On paper, Western Illinois remains a young football team.
But second-year coach Bob Nielson expects more from a Leathernecks team which hit the practice field for the first time Friday as it works toward an Aug. 28 opener against Valparaiso.
“We return our top three wide receivers, our top three running backs and our starting quarterback, and while six of those seven players were new to the program a year ago, they all played a lot of football for us last fall,’’ Nielson said.
Among those seven skill players, Rock Island’s Nikko Watson is the only one who has been part of the Leathernecks’ program for more than one year.
The senior running back has collected 1,680 yards during his career at Western Illinois and will complement the abilities of J.C. Baker, a senior who rushed for 1,149 yards a year ago after joining the Leathernecks from Arizona Western Community College, and Ohio transfer Kyle Hammonds.
Quarterback Trenton Norvell, a sophomore who threw for 2,140 yards a year ago after transferring from Cincinnati, returns to work with a group of receivers led by the only two true freshmen to see action last season for Western Illinois.
Joey Borsellino and Lance Lenoir combined for 80 catches covering 954 yards as true freshmen, while Scottsdale Community College transfer Hi-C Scott caught 32 balls for 458 yards a year ago.
“Those players give us a great springboard into the upcoming season,’’ Nielson said. “We’re a much more experienced team than we were a year ago at this time and as a group, they’ve had a good summer. We’re a lot farther along than we were a year ago.’’
Western Illinois returns eight starters on both sides of the ball from a team that finished 4-8, including 2-6 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. With the exception of Borsellino and Lenoir, Nielson was able to redshirt 26 other true freshmen.
Nielson, who coached Minnesota-Duluth to a pair of NCAA Division II national championships during 10 seasons there, viewed that as a necessary move to establish the type of foundation he wanted at Western Illinois.
“We had 58 guys with us in spring ball our first year and this past spring, we had 80 and I believe that is helping us become a more competitive team,’’ Nielson said.
Preparing for a schedule which includes road dates at both Wisconsin and Northwestern in September, Nielson views minimizing mistakes on both sides of the ball and improved performance in the kicking game as critical components to the team’s chances for success.
“Consistency is something we really worked on in the spring and will continue to do so, because we have to reduce our number of mistakes,’’ he said. “We’re in a league where every team we play will be a good football team, so we have to play well if we want to give ourselves a chance.’’
Senior defensive back Martinez Davis, named earlier this week to the Missouri Valley preseason all-conference team, and linebacker Kevin Kinzel lead a Western Illinois defense which ranked third nationally at the NCAA FCS level in defending the pass and was seventh in total defense.
Davis’ eight career interceptions ranks 10th among active players at the FCS level, while Kinzel established a school single-season record with three defensive touchdowns last fall in addition to leading Western Illinois in tackles.
“We have experience on that side of the ball and our defense played well enough at times last season to win more games,’’ Nielson said. “What we need to do is capitalize on scoring opportunities, particularly in the red zone.’’