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Coming off an underwhelming 2016, St. Ambrose took a blue-collar approach to the offseason.

Through weight-lifting sessions, offseason workouts, spring ball and into fall camp, the Fighting Bees have been working to rectify a 4-6 season that served as an inglorious sendoff to a talented senior class.

"It's nice to come out here and see that people actually did work over the summer and grind. That's what we're doing right now and I love it," senior defensive end Chris Overton said. "The adversity is nothing new to us, we've just got to come out here and grind buzzer to buzzer because you never know when your last play is going to be."

The Bees have a lot to replace, with 11 total returning starters, but it's not so much the quantity as the quality. Gone are quarterback Patrick Smith, third all-time in program history in passing yards and second all-time in touchdown passes; running back Joey Zito, seventh all-time in rushing yards; and wide receiver Brad Connor, who left as the Bees' all-time leader with 3,853 receiving yards and 34 touchdowns.

But the work put in during the spring and into fall camp has head coach Mike Magistrelli optimistic those absences won't be as heavily felt as initially perceived.

"Coming out of spring and here into fall camp I think we're definitely ahead of where we were a year ago at this time," he said. "It's a very inexperienced group this year but a group that's really worked hard, both physically and mentally, have really done a great job with assignments and playbook to where they know what they're doing. As a result, we've been very efficient in camp."

St. Ambrose turns to junior Jake Romani to replace Smith at quarterback. Romani has played sparingly, going 4 for 8 for 35 yards last year, but Magistrelli likes his arm and Romani brings a dual-threat aspect that could make the Bees tough to defend.

"If I have to extend the play or the pocket collapses and I have to roll out and make plays for my guys, I'm always pass first but I'm confident I can make plays with my feet as well," Romani said. "I learned a lot from Pat the past three or four years ... just soaking in as much information as I can from him."

Among those catching passes from Romani will be senior Chase Ferger, who caught 28 passes for 399 yards and six touchdowns last year, redshirt freshman Vince Vagnali and junior Tanner Champley, who is making the switch to offense after playing as defensive back and return specialist last year.

Champley has never played receiver in his life, but has shown big-play ability in the return game, averaging over 25 yards per kick return last year.

"It's quite a transition, really it's just getting the ball into my hands and making plays," he said. "You've got to focus more on the route running to get open but once I get in the ball in my hands I'll be able to make plays from there."

The backfield will be led by returning players Baylee Hopps and Bettendorf grad Justice O'Conner, healthy after missing six games last season with an injury.

With the skill positions expected to take some time to settle in, Magistrelli points to the offensive line, which returns four starters, as a big strength.

"I think we have two strengths and it's in the lines from a depth standpoint and an experience standpoint," he said. "Our O-line is probably as experienced as it's been in a while ... that's something we'll have to rely on and use as a strength on both sides of the ball."

Defensively the Bees are going simple. Though they're breaking in their third defensive coordinator in the last three seasons, there's a level of familiarity with the return of Vince Fillipp. Fillipp was on St. Ambrose's staff from 2009-13 before spending the previous three seasons as the defensive coordinator at Kansas Wesleyan.

While with Kansas Wesleyan, Fillipp led a defensive improvement that saw the Coyotes go from giving up 46.8 points his first year to 19.7 in his second, and 26.6 in his third year.

The Bees return five defensive starters and are going from a 3-4 base to a 4-3, which includes moving Overton — a first team all-conference linebacker last year — to defensive end.

"At first I was really iffy about it ... I thought I had perfected my craft (at linebacker), this is my spot where I'll help lead the defense," Overton said. "It was all about trusting him and trusting in his system. I did and it's clear to see everybody else is trusting him and his style of play. We're all molding together as a 'D' and I love it."

Along with breaking in new faces at so many positions, St. Ambrose will also have to battle one of its toughest schedules in recent years. The Bees play the last two national champions in Saint Francis (Ind.) and Marian and after the first three games of the season at Brady Street Stadium, are home just twice the rest of the year.

"I don't know if we've ever had a tougher schedule," Magistrelli said. "We expect to be a better football team but how that measures out in wins and losses, we'll see."


Sports reporter for the Quad-City Times