WAYNE, Neb. -- After a 6-5 campaign in 2017, Wayne State took a step back in 2018 as the Wildcats finished with a 3-8 record, the same mark that they had in 2016.
Wayne State coach Dan McLaughlin certainly expects the Wildcats to be better in his 15th season.
The Wildcats weren't far away from flipping the 3-8 record to a 6-5 mark again last season. Out of the eight losses, three were by 6 points or fewer (27-21 to Augustana, 23-17 to St. Cloud State and 28-22 in overtime to MSU-Moorehead). In a 41-28 loss to Winona State to open the 2018 season, WSC got within 3 points in the fourth quarter but couldn't complete the comeback.
"We think we have a better football team this fall and it showed itself in the past couple of weeks. We want to certainly do a better job than the results showed," McLaughlin said. "We lost a lot of close games so we need to be able to finish games and we have to play better in the fourth quarter.
"We really feel we have a better football team and practices have gone well. The kids are working hard and I am pleased with the start."
The Wildcats have to replace quarterback Aaron Bleil at quarterback; he passed for 1,414 yards and 12 touchdowns. But he didn't play in four of Wayne State's games and backup Alex Thramer played in seven contests last season.
Thramer returns and passed for 625 yards but he only completed 50 percent of his passes and had more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three). Thramer is competing for the start spot with Andy McCance, who transferred from the University of South Dakota.
At Gregory High School, McCance passed for 6,228 yards and 89 touchdowns in his career. He rushed for 2,407 and 42 touchdowns.
Whoever wins the quarterback battle between Thramer and McCance, they won't have Nate Rogers to throw to. The South Sioux graduate caught 70 passes for 1,009 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he was a senior last season.
While Wayne State doesn't have a go-to target like Rogers, McLaughlin thinks that unit might be deeper since at times, Rogers was the only open target.
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Tight end Conner Paxton returns after catching 34 passes for 439 yards but no one else had more than 30 receptions last season besides Rogers and Paxton.
Mason Lee caught 22 passes for 332 yards and is back.
"We lost Nate, who was outstanding but we have more receivers. Last year we were really looking Nate's way most of the time but now we can spread the ball around," McLaughlin said. "We have more depth, more speed and it gives us a better chance to move the ball."
At running back, Maliki Wilson rushed for 542 yards last season and Marlon Warren ran for 421 yards. Both are gone. Thramer was the third-leading rusher with 144 yards and Bleil rushed for 129 yards. McLaughlin is still trying to decide who will get the carries.
As the offense looks to fill some key spots, McLaughlin will lean on his defense since Jacob Protzman, Kolbie Foster and Tyler Thomsen all return, as does Kevin Ransom.
"We are good down the middle of the defense and that's a good place to start," McLaughlin said. "We have some new faces that will help us and we think we are going to be decidedly better on defense."
Protzman had 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss and Foster had 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Thomsen led the Northern Sun Conference in tackles with 120.
"Tyler has a nose for the football. I couldn't ask for a better football player. He plays the right way and has great grades. He's everything you want in a player," McLaughlin said. "Jacob and Kolbie are consistent in their abilities and I think they have improved. They are seniors and I think they will have a great year."