SEGUIN, Texas – Texas Lutheran football ended 2018 with a flourish.
In just their second season in the American Southwest Conference, the Bulldogs won four of their last six games to secure a 7-3 overall record and settled for a third-place finish behind only Hardin-Simmons and the eventual NCAA Division III national champions, Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Third place isn't enough for TLU in 2019.
“Coming back this year, I think the expectations are higher," said senior running back Austin Mathews. "We just had a good year, and it was better than the season before. I think we’ve got a lot of potential to do even better this year. We’ve got a lot of good players, we’ve just got to execute.”
This year's journey began with back-to-back practices in the blistering Texas heat and humidity on Monday evening and Tuesday morning. Even with the adverse conditions, head coach Carl Gustafson liked what he saw from his squad.
"It was a quick turnaround. They didn’t get a lot of sleep," Gustafson said. "We wanted to see how they were going to handle the early morning and they did a remarkable job. Everybody was on time. We expected our leadership to be really strong and that was no surprise through the first two practices. They understand what the expectation is. They take pride in the TLU way, and they’ve taken these freshmen under their wing.”
“It’s tough, but it’s the Bulldog way," said senior defensive end Manny Longoria. "We don’t know any other way than to play and practice like this, so it’s no big deal.”
Experience is the biggest weapon the Bulldogs wield entering 2019. All but three starters -- quarterback Kyle Grona, right tackle Andy Day and wide receiver Pearce Loth -- return to action from an offensive unit that averaged 35.5 points per game in 2018. Familiarity with the system and their teammates has led to a fast start in fall camp.
“We’re just bigger, stronger, faster, more determined, more experienced and ready to go," said senior left tackle Travis York. "We already have the brotherhood and all that. It’s just the little things now. There are some new things here and there, but for the most part, we’ve been doing the same things for four years now.”
The one remaining question left to be answered is who will replace Grona under center. Junior Jarvis Brooks saw playing time in seven games last season and led the team to a pair of victories, completing 34 of his 64 passes for 359 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He also rushed for 126 yards and three touchdowns. That experience doesn't mean he's guaranteed the position. Currently, Jarvis remains locked in a quarterback battle with senior Andrew Lotz and a variety of younger challengers. Regardless of who starts in week one, Gustafson plans to let this battle play out.
"That’s the main goal offensively for fall camp," Gustafson said. "Who is going to win that job? Who is going to be that guy? We might find out by the time we come out of the Trinity scrimmage, and we might not. There's not a lot of anxiety around that position because whoever it’s going to be is going to surrounded by a lot of experience."
Longoria and junior safety James Bell headline a TLU defense that returns eight starters from last year's unit. Both received accolades this summer and were named to the 2019 D3football.com Preseason All-American Third Team. In his junior season, Longoria established himself as one of the nation's best defensive ends. The Navarro native recorded 10 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss and a fumble-recovery touchdown, received First-Team All-ASC honors and became the Bulldogs' career sack-leader in DIII competition. Bell tallied a team-high four interceptions last season, returning one for a touchdown.
“We’re going fast," Longoria said. "In the meeting room, we’ve hit the ground running. There’s no slowness. Just us helping the coaches on the field and being the coach in some situations. We just trust that whoever goes out there is going to do the job. It may be a freshman or a sophomore. Either way, they’re going to step in and get it done.”
The veteran-led Bulldogs will be tested early this season. After a preseason scrimmage against Trinity University, TLU will play three of the top five teams in the ASC in consecutive weeks. The team isn't shying away from that brutal schedule.
“We play the harder teams first and that’s really going to get us ready," Longoria said. "I want to see team camaraderie, swag and belief that we can. I feel like sometimes we went into certain games thinking that we’ve already lost. This year is going to be different. We’re really going to believe that we can beat those teams that we’ve had a hard time with in the past.”
“We want to go to the playoffs this year," Bell said. "We’re always saying that we’re No. 3 in the conference, so this year we want to be No. 1. We’re not letting up, we’re not selling ourselves short. We want to be No. 1 and go to the playoffs. It starts at practice, and it starts with the first game.”
The Bulldogs will scrimmage against the Tigers Thursday, Aug 29 at 7 p.m. They will then open their season at home, hosting Hendrix College on Aug 14 at 6 p.m.