WAYNE, Neb. – Most of the first couple of weeks of Wayne State College spring football practice was spent getting a raft of newcomers acclimated to college football.
“We graduated 21 seniors and lost a lot of kids, so we’re really young,” Wayne State Coach Dan McLaughlin said. “We have some talent but they’re raw. The famous quote is that’s why it says coach on your t-shirt. That’s kind of what we’re doing.”
The Wildcats, coming off their first winning season since 2012, are especially inexperienced on offense. Their biggest loss is Zach Osborn, a four-year starter at quarterback who became one of the finest signal-callers the school has ever produced.
Osborn, a Harlan, Iowa, product, set a program record with 86 touchdown passes and wound up second all-time in passing yards (9,866) and total offense (10,569). Despite playing just seven games because of an injury last season, Osborn was a first-team All-Northern Sun Conference South Division pick.
Osborn completed 108 of 192 passes for 1,480 yards and 14 touchdowns in seven games last fall. Aaron Bleil, a redshirt sophomore from Iowa City West, took most of the snaps in Osborn’s absence, passing for 674 yards and eight touchdowns.
McLaughlin said Bleil has had a good spring, as has Brady Brandsfield, a redshirt freshman from Norwalk, Iowa.
The good news is, whomever wins the battle for the starting QB spot in the fall will have a talented receiver to throw to in Nate Rogers, a returning first-team all-conference performer from South Sioux City.
Rogers, a 6-5, 190-pound senior, has led the Wildcats in receiving each of the last two seasons. He hauled in 44 catches for 577 yards (13.1 yards per catch) and 12 touchdowns last fall, tying for second in the NSIC in TD receptions.
The former South Sioux City High School multi-sport standout saw action as a true freshman in 2013, then wasn’t with the team for two full seasons because of academic issues. He returned in 2016, finishing with 56 catches for 740 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Last season, Rogers caught at least one pass in every game and had touchdowns in nine of 11 contests. He is tied with Jim Strahan (1947-49) with 27 career touchdown receptions.
The coaching staff will also have to find a replacement for Rashad Trimble, the team’s leading rusher each of the last two seasons. Trimble accounted for 833 yards on 165 carries (six touchdowns) last fall.
Malaki Wilson from Cedar Rapids Xavier played some as a true freshman last season and could be the heir apparent to Trimble. Fullback Nick Tarney, another Harlan product, is having an impressive spring, according to McLaughlin, who is anxious for some additional running back recruits to join the team in the fall.
“Our defense is very experienced, so I’m excited about them,” McLaughlin said. “They had a good year of improvement last year and most of those kids are back. I think our kicking game is good. We just have to have the offense come around and I think we have a chance to be pretty decent.”
Junior linebacker Tyler Thomsen was leading the team in tackles before suffering a season-ending injury in mid-October. The secondary returns mostly in tact after leading the conference in interceptions and pass defense efficiency.
Wayne State posted a 6-5 overall mark and was fourth in the NSIC South at 4-3.
The basic structure of the offense is unchanged from last season, but under the tutelage of a new coordinator in Brian Frana, who has been coaching at Southwest (Minn.) State.
“The kids are fired up about the year and they were excited about last year and hoping to build on that,” McLaughlin said. “They’ve fought through the cold weather (this spring) and persevered and I’m proud of them. Hopefully it will warm up for us soon.”