The Lincoln Blue Tigers were grateful to be able to play any football games during the 2020-21 season. They're even more grateful to be back to having a full MIAA schedule this fall, with COVID-19 concerns still lurking.
Lincoln will begin the 2021 season tonight by hosting the Washburn Ichabods, the Blue Tigers' first game at Dwight T. Reed Stadium in nearly 21 months since the 2019 season finale. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.
"I'm pretty pleased with the way the guys have responded this last week," Lincoln coach Malik Hoskins said. "Last week, I was concerned where we were mentally and physically. But for the past few days, we've had really energetic, attentive practices."
Lincoln opens the season with 63 players on its roster, including 35 listed as freshmen.
One of those freshmen will be the starting quarterback tonight. Zamar Brake, who is 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, comes to Jefferson City as a transfer from St. Francis, an FCS program in Pennsylvania.
Brake has redshirted the past two seasons and will be seeing his first action since high school, when he led Bethlehem (Pa.) Catholic to a state semifinal appearance in 2018.
"He's just a nice, physical specimen at that position," Hoskins said. "He's getting an opportunity to play quarterback in the best conference in America. I'm anxious to see what he's going to do, what he's going to bring to the table once the lights come on."
Brake may be new to the backfield, but MIAA teams are going to be familiar with the running back lining up behind him.
Hosea Franklin, a 5-7 junior, was the MIAA rushing champion in 2019, carrying the ball for 1,359 yards to break the school single-season rushing record. Franklin had seven 100-yard performances, including a Lincoln single-game record for 251 yards rushing in the 2019 season opener at Washburn.
"The expectations haven't changed for him," Hoskins said. "We do understand he's going to be the focal point of every team that we play, because he was our offense in '19. They're going to stack the box, and we know that.
"We have to have someone step up and alleviate some of the pressure that's going to be put on Hosea."
One of those players could be junior running back Tori Hicks, who rushed for 219 yards and had another 103 yards receiving in 2019. In two games this past spring, Hicks led the Blue Tigers with 100 yards rushing and a touchdown.
Franklin will be the starting running back, while Hicks will be designated as an "athlete" in Lincoln's offense.
"He can play wide receiver, he can play running back, he can play quarterback," Hoskins said. "He's a kid we have to get on the field and find a way to get him touches."
Starting at wide receiver for Lincoln are sophomores Chrisshun Robinson and Aderias Ealy and freshman Winston Ausmer. Robinson led the Blue Tigers in receiving in 2019.
"Chrisshun is the only one with (Division II) experience," Hoskins said.
One of the biggest concerns within the program since Hoskins became head coach prior to the 2019 season is depth at the offensive line. The Blue Tigers only have seven players listed on the depth chart at offensive line heading into tonight's game.
Senior center Cyril Spells and senior left guard Jordan McCoy are the only upperclassmen listed, and both will anchor the offensive line.
"A lot of our guys entered the transfer portal at the end of the spring season," Hoskins said. "That has depleted that particular position."
Hoskins said the offense will feature Franklin, but the Blue Tigers plan to show multiple formations this season.
"We're going to try to be creative in what we do," Hoskins said. "You'll see a lot of one-back, but you'll also see two-back sets."
Lincoln will open the season with a 4-3 defensive formation. Anchoring the defensive line are the two ends, senior Quan Mason and junior Cody Bagby.
Bagby (6-2, 215) led the Blue Tigers with 12 total tackles in their two spring games, while Mason (6-0, 240) had 29 tackles — five for loss — and a team-high three quarterback hits during the 2019 season.
"They're not your typical defensive ends, as far as size is concerned," Hoskins said. "What they give you is speed, a whole lot of athleticism and a whole lot of 'want to,' to get to the quarterback."
TeAndre Skinner, one of Lincoln's eight seniors, will be the defensive leader at linebacker. Skinner had 46 total tackles in 2019 and finished with two tackles for loss in the spring.
"He has taken ownership, not only of the defense, but of this entire football team," Hoskins said. "I lean on him heavily, just from a leadership standpoint.
"He is the 'go-between,' between myself and his football team, and I call it 'his' football team because he runs it like it's his, and the kids respect him."
Junior Jaylon Mosley also returns at linebacker for Lincoln.
In the secondary, senior Elliott Albert — who had four pass breakups in 2019 — and junior Caleb Rozar are starting at safety, while junior Piere' Jones and sophomore Zyan Thomas-King will play cornerback.
"We're hoping these guys step up and defend like they're capable of doing," Hoskins said.
Albert (5-11, 175) previously started at linebacker for the Blue Tigers.
"He was an undersized linebacker," Hoskins said. "The new defensive staff came in and thought he would be better suited playing safety. Hopefully he'll be able to eliminate some deep passes."
Lincoln will start three freshmen on defense: Devyn Sigars at linebacker and Samuel Amituanai and Osi Tongotea at tackle.
"We've had a bunch of freshmen come in and raise some eyebrows at camp," Hoskins said. "Those guys are going to get a lot of playing time."
California graduate Clayton Winkler, a redshirt freshman, returns as a punter on special teams after averaging 33.3 yards per punt in the spring. He will be taking over the kicking duties as well.
"He's come in and he's fitting in very well," Hoskins said. "He works at his craft. He came to my office in the summer and said he wants to be the best punter and kicker in the MIAA."
Ausmer and Ealy will be the kick and punt returners for the Blue Tigers.