BATESVILLE, Ark. – When Kyle Phelps was hired as recruiting coordinator and assistant coach of the Lyon College football program three years ago as the institution began the restart of the program, the plan was simple: Build young and rise.
Through the first season of football at Lyon since 1951 there were a lot of 'growing pains' as the Scots had 95 percent freshmen on the squad. The Scots came within one play of winning two games in its first season, posting a 0-11 finish in 2015.
Now, a year later, the Scots have used their first season to gain experience, building the players through size and speed in the off-season and are continuing to mature with each snap of the football. This season will have more expectations as Lyon's motto for the year is "Rise as One".
Phelps is now the head coach heading into 2016, and welcomes back 34 lettermen, including seven starters on both offense and defense and renewed optimism that this year's team will not only capture the first victory, but also make some noise in its second season as a member of the Central States Football League. Phelps took over the head coaching job just five days before players reported to training camp this fall.
"We thought we would build the program with mainly high school players for a couple of reasons," Phelps explained. "We wanted to give the community players they could latch on to and it would give the program and the college a better chance to grow.
"We've brought in a few junior college players along the way and hopefully we'll bring in a few more, but the goal is to build the freshman and bring them up in the program and help them learn. As the program grows it'll be tougher and tougher (for the younger players) to win jobs because we have the older guys who have been here. Our goal is to basically out-recruit ourselves."
With six All-CSFL players returning for the second season, Phelps and his coaching staff – which includes first-year coordinators Del Howard (defense) and Shawn Daniel (offense) – have a strong nucleus of players to build this year's squad around, including 14 starters who will be beginning their third year with the program.
"I think the fact that we have two coordinators with college coaching experience helps me out a lot because I don't have to worry as much about what the defense is going to call and what the offense is going to call. I just let those guys call their offensive and defensive game plans and I just oversee it all," Phelps added. "It's enjoyable to be able to be on both sides of the ball watching. Obviously I have my suggestions on what we should do, but both of those guys have done a fantastic job in their respective jobs."
Leading the returners on offense include All-CSFL running back Michael Bowles (SR/Earle, Ark.), who finished third in NAIA in total rushing last season, picking up 1,431 yards on 291 carries. He averaged 4.9 yards per game and 130.1 yards per game. Quarterback Dwane Robinson (SO/Palm Bay, Fla.) is also back, after completing 33-of-85 passes (.388) for 515 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions. He also ran for 252 yards on 53 carries and was named Honorable Mention All-CSFL after averaging 27.4 yards per return on 14 kickoff runbacks.
Fullback David Knight (SO/Sarasota, Fla.) is also back, as well as All-CSFL tight end Jonathan Hendrix (SO/Batesville, Ark.). Offensive linemen Khang Nguyen (SO/Batesville, Ark.), Jacob Lovelace (SR/Stockton, Calif.) and All-CSFL player Tyler Vanlandingham (SO/Memphis, Tenn.) also are back to anchor the line.
On the defensive side, leading tackler and All-CSFL safety Stephen Benedik (SO/Panama City, Fla.) will lead the way in 2016. He posted 89 tackles, including 60 solo stops, 2.5 sacks and one interception a year ago. Tre Hawkins (SO/Houston, Texas), Cedric Cooney (SO/Lonoke, Ark.) and Xavier Story (SO/Bushnell, Fla.) also return, as Lyon will boast a full returning defensive backfield this season.
Nick Bernier (SO/Sarasota, Fla.), who finished with 29 tackles last season and was an all-conference performer, returns as a defensive lineman this year after playing linebacker a year ago. He'll be joined be returning starters Jon Alexander (SO/Vilonia, Ark.) and Sage Wood (SO/West Plains, Mo.).
Lyon placekicker Osvaldo Espericueta (SO/Batesville, Ark.) is back after converting 6-of-12 field goals – including a 47-yarder – and scoring 41 points. He also averaged 37.8 yards on 26 punts. Hawkins will be back to return punts and kickoff, after averaging 22.1-yards per return on kickoffs.
Phelps said the returners who are starting their third season (Lyon practiced its first season with no games) are being looked to for more leadership this season.
"I think we have quite a few of the older guys in camp who are in their third year and they have taken the younger guys under their wings and have shown them what is expected of them," Phelps said. "I'm pleased how the older kids have taken charge during camp."
The Lyon coach said he hopes while realizing the Scots are still a young squad this season, fans will see a much more competitive team on the field. He said the resilience of the squad should be better and hopes that they put forth more complete-game efforts.
"We had a tough schedule last year and I think this year's opponents will be just as tough," he continued. "Last year it was tough and we had some chances to win some games, but we just couldn't get over the hump. Hopefully those older guys will learn what it takes to finish games.
"I think the key will be how our older guys will bring along our younger guys during practice and the course of a game. I think there are some chances to win some games this year; we just have to get it done. That comes with experience and maturity."
Phelps likes the way his offensive passing game is coming along in camp and hopes that will take some pressure off Bowles, who carried the ball 59.1 percent of the time and was 43.4 percent of the Scots' offense.
"I think there will be some pressure taken off of Mike, although we're still going to have to run the football a lot," Phelps said. "We've got to run the football to have a successful offense. Hopefully he'll run the ball well, which will open up the passing game and the passing game will help our run game."
The returners in the defensive secondary are also crucial to the team's success.
"I think any time you have experienced guys back on defense it's a plus," he continued. "Those defensive backs see everything and they can help get calls in and adjust our defense. They do a great job back there, and our defensive line also has some great players returning and we have developed some depth."