The 106th football season at Nebraska-Kearney will bring great change as the Lopers are now part of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA).
The team will practice daily until school starts on Monday, August 20th.
Since 1994, UNK was a member of the RMAC (Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference). During that time, the Lopers won 64 regular season league titles, including four in football.
From the mid-1970's until the late 1980's, the Lopers were a member of the now defunct CSIC (Central States Intercollegiate Conference), a league with many current MIAA schools
Head coach Darrell Morris, with 92 career victories, and his troops not only will have to face an entirely new slate of opponents but also rebuild a team that lost 15 seniors to graduation, including 11 on offense.
Those departed Lopers include a four-year starter at quarterback (Jake Spitzlberger), the second-leading rusher in school history (Rustin Dring), a left tackle (Stephen Goodin) currently with the New York Giants and a corner back (Arthur Hobbs) currently with the San Diego Chargers.
A defense with eight returning starters will hold down the fort in the early going as UNK faces perennial MIAA powers Washburn (August 30th), Missouri Western State (Sept. 8th) and NW Missouri State (Sept. 22nd) the first month of the season.
These schools each reached the post season last fall as they went a combined 30-9. In the preseason coaches and media polls, UNK came in behind this group as well as defending national champ Pittsburg State and Central Missouri (Oct. 27th).
Senior co-captains and preseason All-Americans Sam Kuck (free safety) and Justin Thiel (tackle) are the defensive headliners with senior co-captain Dex Schwieger (end) and sophomore Kellen Werner (inside linebacker) returning All-RMAC players as well.
This four some combined for 258 tackles last fall, including 23.5 for lost yardage, along with seven interceptions and four fumbles (forced or recovered).
Other defensive veterans of note include senior co-captain Justin Swedburg (inside linebacker), senior Pete Kropp (box safety) and juniors Sandi Stanback (tackle), Jack Douglas (outside linebacker) and corners Kenny Hill and Ryan Lendrum.
In 2011, UNK allowed 16.8 points and 302 yards per game while holding eight teams to 14 points or less.
Newcomers that could help the Lopers on this side of the ball are defensive ends Tyrone Sellers (U. of Kansas) and Elhadji Ndiaye (Grossmont College, Calif.), redshirt freshmen linebackers Greg Sherwood (Alta Loma, Calif.) and Rickey Minyard (Thoursand Oalks, Calif.), redshirt freshman corner Tannor Mroczek (Gothenburg) and redshirt freshman safety Dillon Loschen (Columbus).
An offense with plenty of new faces will also have a new play caller as Andy Siegal replaces Russ Martin as offensive coordinator. Martin left the team in December to become head coach at RMAC-member Colorado Mesa.
Last season, the Lopers were among the nation's best, scoring 39.5 points per game and racking up 519 yards every Saturday.
UNK will still employ an up tempo spread attack that will be led by a quarterback with minimal Division II experience.
Candidates include senior Kevin Romero (Hawthorne, Calif.), sophomore Tyler D'Amore (Tucson, Ariz.) and redshirt freshman Aric Kaiser (Broomfield, Colo.).
Romero, the backup to Spitzleberger the past two years, has attempted 41 passes as a Loper while D'Amore ran second string at College of the Canyons (Calif.) last fall before transferring to the U. of Arizona in January. Kaiser had a strong spring after redshirting as a true freshman.
Up front, three starters must be replaced with seniors Parker Jolly (center) and Nate Bryan (right guard) the only upperclassmen with Division II playing experience.
Jolly joins receiver/running back/punter/return specialist Tommy Flanagan (Golden, Colo.), along with the previously mentioned defensive players, as the Lopers captains.
UNK brought in junior college transfers Olukayode “June Bug” Akinmoladun (guard) and Adam Carpenter (tackle) to supply some needed depth and collegiate experience along the o-line.
A talented sophomore class should help fill the void left by the seniors, led by tackles Cole Manhart (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) and Pete Trausch (Minden) and guard/centers Brett Douglas (Ravenna) and Cody Wheeler (Frederick, Colo.)
Flanagan, a preseason All-American, leads the Loper skill players. Also a punter, he'll make an impact whether he lines up as a receiver or carries the ball out of the back field.
In 2011, despite missing several games in Octobe due to injury, Flanagan racked up 1,193 all-purpose yards and reached the end zone eight times.
Thanks to a good October and November, junior receiver/return specialist Matt Berry (McCook) joined Flanagan on the All-RMAC team, finishing with 1,034 all-purpose yards and six scores.
Other returners on the perimeter are seniors Adam Lehner (Hastings) and Justin Drudik (Adams Central), junior Dillon Goltl (McCook) and sophomore Dillon Schrodt (Lincoln North Star).
Finally, junior Chris Rivas (Canyon Country, Calif.), who played junior college ball with D'Amore, could be of UNK's deep threats while BYU transfer O'Neill Chambers, a late addition to the roster, should make an immediate impact in his one and only season in the Royal Blue & Old Gold.
At tight end, juniors Brett Klein (Scottsbluff) and Kalvin Zoucha (Albion) are joined by two underclassmen to give UNK good depth at the position.
While UNK will certainly miss Dring and the also graduated Riley Newcomer, the trio of Shad Bride (St. Johns, Ariz.), Ricky Trinidad (Trinity, Fla.) and Stephan Rush (Anselmo-Merna) combined for 1,349 yards and 18 TD's last fall.
And, as a senior at Bear Creek H.S., Flanagan rushed for 1,391 yards and 19 TD's to be named the Colorado Class 5A Offensive Player of the Year. The Lopers also signed several backs in the off season, including D'Andre Hughes (Las Vegas, Nev.).
True freshman Drew Farlee is expected to win the place kicking duties after a record breaking career at Norfolk Catholic.
UNK finally has good depth at this spot as sophomore Nic Stoll (Marysville, Kans.) and transfer Chris Johnson (Monument, Colo.) are also on the roster.
The Lopers have plenty of punters to choose from with Flanagan (39.7) having the best average last fall. Others here are Zoucha (38.8) and sophomore Davis Brendel (38.6) with several newcomers a possibility as well.
Finally, Flanagan (403 yards) and Berry (507 yards) are both dangerous return men who should help give the Lopers good field position most of the time.
Besides Northwest Missouri, the Lopers also host Emporia State, Kans. (Sept. 8th), Truman State, Mo. (Oct. 6th), Southwest Baptist, Mo. (Oct. 20th) and Fort Hays State, Kans. (Nov. 10th).
UNK will be on the MIAA TV Network at Mo. Western and again when Truman visits Kearney for the first, and only, time. The Bulldogs will be leaving the league after this season.