For a UW-Eau Claire football team still deep in a rebuilding process that began at the ground floor, familiarity has been the theme of spring practice.
Coach Dan Larson is now over a full calendar year in as the man in charge. At this time last year, much of spring practice was him seeing his players out on a playing field for the first time in person.
While spring ball regulations don’t allow for a ton of football activity, Larson said the Blugolds have experienced growth in terms of understanding what the coaching staff is looking for and honing in fundamentals even more.
“For the most part, it’s been good just because we’ve seen some guys progress just from where we were at the end of the year,” Larson said. “Guys have been doing a great job in the weight room, and we’ve actually been able to see that translate over to the field. There’s that whole body of work that we’re not now able to see.”
It’s been clear since day one that Larson is a stickler on doing the little things. That has only strengthened this spring as he’s emphasized conditioning, a lot of drills and, most importantly, repetition.
The Blugolds, who went 2-8 last year, were able to clean up some things from their winless campaign in 2015. They cut down their average margin of defeat from 30 in 2015 to 21 in 2016. They turned it over eight less times. Opponents’ rushing yards went down from 2,100 in 2015 to 1,581 last season. UW-Eau Claire doubled its passing touchdowns from six to 12.
Larson knows the depth and youth of his roster will be magnified once again and that there are teams in the WIAC that are just too good right now for the Blugolds to compete with. But he’s hammering home the concept of not beating themselves.
“We have little things that will play big roles in the upcoming season,” Larson said. “That’s part of our culture is doing the little things and doing them at a higher level than our opponent if we are going to win football games.”
The conditioning aspect and demanding a focused practice have been particularly important for Larson this spring. He noted that in several of the losses last season, UW-Eau Claire hung tough and even competed for a quarter or two but then had a bad stretch to blow the game open.
In other words, finishing has been a word his players have heard a lot during spring ball.
“That’s been a nice surprise to guys take a big step in that direction,” Larson said. “That was our issue last fall where we’d play well for two quarters and play competitive one week and then come out the next week and kind of lack that sense of urgency that we had the week before.”
Last spring, several guys moved over from offense to defense or vice versa. There hasn’t been a whole lot of that this spring. If anything, Larson said, there might be a safety that gets a look at outside linebacker. Otherwise, he’s pretty set on where guys will be.
Outside of Matt Knapp — who will be dearly missed as a playmaker at wide receiver — UW-Eau Claire returns virtually everyone on offense. The defense gets a big lift as all-conference linebacker Kaeleb Stengler will return from an injury that sidelined him for much of last season. Larson’s first true recruiting class will be on campus in the fall, and some of those guys might have to be thrown into the mix right away because of a smaller roster.
There’s optimism around the program. But make no mistake, the Blugolds will still be in rebuild mode this fall with hopes of being competitive in every game and getting young guys experience for the time when the rebuild phase is complete.
UW-Eau Claire opens its season at St. Thomas, a perennial NCAA tournament qualifier and winner of a 42-6 contest at Carson Park last September. The Blugolds then host Wisconsin Lutheran at 6 p.m. on Sept. 9. UW-Eau Claire dominated that game last year for a 40-14 victory in Milwaukee. The Blugolds close out the nonconference schedule by traveling to Oregon to play George Fox University. Larson said the contrasting styles between spread and smashmouth among the three nonconference opponents will give his squad a good taste of what’s to come in WIAC play.
“I think what’s really going to challenge our players is that we’re going to have to adapt to styles,which is what you have to do in our conference,” he said.
In WIAC play, UW-Eau Claire will host UW-River Falls, UW-Stout and UW-Platteville. They will travel to UW-La Crosse, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh.