FOREST CITY – Taking over as head coach of the Waldorf University football team, Josh Littrell has pushed his players to embrace a hardworking, blue-collar attitude.
"Going through camp, we worked on having a hard-hat mentality and toughness," Littrell said. "As far as goals go, we want to put a team on the field that's going to represent our university well and compete."
The Warriors are coming off a 2-8 record last season and finished sixth in the North Star Athletic Association (NSAA) standings with a 1-5 mark. Littrell, who spent the past four seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Doane University, is working with his coaching staff to jump-start Waldorf's program.
While coaching at Doane in Crete, Neb., Littrell helped the Tigers find success as they steadily improved each season. They finished ranked in the top 25 of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) poll in each of his four years at Doane, which included top-10 rankings the past two seasons. The Tigers posted a 9-2 record in each of the past two seasons while earning back-to-back runner-up finishes in the always-dominant Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC) and two straight NAIA playoff appearances.
Arriving at Waldorf this summer, Littrell and his staff are aiming to instill sense of grit, toughness and the importance of hard work within the program's culture. The strengths of the 2017 team have not yet been on full display, but Littrell expects to learn more when the Warriors open the season against Briar Cliff University (0-0) this Saturday in a 6 p.m. matchup for Community Night at Bolstorff Field.
"We're going to find out the first game," Littrell said. "You can only find out so much from scrimmaging yourself."
Players on both sides of the ball have Littrell fired up to begin the year.
Hilton Joseph has received the nod as Waldorf's starting quarterback. The redshirt sophomore from Miami is a multi-dimensional threat at quarterback. Joseph passed for 1,196 yards and eight touchdowns last season while rushing for 164 yards and six TDs. He's always helping his running backs and displays a high quarterback IQ, going above and beyond as the team's signal caller.
"He's very, very intelligent and probably one of the most intelligent quarterbacks I've ever coached," Littrell said. "It's very intriguing. He does things that I haven't asked him to do."
Edward Dominguez is currently listed as the backup quarterback on Waldorf's depth chart. With a 6-foot-3, 203-pound frame, the redshirt freshman possesses both skill and physique that'll aid the team when his number is called.
"I feel 100 percent confident that if we had to go with Edward, we wouldn't miss a beat," Littrell said. "He's got a great arm. He's still picking up the offense mentally, but he's got all the physical tools, too. He can move well enough in the pocket to get himself out of trouble."
Between Joseph and Dominguez, Littrell feels either quarterback will have the ability to command the offense.
"They just bring to different things to the table, so I'm very, very blessed with those guys," Littrell said.
Littrell said third-string quarterback Logan Jahnke, who's a freshman from Blue Earth, Minn., is also "really coming along."
Jordin Roberts, a redshirt freshman from Hallandale, Fla., is currently tabbed as the starting running back for the Warriors. He's joined in the backfield by junior Tyron Jones, who's a 5-foot-11, 225-pound transfer from West Hills College Coalinga. Sophomore A.J. Grice is also expected to help carry the load this season.
Sophomore Samuel Huntley, redshirt sophomores Cameron Newsome and Benjamin Mau look to lead Waldorf's receiving corps. Huntley hauled in 32 receptions for 290 yards and a TD last season. Newsome caught 12 passes for 199 yards and a TD. Mau finished with 161 yards and a TD on 16 receptions.
"We've got three receivers that I feel really comfortable about," Littrell said. "They've done a great job."
Cale Crowder returns at tight end for the Warriors. The 5-foot-11, 246-pound junior from Guthrie Center pulled down eight catches for 85 yards and three TDs last season.
"I'm excited about Cale," Littrell said. "He's done a great job and has been nominated as a team captain."
Depth will be one of the biggest issues for the team, according to Littrell.
"We'll be thin," Littrell said. "We're freshmen and sophomores all the way across the board almost."
