Through the first few days of practice, the UW-Eau Claire football team knows it’s a work in progress.
The Blugolds also know that there will be plenty of opportunities to showcase their progress in the coming weeks and months.
UW-Eau Claire will field a fairly young team this season, with a little over half of the 120 participants in its fall camp being underclassmen. That will lead to some competition within the Blugolds ranks as the team looks to shape its depth chart.
“I think it’s still wide open. We’re always going to have that kind of ‘you have to compete and win a spot’ mentality at every spot,” third-year coach Dan Larson said. “For the most part, it’s going to be wide open. But there will be some guys we expect to step up in certain situations and positions to earn the starting spot.”
The Blugolds had their first practice on Friday, and open the season at Loras on Sept. 1. UW-Eau Claire finished with a 1-9 record last season.
Larson’s recruiting classes now make up the majority of the program, and he’s excited about the young talent they’ve got on the team. The veterans are helping bring them into the mix so they’ll be ready to go in Week 1.
“We’ve got guys that have been here two or three years now, so I think they’re doing a really good job of trying to bring our young guys along. We’re trying to get our young guys reps right now so that we can evaluate some of our younger players at key position groups,” Larson said.
JT DenHartog, last year’s starting quarterback who passed for 1,056 yards and ran for 722, earned a master’s degree and joined the workforce, leaving the position of signal caller up for grabs.
It won’t be young players who take over the offense right away though. Larson tabbed senior Scott Procter and junior Zach Zilm Jr. as the two main competitors for the starting quarterback role early on in camp. Procter threw for 301 yards in three games last season, while Zilm did not make an appearance.
“One of those guys is going to be our starter, and the others are going to get ready for their opportunity when it comes to them,” Larson said, also noting the Blugolds will have a pretty good idea who the starter will be after this weekend.
By nature of having a lot of young players in the program, practice time has become hugely important for the Blugolds to figure things out.
“You can tell we’re still in that first kind of learning stage of the season,” Larson said. “This first week is all built around reps and opportunities. We’re trying to put guys in a lot of opportunities to take competitive snaps against each other.”
While the makeup of the program is generally young, there are plenty of returning starters on both sides of the ball for UW-Eau Claire.
Last year’s top rusher behind DenHartog, Brian Kulaga, returns this season after gaining 297 rushing yards last fall. Top receivers LeeShaun Evans and Darius Jones are back too.
Sophomore linebacker Victor Martinelli was an All-WIAC honorable mention selection last year after making 47 tackles and six sacks. He’s among the top defensive players who are back for the Blugolds.
An infusion of youth can help the returners improve, and vice versa.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior,” Larson said. “You’ve got to build this identity, this culture that we’re trying to build our program around.”