome Central Oklahoma to western Nebraska for a major early-season test.