Stevie Williams (SR/Long Beach, Calif.) was an integral part of Kansas Wesleyan's success in 2019, earning AFCA/NAIA All-America honors in his first season.
This fall he's one of a just six returning starters from a team that went 12-1, won the Kansas Conference title and advanced to the NAIA Championship Series quarterfinals.
A wholesale rebuilding effort seemed unavoidable.
While no one's ready to say the 2020 team will duplicate last year's success, there is certainly reason for optimism following the season opener. The names were unfamiliar, the results were not.
The revamped Coyotes picked up where they left off, blitzing Friends for 555 total yards, limiting the Falcons to 327 yards and dominating play from start to finish in a 70-17 Kansas Conference victory Saturday night at Graves Family Sports Complex.
KWU averaged 7.5 yards per play on 74 plays while amassing 265 yards rushing and 290 passing.
"No, I didn't see this coming, but in practice we talk about coming together and playing our game and just sticking to the game plan," said Williams, a senior wide receiver. "Coach (Myers Hendrickson) talked to us about sticking with it even though it gets tough.
"We stuck with it tonight and the results came on the scoreboard."
Individual standouts? Where do you start?
Williams had another huge game, catching five passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. Eren Jenkins (SR/Chicago, Ill.) caught two for 76 yards and a score while Roy Sanders (SR/Sacramento, Calif.) and Charlie Simmons (JR/Saint Johns, Fla.) – the same Charlie Simmons who earned All-America honors in 2018, but missed last season with a back injury – caught three passes apiece.
The big question was who would call the signals and get the ball to the wide outs. Tony Brown (JR/Austin, Texas), a transfer from Oklahoma Panhandle, started Saturday's game and split time with Isaiah Randalle (JR/Sacramento, Calif.), who played at Hartnell College (Calif.) last year.
Both were superb.
Randalle completed 10 of 11 passes for 202 yards, and two touchdowns. Brown was 8 of 12 for 88 yards, with an interception, and rushed six times for 32 yards and a TD.
"A lot of potential leadership from both of them," Williams said of Brown and Randalle. "They're really good players, I love both of them like they're my own brothers."
Hendrickson was similarly pleased with both.
"Both QBs played extremely well tonight, very impressed with how they played," he said. "Really excited as we continue to evaluate them and continue to move the offense forward with both of them."
Seven running backs gained at least 13 yards, led by Quincy Sandoval (SO/Salt Lake City, Utah), who had 68 yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns, and Necholas Sermons (JR/Duluth, Ga.), who had 52 yards on nine carries and a touchdown.
The revamped line, which featured four new starters, gave the quarterbacks time to throw and backs room to go.
Defensively, Friends managed 4.1 yards per play on 80 plays that included 136 yards rushing on 44 attempts (just 3.1 per play). Linebackers Justin Sullivan (SR/Salina, Kan.) and Zyair Velazquez (SR/San Diego, Calif.) led the way with nine tackles apiece.
"I thought our defense played incredible football tonight," Hendrickson said. "We were put them in some tough positions, we had a couple of turnovers on offense and I thought they were dominant. You saw a lot of physical play and a lot of players working hard to get to the football."
KWU scored on its first three possessions and four of six in the first half on the way to a 28-10 halftime lead.
Sanders scored on a 3-yard run for the first touchdown on the first possession. Sandoval went in from the 1 four plays after Lane Peters (JR/Scandia, Kan.) blocked a Friends' punt and Jake McClure (JR/Wichita, Kan.) recovered it at the Falcons' 5 on the second possession.
Randalle hit Williams with a 24-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter and Sandoval scored from the 4 after a bad snap from center on another punt gave the Coyotes the ball at the Friends' 4.
KWU ended any lingering suspense by scoring twice the first 2:07 of the third quarter – Jenkins catching an 86-yard TD pass from Randalle and Drevon Macon (JR/Compton, Calif.) scampering 82 yards on a dazzling punt return. He caught the ball, ran to his right, cut across the field to the far sidelined and outran two Friends players into the end zone.
"That was one of the better punt returns I've seen, ever," Hendrickson said.
Sermons later scored from the 8-yard line, making it 49-10 after three quarters. Brown scored from 6 on the third play of the fourth quarter, Nick Allsman (SO/Belleville, Kan.) went in from the 1 and Christopher Fluker (FR/Defiance, Ohio) capped the scoring with a 3-yard run with 1:51 remaining.
"It was a remarkable start to the season," Hendrickson said. "I think it shows how far our program has come. It's all about the players, they bought into what we do and gave an incredible effort. We were able to see a lot of different players in a lot of different spots."
Hendrickson seemed somewhat surprised by his team's effectiveness after a helter-skelter spring and summer due to COVID-19.
"We had to do things uniquely this year," he said. "Meetings were different, install was different, there wasn't really a fall camp because of when school started," he said. "The numbers we had tonight I didn't think would happen. I think it was a testament to the players and how well they played and how well they bought into our system."
Depth appears a hallmark, it certainly was Saturday.
"This team is very deep, that's something I thought would be our strength," Hendrickson said. "I think we finally got to see that tonight and that makes everybody feel really good about where we're at as a program."
The Coyotes play arch rival Bethany at 7 p.m. next Saturday in Lindsborg. The Swedes were idle Saturday after their opener against Saint Mary was postponed last week.