By Steve Carpenter
Hutchinson CC Sports Information Director
The 2018 season was about raising the bar for the Hutchinson Community College football team.
After back-to-back 5-6 seasons in 2016 and 2017, the 2018 Blue Dragons did just that, getting within 18 seconds of a Jayhawk Conference championship.
Now, head coach Rion Rhoades wants his Blue Dragons to finish the job in 2019.
"Last year was a good year and could have been a great year," said Rhoades, who leads the No. 5-nationally ranked Blue Dragons into Thursday's season opener at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa. "We left two games out there at the end of the year. It was a heartbreaker in the conference championship game versus Garden City.
"Moving forward, we have high hopes. I feel like this could be one of the best teams we've ever had."
The 2018 Blue Dragons finished with an 9-3 overall record, which included a Salt City Bowl victory over Navarro, 35-6. The Blue Dragons were 6-1 in league play, losing only to No. 2 Garden City 24-21. Hutchinson finished No. 6 in the final NJCAA rankings.
The Blue Dragons are the preseason pick to win the Jayhawk Conference. The Dragons are looking for their first KJCCC title since 2014.
The 2019 Blue Dragons return eight starters (3 offense, 4 defense, 1 specialist) and 26 total letterwinners (13 offense, 12 defense, 1 specialist).
Collins and Lacey both return from injuries. Collins played just two games for the Blue Dragons in 2018 and averaged 116.5 yards per game with four touchdowns. He was lost in the pregame for Game 3 last season for the remainder of the year. Lacey missed all of 2018 after starting all 11 games in 2017.
Offensively last season, the overall numbers were impressive, but didn't tell the overall story. Overall, Hutchinson averaged 34.8 points, 216.7 rushing yards, 160.2 passing yards and 376.8 total yards per game.
The numbers that drove Rhoades crazy were 23 total giveaways, only a 26 percent conversion rate on third down and only 24 touchdowns in 40 trips into the red zone.
Rhoades made several changes to the offensive staff for 2019.
Drew Dallas takes over as the offensive coordinator and associate head coach. Alex Farah is the new offensive line coach, Kody Cook is back to coach the receivers, Greg Cross moves back to quarterbacks coach and Anathan Gibson will coach the running backs.
"I really feel like there is a lot of great chemistry with this staff," Rhoades said. "Drew's done a great job of getting us back on track with some traditional stuff that's tried and true. There is an exciting feeling we are getting from our guys on offense."
The Blue Dragons look for an uptick in performance from the quarterback position in 2019. Transfer Mark Wright see a lot of playing time, but the naming of a starter will be a game-time decision.
Hutch did lose 1,000-yard rusher Dezmon Jackson and the team's top three receivers. Mitchell Tinsley is the top returning receiver with 11 catches for 107 yards. Also keep an eye on Tennessee transfer Trey Coleman and redshirt Ray Samuel to add depth in the backfield.
The 2019 defensive unit will have a lot of live up to in 2018. From a look at the personnel, the 2019 unit could be better.
Last season, the Blue Dragon allowed 18.7 points and 245.9 total yards per game. The 73.4 rushing yards allowed were second fewest in program history. Rhoades wanted more pressure and more turnovers from his 2018 season. That was a mission accomplished with 31 total takeaways and 47 total sacks.
The Blue Dragons will have a lot of depth on the defensive line and secondary.
All-conference defensive end Kirmari Gainous had 33 tackles and a blocked kick last season. Defensive tackle Latrell Bankston missed four games with an injury, but still had 24 tackles, 3.5 quarterback sacks and seven quarterback hurries. L.T. Ikner also returns after missing the final seven games with an injury.
The Blue Dragon secondary is taller this year with 10 of 11 DBs at 6 feet or taller.
At linebacker, Navy Harris saw limited playing time on defense, but was a top special teams player. Geremy Spraggins is a highly touted incoming player as well as southern Illinois transfer Oliver McDowell.
Sebastian Garcia set a Blue Dragon record with a 48-yard field goal against Fort Scott last season. He returns after making 9 of 15 field goals and 51 of 55 extra points.
After Thursday's season opener at Ellsworth, the Blue Dragons will play their 2019 home opener on Saturday, August 31 against Independence at Gowans Stadium.