Mules football began the first of 14 spring practices last month, and concluded with the team’s annual spring game April 23.
With last year’s football in the books and fully behind them, the Mules are focused on the upcoming season and improving upon last year’s 8-4 finish, which ended with a lopsided 48-21 victory over Southeastern Oklahoma State in the Live United Texarkana Bowl.
The Mules have an abundance of key contributors from last season to replace, starting with All-American running back LaVance Taylor, who finished his career as UCM’s career all-purpose yardage record holder and a signee with the Ottawa Redblacks of the Canadian Football League.
The Mules also must find a new signal caller to replace Hayden Hawk, two-year starter at quarterback.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Mules lose key contributors such as Alex Perlin, who finished with 89 total tackles last season, and Connor Smith, who tied with J.R. Alexander for the team lead in interceptions.
Luckily for the Mules, the team’s depth will allow for plenty of prior contributors and backups to fill those roles.
The Mules will return their receiving yardage leader, redshirt sophomore Kyle Echols, who finished with 532 receiving yards on 25 catches and averaged an impressive 21.3 yards per catch.
Junior Ray Harris, who shared carries with Taylor the previous two seasons, returns at running back.
The Mules figure to have two primary ball carriers again this year with stud freshman running back and former Iowa signee Markel Smith, who was receiving reps with the first team in spring practices.
Quarterback Garrett Fugate was the only other quarterback to receive snaps in a game—besides Hayden Hawk—and figures to be the frontrunner for the wide-open job with other signal callers such as redshirt junior Eric Siebenshuh and freshman Brook Bolles also lobbying for the position.
This season, the Mules will also be breaking in a new offensive coordinator, John McMenamin. McMenamin was lured away from Wayne State to the Mules in early January, and served as their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for four seasons.
McMenamin participated in his first coaching duties over the course of spring practices.
The Muleskinner caught up with McMenamin and a trio of offensive players: Garrett Fugate, Kyle Echols and Ray Harris following the game to talk about the spring season.
Q: How do you feel about the quarterback play? Is there a battle? Is Fugate entrenched in the starter role? What’s the situation there?
It’s a battle, and they’re all good friends. They all push each other. The thing is, there are four really talented quarterbacks we have, and they’re all pushing each other, so it’ll go into fall camp, and they’ll keep battling. There are a lot of good things to build off of.
Q: Are there any offensive players who have been impressing in spring ball?
Definitely! We have two really good guys at the running back position right now. I thought Ray Harris and Markel Smith had really good springs. I thought Tyler Jones came out and had a great spring, and (Clayton) Cooper also had a great spring, for the wide receiver position. Brook Bolles has really come up at the quarterback position. It’s all made easy because we have a great offensive line. We’re lucky to have them.
Q: How do you feel about the teams play in spring ball?
We started off slow this spring. We have a new offensive coordinator, so what do you expect? But we got the hang of it, and we came out today and had a decent day.
We’ve been getting better every single day, and that’s the biggest thing I’ve seen from day one to day 15. We just got better! I’m just happy because I can’t wait to see what we do in the fall.
I thought the offense did a really good job. We started out a little slow with having a new offensive coordinator, coach McMenamin, so obviously we had a few growing pains. But at the end of the spring, I felt like we came on strong. We have a lot of returning guys coming back that played a lot last year. I’m just really excited for next year.
Q: Was the work team-wise or individual? How would you assess your play?
I feel like I was a little fatigued out there today, but my route running was pretty good, and my blocking was pretty good. When the quarterback got the ball to me, I made a play.
There’s nothing we don’t need to work on. We have a bunch of guys trying to transition into starting roles. We have guys who started last year, but at the same time kind of feeling like the rookie and the vet, on some Drake stuff.
Q: Have you mentored any young players? Taken any young guys under your wing?
Markel played for the same high school coach I played for. We played under the same offense, same everything. My head coach switched right after I left. The funny thing is he’s made some of the same mistakes I made when I first got here. I’m just trying to get him in the right spots.
Always! Always! If I see anything I need to critique on them. I let them know.
Q: So you and Echols were teammates in high school?
Yes! Not just high school, but little leagues, same with (Eric) Siebenshuh. We all go back to little leagues. At this point, we just want to get a ring here. We didn’t get to get one in middle school or high school.
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