Anyone familiar with Tony Ierulli is aware the Maryville College football coach knows a thing or two about being tough.
The Fighting Scots weren’t even in full pads yet, and Ierulli’s voice was already getting hoarse on Monday. His toughness, evident in Ierulli’s coaching style and the attitude of his players, is what the Scots are developing this year in an effort to rebuild their reputation as a winning program.
Senior offensive linemen Kevin Walther and sophomore Lane Dodson can both attest to the new mantra of toughness felt on the field.
“We’ve definitely got more attitude as a team,” Walther said.
After a string of injuries, Walther is more than happy to illustrate Maryville’s new attitude. The rest of the Scots are feeling it, too.
“We’re all pushing ourselves every single day. We’re just going from one thing to another,” said the 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dodson, still catching his breath after a late Monday afternoon practice.
Maryville’s returning leaders aren’t the only guys feeling the heat. Several freshmen have stepped up this fall and the rest of the Scots have taken notice. After losing school record-holder Rommel Hightower and All-American linebacker Kyle Chewning to graduation last year, the Scots are going to need those young players.
Hightower left Maryville following last season with virtually every school record rushing now bearing his name. The dogged Chewning was the only USA South Athletic Conference player to top 100 tackles a year ago.
One player to watch is freshman offensive lineman Alex Perez of St. Cloud, Fla., at one of the guards, a theme for this year’s incoming class. The 6-4, 265-pound Perez is a real find from the Sunshine State. His addition is part of a beefed-up approach along the offensive front Ierulli hopes will not only give top-returning ball carrier Darrell Tate room to run but afford All-American receiver Wesley Idlette and quarterback Tim Conner time to make the connection.
Idlette led the USA South with 99.4 yards per game in receptions, averaging 6.2 catches per game, in 2009. Conner finished the conference’s second-ranked passer last season, completing 51 percent of his passes for 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns.
After several years of some hit or miss recruiting, the Scots have hit pay dirt in terms of the size and speed of the incoming class. Ierulli and offensive line coach Jim Elliot are hopeful the combination will help Maryville improve upon last year’s 4-6 record.
A disappointing 2009 season, which saw a 40 percent drop in average rushing yards from the 2008 season, is still clear in the minds of the returning players and coaches. Elliot is excited and hopeful about the new crop of Fighting Scots under his watch. The work ethic they’ve displayed through the early days of fall camp has been encouraging.
“I feel really good about what we had come in (this year) as far as size and conditioning go,” Elliot said. “All the freshmen came into camp ready to play.”
It seems that this year the Scots are much more confident in their incoming class.
“The five years I’ve been here, recruiting has gotten better every year because Maryville is getting a better name,” Elliot said.
Ierulli shares the sentiment.
“Last year was going to be a transitional year,” he said. “It wasn’t going to be a typical year because we lost a lot up front.”
With Maryville’s new maxims of attitude and toughness, Ierulli is looking forward to the Scots improving on a fifth-place USA South preseason prediction. Maryville finished sixth in league standing a year ago.
“I’m coming back with confidence this year,” Ierulli said.
That confidence is not unwarranted. Coaches and players alike are noticing some key differences from years past this preseason. Both Walther and Dodson can testify to the change in the coaching style this year: more fast-paced, upfront and looking to sharpen the attitude of the entire team.
“Last year, I was scared to death because I knew we were gonna have a freshman start, and there was only one guy that had any college experience,” Elliot said. “I knew we were gonna have four guys starting that didn’t really know what was going on out there.”
Entering the 2010 campaign, Elliot said he’s “feeling good about this year.”
Football games aren’t won by good feelings, though, Ierulli emphasized.
“We demand a lot from our players,” he said. “We expect them to be tough. Toughness... has been the ingredient towards our success.”
Based on the attitudes at camp this season, the Scots are likely to display a lot more tenacity and aggression on the field. The Scots hope to come out swinging in their season opener at Huntingdon College on Sept. 4.