It’s not going to happen overnight.
That was the message from second-year coach Dan Larson as his UW-Eau Claire football team opened fall camp at Simpson Field on upper campus.
The Blugolds won two games a year ago after a winless 2015 campaign. It was a step in the right direction, albeit a small one. It was also a learning experience for the first-time head coach.
“I think last year we came in, we were thinking, ‘We got to win, we got win, we got to win,’ ” Larson said Monday, the Blugolds’ second day of practice. “And then we saw in order to win (and play) the way that we feel like we should, we’re going to have to change the culture a little bit. That’s something that we’re still working on. That’s the narrative of our football team that we’re continuing to write.”
The Blugolds return eight starters on each side of the ball but lose some key contributors, including Memorial product Matt Knapp, an All-WIAC second-team pick on offense and special teams, and defensive back Bo Casper, an all-conference honorable mention who led the team in tackles.
JT DenHartog is the lone returning all-conference pick. The honorable mention quarterback passed for 1,479 yards and 12 touchdowns and ran for 265 yards and four scores.
The leadership gap will need to be filled, and Larson cited players like DenHartog, linebacker Kaeleb Stangler and offensive lineman Jake Coenen as the ones who look to be up to the task.
“I think all those guys you can tell, just from a leadership aspect, kind of understand that they’re that next group of guys that has to lead our football program,” Larson said.
Larson, a former Blugolds player who returned to his alma mater after a successful stint as offensive coordinator at Division II power Minnesota-Duluth, added that he’s been pleasantly surprised with the number of players looking to take on a bigger role and help with culture building.
“It hasn’t been just one or two guys talking, it’s been five, six, seven, eight guys talking,” Larson said. “Guys that didn’t necessarily talk last year are all the sudden now finding their voice.”
UW-Eau Claire was picked last in the preseason WIAC poll, but Larson said the Blugolds won’t really use that as motivation. Their motivation is simply getting better and laying the foundation for long-term success.
“I mean where else would you have put us,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to show that we’re a program that’s getting better, we’re capable of winning more football games, before I think people start looking at us from a conference standpoint and start saying that Eau Claire is a middle-of-the-pack team or a top-tier-of-the-conference team.”
— Larson’s first full recruiting class adds 55 newcomers to the 67 returners. He said the focus was on bringing in local talent, those within an hour of campus. He’s excited about bringing in more depth, athleticism and size up front on the offensive and defensive lines. “So far we like the attention to detail that they’ve shown, the willingness to learn and correct things that they make mistakes on. They certainly look like Day 2 players, but at the same time you can see that they’re going to have a bright future.”
— Larson said one area he thinks the Blugolds can make great strides in is on special teams, an area in which they struggled at time last season. “That should be an area that every single week we have a focus on that we’re going to go out and win.”
— One thing Larson said he learned in his first year as a head coach was the importance of understanding everything that’s going on. “I think last year we didn’t have a couple of great weeks offensively and I kind of felt myself get pulled a little more in that direction. Certainly, I’m still going to call the plays, so I’m still going to get pulled in that direction anyway. But I think making sure I maintain the focus I need to have and voice I need to have in the special teams and the defensive rooms as well. Not necessarily coaching those guys, but just with the coaches and the game plans and those types of things.”