Fortunately, Waldorf possesses size on the offensive line. Florian Malcherek, a 6-foot-4, 318-pound freshman from Julbach, Germany, will start at left tackle. Alexander Holzinger, who's from Neuotting, Germany, will also battle up front at left guard with his 6-foot-1, 360-pound frame. Junior Kyle Wallace, a transfer from Ellsworth Community College, will start at center. Redshirt sophomore Theodore Edge returns at right guard while Robert Mosley, a 6-foot, 322-pound redshirt sophomore, will go to work at right tackle.
"We've got some size and we're getting people in the right spots," Littrell said.
Awuzie earned second-team all-conference honors from the NSAA last season. The cornerback from San Jose, Calif. led the Warriors with six interceptions, which ranked seventh in the NAIA and tied for second in the NSAA. Awuzie collected 24 tackles and broke up 11 passes. He ranked third in the nation with 1.7 passes defended per game, recorded 114 yards on interception returns and returned an interception for a 55-yard TD.
Aonga, a 5-foot-10, 252-pound defensive lineman from Reno, Nev., garnered all-conference honorable mention recognition in 2016. He was a force for Waldorf's defensive front, finishing fourth on the team with 42 tackles while racking up a team-high 11 tackles for a loss and causing two fumbles.
Awuzie and Aonga will be counted on to serve as veteran leaders for the defense.
"I'm excited about those guys," Littrell said. "There's a reason they got voted as captains. They're expected to do a great job and are held to a higher standard."
Dakota Jahnke could disrupt opposing offenses on Waldorf's defensive front. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound junior defensive end played at Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) the past two seasons. During his freshman year, the Yellowjackets rolled to an 11-1 record and reached the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Championship Game. Dakota Jahnke helped RCTC to a 6-5 record and a 4-1 mark in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference (MCAC) Eastern Division last fall. As the starting defensive end for the Yellowjackets, he racked up 48 total tackles, including six sacks and 11 tackles for a loss to cap his sophomore season with MCAC All-Eastern Division honorable mention recognition. There's the possibility that Dakota Jahnke might require finger surgery, but Littrell remains hopeful he'll see action on the gridiron this season.
Aside from a potentially strong defensive line, Littrell feels Waldorf's defensive backs could have a promising year. Awuzie and Andre Cox, a junior transfer from Tyler Junior College, are currently slated to start as cornerbacks. Senior Derris Key and sophomore Nathaniel Lamar II are the starting safeties for the season opener.
"We've got a lot of question marks," Littrell said. "Our secondary has got a chance to be good. They've really got to continue to buy into what's being told to them."
"The linebackers have got to continue to work hard," Littrell said. "We're trying to find some linebackers that are going to come down the hill and hit somebody."
Adam Rademacher will handle Waldorf's kicking and punting duties. The freshman from Ames ranked among Iowa's top high school punters last season, averaging 48 yards per punt as a senior with a long of 65 yards.
As Saturday approaches, the Warriors now shift their focus to Briar Cliff. The Chargers went 1-10 last year and finished 0-8 in the GPAC. Their lone win came in a 23-19 victory over Waldorf during the 2016 season opener.
Briar Cliff is a program that Littrell is familiar with from his days at Doane. The Tigers handled the Chargers, cruising to a 62-0 win last season. Briar Cliff will certainly be a different team this time around with Dennis Wagner beginning his first year as the program's head coach. Littrell said the biggest key to bringing down the Chargers is minimizing mistakes.
"I think the biggest competition is going to be ourselves," Littrell said. "If we don't beat ourselves, I think we'll be just fine and be where we want to in the end. Our goal is going to be to keep the game within striking distance in the fourth quarter."
The Warriors open NSAA play on Sept. 16 when they take on Presentation College (0-0) at Aberdeen, S.D. Waldorf's season schedule features five home games, including an Oct. 21 homecoming matchup against conference foe Mayville State University (0-0).
Making it a priority for Waldorf's players to represent the university in a first-class manner, Littrell and his staff are striving to build community support by developing high-character student-athletes who embody the team's "hard-hat mentality" mantra. He said transforming the program's culture is paramount to solidifying a foundation for success in the years to come.
"We want to make sure that that's happening first and foremost," Littrell said. "I want people from the community to come to games and be proud of our team win or lose, not necessarily by their play, but by the way they carry themselves on and off the field."