BLUE DRAGON FOOTBALL
2018 Season Opener
Hutchinson (0-0) vs. Ellsworth (0-0)
When: Thursday, August 23, 2018
Where: Gowans Stadium
Kickoff: 7 p.m.
Live Stats: www.BlueDragonSports.com
Admission: $8 Reserved seats; $6 General admission; $5 Kids 8th grade and under
Game Sponsor: Midwest Superstore
Special Guests: Reno County First Responders
BLUE DRAGONS TO HONOR
The Blue Dragons and Hutchinson Community College are honoring all Reno County first responders at Thursday's game. All Reno County first responders will receive free admission with a current work ID or wear your uniform to the game.
All Reno County first responders will be invited to join the Blue Dragon Cheer Squad on the field for the pregame tunnel.
Starting at 5 p.m. in the Crimson Courtyard (located just northwest of Gowans Stadium), fans will have the opportunity to view a variety of emergency vehicles from multiple Reno County agencies, including police cruisers, fire trucks, ambulances and a Bearcat.
Hutchinson CC Sports Information
The Hutchinson Community College Football team opens its 87th season on Thursday night as the Ellsworth Panthers come to Gowans Stadium for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
This will be Hutchinson's fourth Thursday Night season opener, the first since 2015. The Blue Dragons played Coffeyville to open the 2011 season on a Thursday. In 2014 the Dragons played the Bethany College JV and in 2015, Hutch played host to the Sterling College Junior Varsity.
The Blue Dragons have won 10-straight season openers and are 50-34-2 all-time in season openers.
Thursday night's game with Ellsworth also kicks off the fifth season of the Jayhawk Conference-Iowa Conference scheduling alliance. Last season in a rain-soaked Iowa Falls, the Blue Dragons defeated Ellsworth 25-13. Hutch and Ellsworth are 2-2 in the first two seasons of the scheduling alliance.
Thursday's game will be broadcast live on Blue Dragon flagship station KHUT-FM (102.9) and sister station KWBW-AM (1450) beginning at 6:30 p.m. with Countdown to Kickoff. Rusty Hilst (play-by-play), Rob Dreher (analysis) and Glen Grunwald (sidelines) will call the action. The game will also be videostreamed on the Blue Dragon Sports Network with the link available at 6:50 p.m.
BLUE DRAGON SEASON PREVIEW
After back-to-back 5-6 seasons in 2015 and 2016, the Hutchinson Community College football team saw the bar of success make an upswing in 2017.
The Blue Dragons went 7-5 overall and qualified to play in the Salt City Bowl. Hutchinson was back over .500 in conference play for the first time in three seasons with a 4-3 record that earned a fourth-place finish.
Now with 2018 opening on Thursday, 12th year Blue Dragon coach Rion Rhoades has visions of that bar continuing that upward trend, much like the stretch between 2010 and 2014, which ultimately culminated in a Jayhawk Conference championship.
"Top to bottom, our team is more talented," said Rhoades, who is the dean of head coaches in the Jayhawk Conference. "When you look at last year's team, it was just half a recruiting cycle when the Jayhawk Conference instituted the new rules. "Now we have a full cycle of the new rules.
"The talent is the best we ever had, but that will be consistent across the league. "I'm as excited about this football team as I've been about any that we've had. We were able to sign an outstanding class."
The new rules Rhoades referred to is that the Jayhawk Conference will be in year No. 2 of the new expanded rosters and scholarship guidelines. Rosters now have unlimited out-of-state spots available and full-ride scholarships can be offered now by league teams.
Overall talent across the Jayhawk Conference will be at a level never seen before. With that, the retention of players from the freshman to sophomore year becomes even more imperative to create successful continuity from year to year.
Rhoades said his he has a strong sophomore class returning, which will benefit the Blue Dragons.
The Blue Dragons return 10 starters and 22 lettermen back from last season' Only two starters return on defense, but seven are back on an offense that saw its moments of brilliance, like setting a new NJCAA single-game scoring record of 91 points.
The Blue Dragons were dominated truly only once last season, a 38-10 loss to Butler at Gowans Stadium. The three regular-season losses came by 6, 5 and 5 points. Two of those losses were to the Nos. 2 and 5 teams in the final 2017 NJCAA rankings, Iowa Western and Independence.
Three things stood out to Rhoades when breaking down last year, especially in those three close losses.
"We weren't good enough at quarterback and after Game 7, we lost 5 of our top 12 offensive linemen in a nine-day stretch to injuries," Rhoades said. "We also had just too many turnovers that killed us in late-game situations."
The 2017 Blue Dragons had 27 giveaways (14 lost fumbled, 13 interceptions). Those turnovers led to 84 opposing points.
"We didn't take care of the ball," Rhoades said. "You look at the close games we lost, we had costly turnovers, and our center-quarterback exchange was horrendous.
