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There are some phrases being thrown around the Augustana football team heading into fall camp.

"Be the Standard." "Event + Response = Outcome." "Earn the Script."

They're more than just words, they're signs of an attitude and desire to start the program back down the road to a level of success that hasn't been enjoyed in recent years.

"There has been such rich culture here," junior running back Ryan Pitra said. "I think everybody is obviously not happy with how the past two seasons went record-wise but we're aware we're going to be the underdog and that's fine. We're a team that's going to get out here and work hard every single day and we're a team that really wants to change the culture."

The Vikings are coming off a 3-7 season and haven't had a winning season since 2010. But the attitude and desire continue to improve, at least off the field.

"They have worked their tails off through the offseason. You can tell the difference in them physically, you can tell the difference in them emotionally and the confidence level," head coach Steve Bell said. "They understand now it's time, that productivity has to transition to the field and has to show out on the field." 

Bell is entering his third year at Augustana and 2016 was a big year of growing pains for the program. Sixteen freshmen earned varsity letters last year, and though that youth showed in the results, it also laid the groundwork for the growth and hopefully the future success of the Vikings.

"You can tell they're getting it now. All the words we're spewing and have been spewing since we've been here, they're now starting to get it," Bell said. "We were asking guys to play before they were ready to play physically and mentally. Youth is never an excuse but they were not ready for those moments at times. Now they're older, they're more mature, they get what we're talking about and we'll find out when it shows up on a game field."

Offensively, the Vikings find themselves in the same position they were at this point last season when it comes to the quarterback spot. For the second straight season, juniors Zach Fuller and Luke Bleyer are battling for the starting job. Fuller started the first six games last year, connecting on 50 percent of his passes for 1,520 yards and 10 touchdowns along with five interceptions.

"I'd like to win it again, just like I did last year but obviously keep it," Fuller said. "I think I got ahead of myself last year, I took for granted being the starting quarterback of a college team ... I don't think anyone should ever take that for granted, whatever level it is."

Bleyer took over in the final four games after the Vikings started 2-4 and had a 59.6 percent completion rate for 1,035 yards with four touchdown passes and four interceptions.

The battle won't be settled until after the team's scrimmage against Aurora but both quarterbacks view the job as theirs to lose.

"I think both of us have gotten a lot better this offseason," Bleyer said. "I just try to stay confident in what I can do and have fun whenever I'm out there playing. I expect Zach to do well too so no matter who goes out there and eventually gets the start, we can hopefully play as well as possible and turn things around."

Either quarterback has some weapons to throw to, including junior Ryan Hennessy who had 501 receiving yards and four touchdowns last year, and sophomore Ethan Jennings, who caught 15 passes for 252 yards. Pitra will lead out of the backfield after rushing for 433 yards and four touchdowns last year, hoping to find more holes from an offensive line that is young but should be improved from last year. 

Defensively the Vikings return eight starters from a unit that allowed 28.2 points last year, including Assumption grad Daniel Tjaden. Tjaden had 14 tackles and two sacks as a freshman last year and his contributions are an example of how the youth is having an impact on the team all the way to the senior class.

"A lot of young guys are stepping up," junior safety John Asquini said. "It turned the light on in a lot of people's heads that maybe people were taking it easy because they had a spot. Then they see that happen and they realize 'I gotta go.' A lot of juniors last year stepped it up, got a lot better this offseason, worked a lot harder just to ensure they had their spot this year.

Asquini also mentioned the leadership that this new culture is creating, how those phrases being thrown around camp are more than just coach-speak to be echoed blindly throughout the season.

"We have a lot of guys stepping into leadership roles, a lot of dark horses that you wouldn't expect to speak up on any other team," junior safety John Asquini said. "It's got to be player-led, in my opinion. All great teams, it's been player leadership."

The Vikings know they're not expected to do much when the season finally starts. They were picked to finish sixth in the CCIW preseason poll and have a tough opening slate with three road games to start, including the opener SUNY Cortland in New York.

But they're sticking to those mantras they've established, ready to show teams they're willing to exhibit the standard they've set for themselves.

"We're not here to prove any point, we're just here to win ball games," Fuller said. "I think everyone knows in the back of our heads we don't want to get our asses kicked again like last year."


Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times