WARRENSBURG — The UCM Mules have 15 starters returning from last season, but there’s a lot of competition happening in practice this month.
The Mules will be replacing their leading passer, rusher and receiver.
The running back spot may be the toughest to replace with record-breaking back LaVance Taylor gone.
Ray Harris got some time behind Taylor last season, but will miss the season because of injury. That leaves Evan Campbell as the only running back to record any stats last season available. Campbell is in a battle with Gabe Vandiver and incoming freshman Markel Smith.
Campbell ran the ball 24 times for 189 yards and two scores last season. He and Vandiver can provide speed at the position.
“He’s got some experience and had some great games last year,” coach Jim Svoboda said of Campbell. “We signed a kid named Markel Smith and he’s a bigger back, so we’ve got kind of a 1-2 punch there. Some of our younger guys, Gabe Vandiver, he really had a good spring. I’m confident in Gabe and some younger guys that bring some things to the table. It’s kind of those three right now. We may be a little bit by committee.”
Smith is listed at 5-11, 230 pounds, so he’ll be able to provide power. He was named the Missouri state 5A offensive player of the year after rushing for 2,250 yards and 40 touchdowns last season at Vianney High School.
He set the state’s single-game rushing record with 541 yards.
The quarterback position is up for grabs, with Garrett Fugate, Eric Siebenshuh and Brook Bolles.
Bolles is a redshirt freshman, Siebenshuh is a redshirt junior and Fugate is a redshirt junior who was the team’s punter last season.
“We have pretty good competition at all of our spots really, which is nice,” Svoboda said. “Since I’ve been here we probably haven’t had the kind of depth at all of the positions to have that kind of competition.”
With tight end Cullen Rosine gone, the Mules will be looking for players to throw to.
Andrew Bakker is expected to be one of the top receivers this season.
“Honestly, I think the receiving corps is as good as it’s ever been,” Bakker said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can do it. We’re really deep.”
On the defensive side, there’s competition to find out who’ll line up between defensive ends Jason Venckus and Josh Powell.
“We lost a couple guys, but when someone goes down we step up right away,” Venckus said.
At linebacker, Venckus said Alex Lackey has shown promise to fill one of those slots.
“He is filling the middle linebacker spot well and we’re figuring out the interior right now,” he said. “… He studies hours and hours every day, so he’s filling up the spot nice.”
The Mules’ secondary may be a strength for the defense this season, with three key returners from an athletic group that can cause turnovers.
J.R. Alexander, Kadarius Green and Diaron Rhodes all return.
Rhodes set a school record with 15 pass breakups last season. Green had seven pass breakups and an interception. Alexander tied for the team lead with four interceptions.
“I really like our athleticism on defense,” Svoboda said. “We have a lot of kids in the secondary that have tremendous skills back there.”
The Mules start the season Sept. 3 with a home game against Missouri Western before playing another night game at Emporia State on Sept. 10. UCM hosts rival Northwest Missouri State on Sept. 19.
“I see us at the top of the MIAA,” Bakker said. “I think we have all the talent there, we just have to do it this year.”
Jason Strickland can be reached at 660-530-0147 or on Twitter @J_Strick_Sports.