Competition and culture.
Coming off a 2-8 season, the UW-Eau Claire football team is focusing on two Cs as it prepares for its opener on Sept. 2 at No. 5 St. Thomas.
A third ‘C’ — championships — hopefully is in the future for second-year coach Dan Larson and the Blugolds.
“The way that we’re practicing now is at a much faster, much more physical level,” Larson said Monday at the team’s media day. “The competition aspect of it is just night and day different than where it was last year.”
Larson said the seeds of change were planted over the summer, when 45 to 50 players stayed in Eau Claire, putting in the work both on the field and in the weight room. That commitment from the players is one of the biggest aspects of the culture change that Larson is preaching.
“(Something we) talked about in our first meeting is when you play on bad teams, no one leads, and when you play on average teams, usually the coaches lead, and when you’re on winning programs and winning teams, that’s when the players lead,” Larson said.
A full year in the new systems for the offense and defense also is paying off.
“Last year, maybe they were a step behind because they were thinking about things a little too much, now we can just react and play at a faster speed,” senior defensive lineman Justin Viss said.
Junior quarterback JT DenHartog, an All-WIAC honorable mention last year, returns for his third season under center for the Blugolds. He sees a similar familiarity on his side of the ball.
“Last year, the whole offense, including myself, was really focused on just learning the plays,” DenHartog said. “This year, all the returning guys that really know the playbook well, we’re able to focus on more techniques, get all those down.”
— The on-the-field product is just one — albeit the most important — aspect of the culture change. Athletic director Dan Schumacher talked Monday of expanding the Blugolds brand, both in the community and to potential recruits. Five games will be broadcast on TV (one on WQOW and four on WEAU’s subchannel, 13.2 or 193 on Charter). Two games — the home opener against Wisconsin Lutheran and the matchup against UW-Stout — will be played at night. Schumacher pointed to night games as something that can drive up attendance, especially among families. The Blugolds also added gold pants this year, giving them nine possible uniform combinations. The players will choose what uniform to wear in which games. DenHartog said the yellow helmets with white jerseys and yellow pants was the current leader for the opener against the Tommies.
— Larson said many of the 55 freshmen brought in this year could contribute, especially when it comes to offensive line depth. Toward the end of last season, the Blugolds were down to as few as six players on the O-line and two of those linemen graduated. Larson said the coaching staff saw a need for more speed and athleticism and was able to fill that needs in recruiting, especially at outside linebacker and in the secondary. He added that if the young guys are ready, there’s no reason they couldn’t see the field, even early in the year. “We’ll play any player, doesn’t matter the year, if they’re going to help us win,” Larson said.
— The Blugolds’ schedule is always difficult, but this year they’ll play three of the top five teams in the D3Football.com preseason poll, all on the road. No. 5 St. Thomas is the opener, and UW-Eau Claire closes at No. 4 UW-Oshkosh and at No. 3 UW-Whitewater. No. 15 UW-Platteville comes to Carson Park on Oct. 21. UW-River Falls is the Homecoming game on Sept. 30.