"It cost us a touchdown and we lost by six to Iowa Western. It cost us a touchdown and safety and we lost by five to Independence. If we eliminate those silly things, we could have been really good last year."
Entering 2018, the quarterback spot has a tremendous focal point for Rhoades and his coaching staff.
"Really for three years now, we haven't been good at quarterback and that's really hurt us," Rhoades said. "We have a really good chance to be better, maybe a lot better at quarterback this year."
Six quarterbacks will start in camp. The Blue Dragons are bringing in three high school quarterbacks and a pair of transfers in Bart Harris (Tennessee) and Brandon George (Southern Illinois). Searcy, Arkansas, native Mason Schucker has been impressive.
Offensively in 2017, Hutchinson scored 387 points, averaging 32.2 points per game.
The Blue Dragons averaged 318.8 yards per game overall, rushing for 177.7 yards and 27 touchdowns and passing for 141.1 yards and 19 TDs. The Dragons ranked third in the Jayhawk in rushing, but seventh in passing, the lowest passing mark since 1992.
The Dragons will have some weapons offensively in 2018.
Running back Dezmon Jackson played in 11 games last season. He was third in 2017 on the team in rushing with 411 yards on 62 carries and a solid 6.6 yards-per-carry average with four touchdowns.
Andrew Lee is a hard-charging type back who played in seven games and totaled 241 yards on 24 carries. He had the longest-single run by a Hutch back last season of 59 yards. Lee will start the season with an injury.
Jaylen Erwin is the top returning receiver from 2017. Erwin had a team-high 24 receptions for 429 yards (17.9 yards per catch) with a team-high eight touchdowns.
"This is a big statement, but Jaylen Erwin is the best returning receiver we've had in this program since Cordarrelle Patterson," Rhoades said. "Jaylen is a dynamic player who had a really good year last year. I really look for more from him this year."
Jalik Jaggwe also returns. He had five receptions for 67 yards in 2017. Marquis Whitmire had seven catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Rhoades also wants to see redshirts Ezekiel Anderson and Ronald Williams step into roles this season.
"Our incoming receiver group could be as good as we've ever had, so I'm excited about our receivers."
The Blue Dragons could have an emerging star in returning tight end Leroy Watson. He had six receptions last season for 51 yards and a touchdown in an offense that didn't utilize the tight end much in 2017. Many different preseason pundits are touting Watson entering 2018.
Defensively, the Dragons allowed 23.2 points per game, allowing 102.3 rushing yards and 181.0 passing yards per game.
"I was disappointed in our defense at different times last year," Rhoades said. "We missed on some season stuff. The Garden City games shouldn't have been as close as it was because we had some breakdowns. We just weren't as good as we needed them to be. I think we have a really good chance to get back to where we want to be."
The Dragons had 23 takeaways in 2017 (16 interceptions, 7 fumble recoveries). Hutch's defense racked up 34 total quarterback sacks and just better than 10 tackles for loss per game.
"The thing we preach on defense is takeaways and sacks. I hope to be better in both this year," Rhoades said. "In 2016, we were a very over-achieving defense in that regard and the 2017 defense was under-achieving. I hope to be better that way."
Overall, the defense has just two starters returning, so Rhoades is hoping his front four can be solid early in terms of run defense and pressuring the quarterback to let the entire defense grow as a unit.
A very inexperienced group of defensive linemen will have that chore. Players returning are defensive tackles Jaden Cunningham and Anthony Ransey. Defensive ends back are sophomore Clarence Hicks and Jeremiah Fordham and redshirt L.T. Ikner.
Linebacker Caliph Brice is one of the two returning starters from 2017. Brice had a slow start as a freshman, but used his early opportunities to get better and start the final five games.
Brice finished with 50 total tackles, including eight tackles for loss and 1.5 quarterback sacks. Brice also had one interception and one fumble recovery.
Like Watson on the offensive side, Brice is getting a lot of early attention from preseason prognosticators.
"In terms of being a playmaker, with this game experience he has, he would already be confident. We want him to bring some of that confidence into being a team leader. He's fast and super-talented. I'm excited to see what he can do."
Jahmard Morgan also returns from last season.
Kelvin Clemmons is the other returning starter from last season. He had 12 tackles and one pass broken up. Also back are redshirt cornerback De'Mareyae Givens and sophomores Letavveon Beaton and Josh Reliford. Beaton and Reliford played a lot of special teams in 2017.
Long-snapper Dylan Chesterman is the only special teams specialist returning.
A QUICK LOOK AT ELLSWORTH
The Panthers were 4-8 a year ago, but won the Graphics Edge Bowl.
Ellsworth has a new head coach in Tony Haynes, who has had stops in the Jayhawk Conference as offensive coordinator at both Butler and Coffeyville.