MONMOUTH, Ill. – Forget about the back-to-back Midwest Conference championships that produced 23 first team all-conference performers and six league MVPs and Players of the Year over the last two seasons. Monmouth coach Chad Braun’s mindset is firmly in the present with a singular goal: get a little better every day.
“We’re living in the present, not the past,” said Braun dispelling any notion of the Scots resting on the accomplishments of the last two championship seasons and looking ahead to a possible three-peat, unprecedented in Fighting Scots football history. “It’s a matter of perspective. The past is the past. We’re happy for the players who helped us get to this point, but every year it’s a new team with new players and a new chemistry. Our focus is on the present, not the past. The present is all about the process of getting better.”
Braun’s Scots have gotten the most out of his “getting better” formula in his first three seasons, winning two league titles after making it to the championship game and coming up just short in his rookie season. Now in his fourth year guiding the team, Braun warns against relying on past accomplishments for anything…wins and intangibles included.
“I’ve been on a number of championship teams at Monmouth both as head coach and assistant, and the one thing you can count on is you can’t count on the previous season to win games for you this season,” he said. “Some of our older guys who have been on the two championship teams are hungry to get us to the next level. They understand the focus right now has to be on the present and not the future. That’s a good mindset to have. We haven’t won anything yet.”
The Scots are experienced winners (27-5 under Braun) and are loaded on the offensive side of the ball where nearly everyone returns, including the league’s offensive lineman MVP, junior Joe Krall (New Berlin, Ill./New Berlin) and three-time all-conference running back and two-time 1,000-yard rusher, senior DeAndre Wright (DeKalb, Ill./DeKalb). Wright enters his final season in the top five of all-time rushers at Monmouth, and is making a bid to become just the third back in Monmouth history to record a trio of 1,000-yard seasons, joining Trey Yocum (’13) and Ron Baker (’75).
Senior quarterback Hayden Nelson, the No. 2 rusher in 2017, will be under center for the second season and he’ll have his top two receivers from a year ago – all-conference wide-out senior Yansay Williams (Normal, Ill./West) and junior Jacolby Maxwell (Romeoville, Ill./Aurora Christian) – at his disposal. The tandem combined for nearly 1,000 receiving yards and 16 touchdown receptions – 11 by Williams. Nelson passed for nearly 2,000 yards while connecting for 21 TDs.
“He’s a special player and we’ve got to find ways to get the ball in his hands…a lot,” said Braun of Wright who will taking handoffs from Nelson. “Hayden gained a lot of experience and confidence under center last year. There is no better teacher than experience and he got plenty of it last year playing in big game after big game. It’s been a noticeable difference in camp this year.”
Wesley Anderson (Heyworth, Ill./Heyworth) and Nathan Graham (Monticello, Ill./Monticello) also figure into Braun’s game plan with a stable of solid returners in the receiving corps. The duo hauled in 29 passes for nearly 400 yards last season. Braun has even more depth going deep with sophomores Izaiah Celestine (Stockton, Calif./Lincoln), Triston Gibson (Houston, Texas/Pearland) and Seth Foster (Palmer, Ill./Morrisonville).
“We’ve got a lot of offensive experience,” smiled Braun. “It really helps to have those veteran leaders. We’re pretty excited about that group. It’s reminiscent of years past when a lot of our skill guys were in the same class. That continuity helps.”
Up front, the Scots will build around Krall, a 6-foot-4, 300 pound tackle, and junior returners Blake Smith and Brady Boyd and senior tight end Konnor O’Keefe (Tremont, Ill./Tremont). Freshmen Matt Thoele (Springfield, Ill./Springfield) and Chris Kimble (Naples, Fla./St. John Neumann) are just two of a number of newcomers and returners alike who are vying to fill the few vacancies on the line.
“We’re deeper on the o-line than we thought heading into camp,” said Braun. “That group has kind of surprised us a little bit.”
There will be few surprises on the defensive line where preseason All-American and three-time all-conference standout, defensive end Thomas Lesniewski (Algonquin, Ill./Marian Catholic) returns for one final go ‘round. The No. 5 man on the Scots all-time sack list is joined by classmate and two-time all-league defensive end Lamar Watson (Pembroke Township, Ill./Momence) who led the team with 7.0 sacks and 14.0 tackles for loss in 2017. Among the other returners in the defensive trenches are juniors McCauley Johnston (Wyoming, Ill./Stark County) – 11.5 tackles for loss last year – and Brad Buchner (Poplar Grove, Ill./North Boone). Combined with returning senior Josh Perschall (Normal, Ill./West) and the Scots add 88 tackles to the front line from a season ago.
