BELOIT - Head coach Seth Duerr's mission this season will be to make certain his Beloit College football team doesn't just spin its wheels the way it did last season.
The Buccaneers (1-9) needed a 31-0 rout of Grinnell in their season finale just to avoid a winless season. Still, losing just two starters to graduation, there was reasons for some optimism about 2018.
In the months that followed, though, a number of other players decided to bolt the program, including No. 1 quarterback Ben Sposito. Their loss, plus a small-sized recruiting class, puts a lot more question marks into the season prospectus as about 50 players arrive on campus Saturday.
"Our deal is that we have to focus on getting better," Duerr said. "There are things outside our control. We lost some guys who could play for us. You could dwell on those all day, but that's not going to get us anywhere. Whatever situation we're in, we have to get better. Improvement is key for this team as we try to bring them together.
"My first year we had 30 guys and they accomplished quite a bit because they came together and worked hard. There is no reason we can't be that sort of team. We need to have improvement in the win-column, but it's also important that we know we're a better team than we were a year ago. I feel we can legitimately be a five-win team."
Beloit's 2018 roster will include 18 freshmen.
"We like our incoming class, but it's not huge," Duerr said. "It's the smallest one we've had since I've been here, but there are definitely some impact guys in there."
Locally, Duerr did land a pair of Beloit Turner graduates in do-it-all Juan Reyes and lineman Chase Larsen. Both could push their way into the lineup early in their careers. Reyes played receiver, defensive back, even quarterback for the Trojans. He also punted and kicked for the Trojans. He ended up with 477 yards receiving and 172 rushing as a senior to go along with 92 tackles and two interceptions from his safety position.
"Right now we plan on using him at receiver and he'll also challenge to kick and punt," Duerr said. "He's going to help in some way. He's an athletic kid and he's going to find his way on the field some way. Chase played mainly on the offensive side for Turner, but we're going to use him at defensive end starting out."
Duerr said he has tried to bring in more local players, but "it's just hit and miss."
"Last year we recruited several (Beloit) Memorial and Clinton guys and they just wanted to get outside the area," the coach said. "Sometimes you have guys who want to stay close to home and then you have other guys who want to experience something new. We're trying to make it a priority. We're getting out into the local schools and our 7-on-7 camps have grown over the summer. Hopefully all those things pay off more and more as guys see our campus. The more we can win, the more it will help, too."
If the Bucs have success, they'll need their experienced players to produce. That starts with all-conference tackle Jake Karlicek.
"He's our best player and leader," Duerr said. "He's played every game and he's been all-conference every year. He is by far our toughest and most dedicated player, but he can't block everybody. We have some holes to fill up front."
The offense did receive a jolt when Sposito chose not to return. His spot goes to backup Erick Mitchell.
"Erick did some great things last year," Duerr said. "He's athletic and he'll make some plays. This will be the first time where it will be his offense. He's done everything he can to prepare."
The Bucs return their leading rusher in Joey Werner (119-643, 5.4 avg., 3 TDs) and third-leading rusher in Tyree Smith (113-505, 4.5, 2 TDs), both seniors.
"We also have four receivers who all played and who made big plays for us a year ago," Duerr said. "Our three leading tacklers are back. Our whole secondary is back. I think we'll be much better on defense than we were a year ago. We're still under-sized. but we're trying to take the scheme we're going to utilize and use our athleticsm and speed to disrupt some people."
The Midwest Conference Pre-season Coaches' Poll has the Bucs repeating in sixth place in the North.
"I don't take a whole lot out of those polls," Duerr said. "That's the reality of where we finished last year. Obviously I think we'll be a better team, but we have to go out and prove it."
The start of the season will be key to gaining some momentum and confidence. Beloit plays at Concordia-Chicago on Sept. 1 and then hosts MWC foe Knox in an non-conference game Sept. 8.
"Our first two games are winnable games," Duerr said. "Concordia-Chicago has been solid, but they play in a conference that is similar to us. They probably have more numbers, but they graduated a lot of talent and they're going to rely on some younger guys like we will. A couple of years ago we played them to a barn-burner. We lost 51-50 on a last=second play.
"Then we come home and play a non-conference game with Knox. Hats off to their coaching staff. They did a very good job last year. They had a four-year starter at quarterback and a strong senior group. We played a good game with them last year and we should be able to do it again. Those first two games would be huge to get us off to a good start."