REGGIE HAYES: Indiana Wesleyan football coming into view
MARION – Hunter Terrell committed to Indiana Wesleyan University football when nothing was here. No field, no locker room, no teammates.
He looks around today, and a big-time NAIA football program is in near full bloom. There’s a deluxe turf field, sweet locker room digs and about 60 teammates.
“It’s pretty awesome, to be honest,” Terrell said. “I saw the blueprints when I was the first recruit. It’s crazy to see how everything came about. It’s even better than I expected or hoped for.”
Terrell, a Homestead High School alum, was indeed IWU’s first football recruit. Like those teammates who work, sweat and study alongside him now, he knew his freshman year would be one spent building the foundation. You know how coaches love to talk about “building the foundation.” But this was literal. The stadium underwent construction after Terrell committed.
Spend one afternoon around the program, watching practice, walking the grounds and looking at the progress, and it’s apparent a state-of-the-art NAIA program is in the works. IWU has a history of excellence in its sports, and the university leaders have made it clear they’ll accept nothing less in football.
“It’s been a unique challenge to get these kids brought in here, to hold them accountable and to know what it’s like to push physically to be a college football player,” IWU coach Jordan Langs said. “The buy-in has gone better than expected.”
Terrell and nine other freshmen from the Fort Wayne area are among the Wildcats’ inaugural group of players spending their fall in preparation mode. They’ve played some junior varsity exhibition games, but the real kickoff won’t come until the 2018 season opener against Taylor on Sept. 1 at IWU’s Wildcat Stadium.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
The construction is twofold. There’s the building of the stadium with its state-of-the-art scoreboard and suites and its already-completed weight room and locker room. And then there’s the meat of the construction: The molding of that first team.
Langs, 28, comes from a coaching family. His father is a long-time high school coach in Climax, Mich., and his brother also coaches high school. Langs played defensive back and coached at Wheaton College before landing the Indiana Wesleyan job.
He already has a mantra for the program – “Strike the Pick!” – an exhortation similar in team-building tone to Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck’s “Row the Boat.”
Langs’ biggest task remains assembling a talented roster before his team has played an official game.
“Our No. 1 goal is retention of the current roster,” Langs said. “It’s important for these kids to be around if we want to build the culture. They have to set it and model it next year.”
But next year is in Langs’ sights, too.
“We do have more time (than other programs) to recruit, so shame on us if we don’t use that time,” Langs said. “That next class is just as important. We have to do everything to retain our current kids and everything to build that next class.”
LANDING REAL TALENT
Among those on the current roster is former Bishop Dwenger High School standout Amaun Clark, a small, fast playmaker who will line up at wide receiver for Indiana Wesleyan.
There’s not a more explosive player on the current IWU roster.
Langs calls landing Clark “a steal” for the program.
“Obviously, he’s a great player,” Langs said. “In our (junior varsity) game, he’s catching balls on the sideline one-handed, making people miss. He’s a great player, but most of all he’s a great person. He’s a great Christian leader for the team.”
That’s part of the Langs’ pitch, too, offering his potential players the mix of highly competitive football with the chance to grow in their Christian faith.
Clark had other opportunities, but the total package at IWU was what sold him.
“When I came here, I fell in love with the coaches, the philosophy, the campus, the people around here,” Clark said. “The people here are just amazing. Everywhere you go, no one is down, everyone is smiling and wondering how your day is — people you don’t even know. The atmosphere here is amazing.”
Clark pointed to a conversation with Langs that tipped the balance even further.
“It wasn’t about how early I was going to play or when I was going to play,” Clark said. “It was about how coming here was going to set me up for after college. Coach Langs proposed to me and another player on my visit that this is not a four-year plan or a 10-year plan, but a 50-year plan.”
There are notable drawbacks to assembling a roster and practicing all fall with no official games and limited junior-varsity opportunities. How does a coach maintain the commitment and intensity of the players without the carrot of a Saturday game? But joining a team a year before the real kickoff has allowed IWU freshmen players to acclimate to college in a unique way.
They are all essentially redshirt freshmen, with four years of eligibility starting their second school year on campus.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation for me, personally,” Terrell said. “This year off is a good time to grow physically, mentally and spiritually. I’m working to make those physical gains but I’m also processing and learning more information in these few weeks than all of high school football.”
SCHEDULING FOR SUCCESS
Langs has assembled the first season’s schedule for 2018, and the school will join the Mid-States Football Association in 2019. The MSFA is home to fellow Indiana schools Saint Francis, Taylor and Marian.
The only IWU game that has been announced is the program’s opener against Taylor in 2018, although Langs said the Wildcats will not play defending NAIA champion Saint Francis until IWU joins the league in 2019. IWU’s full 2018 schedule will be released in January.
“Seven of our 10 games will be against (future) conference teams,” Langs said. “When it came down to those bigger boys, you have to do what’s best for your team. I thought the best thing for our program was to hold off on those guys until 2019. At the end of the day, we’ll play them in 2019.”
Langs said he expects the 2018 schedule to be plenty challenging without Saint Francis.
“A lot of start-ups play a pretty soft first schedule,” Langs said. “When we publish ours in January, you’re not going to call it soft.”
IWU first-year players are understandably eager to get to 2018 and the real games. When they played their first junior-varsity game last month, the experience left an indelible taste of what’s to come.
“When the lights came on, it was kind of like medicine for me,” former Garrett High quarterback Tanner Burns said. “Oh, yeah, we actually do play football. It was big.”
From the looks of things on campus, the Indiana Wesleyan program will start big, and get bigger.
IWU’S FORT WAYNE-AREA PLAYERS
Name Position High school
Amaun Clark WR Bishop Dwenger
Tanner Burns QB Garrett
Dyson Redden DB Columbia City
Trevor West RB Huntington North
Hunter Terrell LB Homestead
Evan Elston OL Homestead
Geoff Bilbrey OL Homestead
DC Mickey OL Homestead
Nick Craghead K Northrop
Garrett Heaston WR Huntington North
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.