One thing that sticks out to Lincoln head football coach Aaron Beavers about his teams that won state championships in 2013 and 2014 and reeled off 22 straight wins was the Patriots’ depth, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, the type of strength in numbers that doesn’t make an injury seem like a fatal blow.
Unfortunately for Beavers, those days are gone. Last year, the Patriots were missing quarterback Mason Nelson from the start, dropped multiple starters in the first two weeks and dismissed another contributor from the team due to disciplinary issues. They finished 5-5 and fell in the first round of the playoffs to Brandon Valley.
Lincoln will be thin again this year, a victim of the up-and-down rhythm in participation that almost all high schools have to deal with.
“We like to look at it like we teach a whole lot more than just football,” Beavers said. “And it’s too bad, because there’s some kids really missing out on something great.”
There’s some excitement, though, with the talent they return and bring on in the trenches and at the skill positions. When quarterback Mason Nelson, now playing at Hamline, went down before the beginning of last season with a torn ACL, receiver Cole DeBerg moved over to quarterback and led the Patriots to a number of respectable wins, including one over eventual state champion Washington.
Lincoln can now move DeBerg back to his natural position at slot receiver, though, due to a newcomer from the other side of the state. Junior quarterback Preston Eisenbraun transferred to Lincoln from Wall in the spring and has impressed the Patriots’ coaches with his composure – Beavers compared him to past signal-callers Isaiah Roach, Alex Schultz and Connor Burchill in that aspect.
Eisenbraun missed 2015 due to a torn ACL and is coming from a nine-man team that ran an option offense, so he’ll have to switch up his game with the Patriots and move more towards being a pocket passer.
He has seniors Ben Schilling and Tucker Hall coming back on the offensive line to help, and DeBerg, fullback/tailback Corey Fichter and receiver Eric Looby give him options at the skill positions. Sophomore Grant Treiber gives the Patriots good size on the line, standing at 6-foot-5, and 5-7 Jack Van Veldhuizen has moved over from fullback to guard.
The lack of depth persists, though.
“We have to play kids both ways, and we haven’t had to do that in a long time, or at least the beginning of the year,” Beavers said.
The Patriots don’t have as many starters coming back on defense, but DeBerg and Looby can contribute in the secondary, Xavier Kolb and Payton Sudenga are back at linebacker, and juniors Collin Brison and Malik Redd have done well in practice at cornerback.
This isn’t a dream team for Beavers, with the lack of depth and unremarkable team speed. But during one of his team’s early practices, he took note of the team’s health and how it was better than it was at the same point last year. As for the team speed, he called on a lesson he learned from one of the team’s assistant coaches.
“The best receiver I ever had was Trey Naasz,” Beavers said. “And he was slow as heck.”
Follow Ian Frazer on Twitter at @IanMcFrazer.
AT A GLANCE
COACH: Aaron Beavers (14th year)
RETURNING STARTERS: 6 offense, 3 defense
STRENGTHS: Good size and experience on the offensive line; returners and talent at the skill positions.
WEAKNESSES: Overall lack of depth and numbers.
TOP RETURNERS: WR/DB Cole DeBerg (Sr., 5-11, 170); OL Ben Schilling (Sr., 6-1, 270); RB Corey Fichter (Sr., 5-9, 210); TE/DE Trent Naasz (Sr., 6-2, 190)
OUTLOOK: The Patriots’ return to statewide dominance may have to wait, but they pulled out a solid season last year while having to deal with numerous injuries and the loss of an illustrious senior class. Beavers has established himself as one of the state’s best coaches, and Lincoln has a solid group of returners at skill positions.
OPENER: Aug. 27 vs. Rapid City Stevens, 5 p.m., Howard Wood Field