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DWU football welcomes changes in 2018

The Dakota Wesleyan University Tigers look different this season.

It has to replace its record-breaking quarterback and last season's leading receiver in Dillon Turner and Hayden Adams, respectively, and brought in four new assistant coaches. Yet head coach Ross Cimpl preaches the team's experience as why the Tigers have a chance to improve on its 6-5 record from a year ago, starting with an Aug. 23 home game against Dakota State.

Cimpl admits that replacing a tandem like Turner and Adams is nearly impossible because, "guys of that caliber don't come through your program every year." But the players he has at those positions have him excited about the upcoming season.

Shaye Slaughter is slated as DWU's starting quarterback this season. The redshirt junior is the Tigers only quarterback with game experience, having completed 11 of 15 (73.3 percent) passes for 91 yards and an interception.

That said, Slaughter isn't as mobile as Turner, therefore Cimpl and new offensive coordinator Loren Endsley plan on using more run-pass options (RPOs) in 2018 to keep a "dynamic aspect" to their offense.

"(RPOs are) tough to defend," Cimpl said. "The guy pulling the trigger at the quarterback spot needs to make good decisions. He's got to make the right reads and know where guys are going to be. And we got to expect our guys to be there."

Slaughter will look to sophomore Spencer Neugebauer (29 receptions, 381 yards in 2017), and redshirt-junior Jace Pulse (24 receptions, 325 yards) on the outside. Cimpl said Johnny Withrow, who converted from running back, and tight end Kyreice Miller have also had good off-seasons.

The potential is there, Cimpl said, but now it's just a matter of someone stepping up.

The Tigers return a familiar face at running back, however. Luke Loudenburg is slated to start again, looking to improve on a 2017 season which saw him rush for 993 yards and 11 touchdowns. Cimpl noted him making better reads and working on technique over the summer.

For the Tigers to make strides, it comes down to their defense dramatically improving, though. Last season, DWU ranked 85th out of 88 in total defense.

"For us defensively, the biggest thing is just guys maturing," Cimpl said. "We're expecting those guys to ... operate at a high level and to understand our scheme and execute our scheme and their assignments really well. It's not just do your job, but do your job really well."

That starts with DWU's linebacker corps. Cimpl said there will be a lot of pressure on them to perform against the run and pass, as well as making the right alignments. The group features DWU's leading tackler in 2017, Tyler Wagner (72 tackles), along with Eathen Gaulke (68 tackles) and Dillon Rork (eight sacks).

In the secondary, DWU returns three of its four starting defensive backs from a year ago, though experience alone won't be enough to turn around a group which finished last in passing defense last season.

Bailey Schriever, Tyrel Haley, Brandon Slama, Mitch Johnson and Trey DeCroock all have starting experience, but they intercepted just two passes last season. Haley led the group with 60 tackles.

"A lot of older guys, upperclassmen that understand the scheme and understand how we have to do things," Cimpl said of his defensive backs. "So I feel confident with those guys on the field."

The outside expectations aren't as high around DWU football as in years past, as the Tigers were picked to finish sixth in the Great Plains Athletic Conference. But that doesn't bother Cimpl.

"I felt like even before that, we had a lot to prove anyways. I think it just kind of gave us an indication of what people thought of us," Cimpl said. "... When we play our first game, we just want to play fast. We want a team that plays fast. We want to be able to outwork teams."