The new guys in the NUIC are bringing with them a lot of experience on the offensive line, with plenty of three-year starters sprinkled throughout what last year proved to be a tough defense.
Fulton’s defense allowed a total of 26 points in its first four games of the spring – all wins, including a shutout of rival Morrison in what could be the last Wooden Shoe game for a while.
That defensive dominance came to an end in a season-ending loss to Princeton, but the Steamers feel there is a lot to build on defensively in the NUIC.
“We’re a fast team this year,” senior defensive back Brock Mason said. “I think we’re going to be fast to get to the ball, flying around the field making tackles.”
Mason is one of a trio of three-year starters on defense, along with linebacker Keegan Vankampen and defensive lineman Kole Schipper
“Those are the guys we’re looking for in leadership, but you’ve also got other guys that played last year,” Steamers coach Patrick Lower said. “We’re going to just keep building off what we did last year.”
Mason takes on more of the load offensively at wide receiver this year, as well as taking on more responsibility on defense. His coach is looking to see more consistency from Mason this year in hopes he will be ready for everything the team is throwing at him.
But even with the newcomers and the players who made the varsity debut in the spring, the learning curve is not as steep.
“A lot of our sophomores-turned-juniors have been around the program long enough to understand what we’re doing,” Lower said. “After only being gone two-and-a-half, three months from last year, there’s a lot more memory than what we thought there would be.”
On the offensive line, the Steamers have to replace the entire right side of the line after the graduations of Nate Portz and Josh Huizenga, but bring back the other three starters in Schipper, Joey Huizenga and Zach Dykstra. To fill the right tackle and right guard roles, three players are in a fight for two starting spots.
“The competition there is good,” Lower said. “We’re going to do what we do and expect them to handle it.”
At quarterback, Lower didn’t have to look far to find a replacement for the now-graduated Connor Barnett, handing the ball to his son, Patrick.
The younger Lower has big shoes to fill after Barnett completed 57 of 83 passes for 904 yards and 10 touchdowns in the abbreviated spring season, leading the Steamers to a 4-1 record and earning him SVM Player of the Year honors. His successor is benefitting now from many of the things Barnett had figured out in the spring.
“I think a lot of what Connor did last year was he taught me more about the mental game, knowing what’s coming in pass coverages, what the defense is going to be in,” he said. “I learned a lot from him last year, and I hope to use that and make myself even better this year.”
The senior quarterback sees a lot of versatility with Fulton’s offense, with Mason looming on the edge as a receiving target and plenty of options in the running game.
“We can run the ball inside and outside. We can throw shallow. We can throw deep,” he said. “I think I’m just excited to get going.”
Fulton is in its first year in the NUIC, with an unfamiliar Week 1 opponent in Galena looming at the end of the month.
“I think that our coaches are doing a good job getting us to where we need to be on the field, getting us to know what we need to do, so I don’t think we need to worry too much because our coaches will get us prepared no matter who it is,” Mason said.