“We’ll have experience up front, but a lot of youth in the defensive backfield,” reported Braun. “It’s important for our line to get a good pass rush. That’s the great equalizer in the secondary. The lineman may not get the interceptions, but if they do their jobs and get to the quarterback, everyone else doesn’t have to cover as long. We’ve got guys who can do that and it makes us dangerous up front.”
The Scots will count on their danger factor to help a young secondary led by junior Nick Miyler (Galesburg, Ill./Galesburg). The elder statesman of the d-backs played in all 11 games last season with a senior-laden group, recording 13 tackles which included nine solos.
It’s a literal log jam in the secondary where juniors Seth Cunningham (Pontiac, Ill./Pontiac) and Caleb Santana (Buda, Texas, Jack C. Hays) and sophomores Brandon Graeff (Murphysboro, Ill./Murphysboro) and Tucker Anderson (Morton, Ill./Morton) are all vying for safety spots.
It’s just as crowded at the corners where a young group is battling for playing time. Sophomores Connor Graeff (Murphysboro, Ill./Murphysboro), Mo Abbed (Danville, Ill./Bismark Henning), Darius Smith (Canton, Ga./Sequoyah), Mason Castricone (New Port Richey, Fla./J.W. Mitchell) and Jaylen Scott (Calumet City, Ill./Marian Catholic) are in the running, and that’s not to mention any freshmen who could be in the mix.
“We’re young in the secondary, but we really like our options,” said an optimistic Braun. “We feel like we’ve got a really good group back there despite their youth.”
While not as experienced as the d-line, the Scots’ linebackers return a solid corps from last year’s championship season. Junior Clark Gaden (Chatham, Ill./Chatham-Glenwood) returns after collecting 80 tackles last season, second-most on the team behind the graduated Kyle Schultz. Gaden will be joined by senior Tre Maxwell (Abingdon, Ill./Abingdon-Avon) who garnered 37 stops as a junior.
“Clark and Tre give us some good experience at the linebacker spot,” said Braun. “They’re great players and have some veterans and up-and-coming guys around them.”
Jack Lucas (Abingdon, Ill./Abingdon-Avon) and Chase Dietrich (Chillicothe, Ill./IVC) – a pair of seniors – are joining junior Naulon Simms (Tremont, Ill./Tremont) in a battle for time at the linebacker spot.
“It really doesn’t matter who we have out there defensively, our philosophy will stay the same,” reported Braun. “We want 11 guys to the ball on every play. We’ll be aggressive and relentless. Every play has to have great effort. Effort is the one thing we have total control over. That’s the standard when you play defense at Monmouth.”
Special teams may be raising their bar this season with a bit more leg. Kicker Joey Biel (Spokane, Wash./Northwest Christian) comes back for his junior season after adding punting duties to his resumé last season. The left-footed Biel converted 43 of 46 PATs in 2017 while hitting exactly half his field goal attempts, missing just one over 50 yards. He was also a defensive weapon, as 23 of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. He was equally adept with his newly acquired punting duties, landing seven inside the 20-yard line and booming six more than 50 yards.
“Joey’s a special player and has looked really good in camp,” praised Braun. “He’s kicking and punting the ball really well. I attribute part of that to the work he’s done in the weight room. That’s the biggest difference from a year ago – he’s gotten stronger. I’m extremely excited about special teams.”
Braun is also excited to face a pair of ranked teams in the first two weeks of the season. The Scots open at No. 18 Wheaton on Sept. 1 and return home for a Week 2 date with 13th-ranked Wartburg. A bye week follows then two games vs. MWC North Division teams in preparation for the five-game South Division schedule to determine the league’s championship week pairings.
“We knew we’d be a senior group this year and wanted to challenge ourselves right out of the gate with our nonconference opponents, so we had better be clicking on all cylinders come game time,” said Braun. “I’ve always believed you don’t get better by playing weak teams. You’ve got to play great teams in order to expose your weaknesses so you can fix them before conference play begins.”
Midwest Conference coaches have predicted Monmouth and St. Norbert to meet for the league title again in November. It’s a prediction Braun would like to see come true, but knows it’s a long road to the end.
“We’ve got to win the division before we even talk about the championship game, let alone the title,” warned Braun. “We’ve got a very competitive division and a lot of great teams. The season is a process. We try to tweak things and get better each week. There’s no magic formula. The guys simply have to go out, play with energy and execute. It starts with practice and then we’ve got to bring it on game day and make the most of our opportunities to get to the next level.”