When the Truman State Bulldogs travel to Quincy, Ill., to face the Hawks on Saturday, they’ll bring one of the league’s top defenses and a rapidly emerging freshman running back to the fray.
Those two weapons will set the tone in the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference showdown and will help shape a 2015 campaign that still has plenty of life for the visiting Bulldogs.
TSU has tied or held the second-place spot in the nine-team league the past two years and are currently 4-4 overall, 3-2 in the GLVC. They came into the season hoping to contend for a conference title. Due to a slow start, a third consecutive season in the league’s top tier is still possible, even if a conference title may not be.
“For us, we had big aspirations coming into the season, we thought we had a good opportunity to push for a conference championship,” said defensive coordinator Kellen Nesbitt. Nesbitt is in his sixth season leading the Bulldogs’ defensive unit, and a former starter at the University of Central Missouri. As the name would suggest, he is also the son of head coach Gregg Nesbitt.
The 1-3 start damaged those 2015 aspirations, but did not leave the team or the coaching staff without important goals to achieve. “At that point we sat down and talked about a third consecutive winning season and where that would rank this senior squad among Truman teams in the past couple of decades,” the younger Nesbitt added.
The sitdown was productive. The Bulldogs went on to win their next three of four to pull to .500. Should they win out, a 7-4 mark would continue the program on its pronounced upward arc. The defensive coordinator has used it as a motivational tool for his troops, “We can’t go 7-4 without beating whomever we’ve got this week, and right now that’s Quincy.”
The Bulldogs are prepared for the task. Their base defensive set is a 4-2-5 with a Sam (strong) and Will (weak) linebacker pairing at the middle level. From there they move three of the remaining five players in and out of a strong safety-linebacker role depending on down and distance.
Junior defensive back Austin Zoda has excelled in the hybrid role, walking up into the box and dropping back into coverage as needed. He leads the team with 69 stops to add to the 146 tackles he had coming into the 2015 campaign.
“We’ll put Zoda at the weakside safety for us; he’s got a versatile skill set. You’ll see him in the middle of the field, or to the short or weakside, or in the box. He does a lot of different things for us,” said Nesbitt.
Other than Zoda, the Bulldogs’ defense doesn’t have individuals among the GLVC’s top statistical leaders. As a unit, however, they may be the league’s best. The contrast is a hallmark of a group that embraces team play.
“We’re spreading our defensive production around among a bunch of different guys and I think they’ve really bought into what we’re trying to get accomplished,” said Nesbitt. “Each week they play unselfishly and are willing to do their job and play within the structure and framework of the defense,” he added.
Offensively, Truman’s true freshman Andy Satulla helped a struggling offense put up 40 points against GVLC opponent William Jewell College last week. Behind outstanding blocking, Satulla ran for 128 yards and four touchdowns en route to a 40-28 victory that snapped WJC’s three-game win streak. It was the freshman’s second straight hundred-yard plus game and second week with 30+ rushing attempts. His rapid maturity into a high-level collegiate back will give the Bulldogs’ an additional boost for the remainder of the campaign.
“The biggest adjustment from high school to college is the speed of the game and how much you have to put into football outside of just practice and games,” said Satulla.
Nesbitt’s defensive unit sees the freshman work during the week and his effort is not unnoticed by the coordinator, “I’ve just been impressed with his toughness and durability for a young guy. He’s a real physical presence and he’s getting better with every snap,” he said.
Under center for Truman against WJC was redshirt freshman Randy Schroeder, who threw for 258 yards to balance out the attack.
With an improving young offensive backfield, and one of the league’s top defensive units, the Bulldogs march to a 7-4 mark will take its all-important first steps on Saturday.