Why not us? Why not Simpson?
That was the question posed by first-year head coach Matt Jeter when discussing favorites for the 2016 Iowa Conference crown. He's got a point. The Storm return 14 starters from last year's team that went a deceiving 4-6 overall and 3-4 in the league. Simpson led at one point during all four conference losses, holding fourth-quarter leads in three.
Among the Storm's list of returners are three players who were the best in the league at their respective positions in 2015. Senior running back Jordan Beem led the conference with 1,254 rushing yards, senior defensive end Isaac Frazier had a league-high eight sacks and junior running back/return specialist Davey Jergens paced the IIAC in kick returns.
"Our guys have to believe they can go in and beat a top-tier team," Jeter said. "That's where we're trying to close the gap. That's the 1-and-0 mentality. We have the tools to do it. Now we have to go do it."
A Simpson alum, Jeter provides a link to Simpson's glory years. He was a team captain and starting cornerback as a senior in 1997 when the Storm went 12-1, advancing to the national semifinals. In all, Jeter went 22-2 during his two years at Simpson. The 1997 squad is the last Simpson team to win an IIAC title.
"We've adopted a theme for the season called 'The Chase.' We're chasing excellence and we're chasing an Iowa Conference Championship," Jeter said. "We felt we wanted to put something out in front of the guys that laid out where we're going. Now the only question is how we're going to get there."
Jeter was hired on April 1, 2016 after spending the previous six years at Division II Central Missouri University in Warrensburg, Mo. He spent the last five as defensive coordinator, consistently placing the Mules among the best units in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. Prior to Central Missouri, Jeter spent eight seasons on the staff at Drake University.
Jeter's teams have experienced just one losing season throughout his collegiate coaching career, going 103-53 in 14 seasons.
Simpson returns seven starters for coordinator Jeff Judge after tallying the No. 2 rushing offense in the league in 2015. With plenty of skill players to go around, the Storm are expecting even more in 2016.
"I'm excited to see our offense," Jeter said. "We've got a lot of skill guys and they're explosive. Any one of our skill guys can take it to the house at any time."
Beem is the undisputed focal-point of the offense after a breakout season in 2015. Beem had a year to remember, earning first team All-Iowa Conference honors after notching just the 10th, 1,000-yard rushing season in school history. The dynamic back averaged 5.4 yards per carry and was the team's fourth-leading receiver. He enters the season with a streak of seven games of 100-plus yards on the ground and is the seventh-leading rusher in school history.
"When you have a guy like Jordan Beem, you have to get him 20-25 touches per game," Jeter said. "I expect him to have a similar - if not better - year than what he had last year."
The leading candidate under center is junior Caleb Frye. Frye settled into the starting quarterback role as a sophomore in 2015, completing 56 percent of his passes while tossing 16 TDs to seven interceptions. The dual-threat signal-caller also ran for 359 yards, including 132 against Wartburg. He got better as the season went on, averaging 230 yards per game with eight TDs and one pick over the final three games.
Frye has a number of options at receiver, including upper-classmen Devin Norman and Jackson Redmond. Norman is the team's leading returning wideout and both have shown big-play ability. Braden Meints will play an increased role in 2016 and 6-foot-4 tight end Nathan Russell will be a popular target in the red zone after pulling in a team-best three touchdown catches in 2015.
A pair of solid, experienced offensive linemen in Second Team All-IIAC pick Dustin Ihns and three-year starter Blake Beard will anchor a group that was hit hardest by graduation. With the loss of veteran all-conference tackle Blake Bergstrom and center Corey Meyer, a host of freshmen and sophomores will vie for time on the interior while Ihns and Beard man the tackle positions.
A defensive coach by trade, Jeter will assume the responsibilities of defensive coordinator in addition to his head coaching duties. The Storm will have a new scheme under Jeter, one that emphasizes speed.
"We're putting in a new defense, so guys are starting to play faster," Jeter said. "We want to pride ourselves on tackling and not giving up big plays."
Jeter's defense has the benefit of arguably the best and most versatile defensive end in the Iowa Conference in Frazier. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior led the league in sacks and tackles for loss a year ago and is poised for another big year. A dual-sport standout, Frazier qualified for track and field nationals in the decathlon last spring.
"He's a different guy out there," Jeter said. "He can play sideline-to-sideline, he can jump, he can run, pressure the quarterback, play in coverage. We are going to do a lot with him because he's a special talent."
Frazier is just one part of a solid front seven that features two returning starters at defensive tackle in seniors Jake Stearns and Mark Milbrandt. Returners Cody Carlson and Ryan Policheri will vie for time opposite of Frazier.
Cole Cook is the lone returning starter at linebacker after making 45 tackles a year ago. Despite a lack of experience, Jeter feels good about the group that will feature some new faces. Galen Gist, Austin Gilbert and Bryan Gregson will likely figure into the mix.
"We're deep at linebacker as far as talent and speed are concerned," Jeter said. "They can all run, and where offenses are going know, you need guys that can run at the linebacker position."
The defensive backfield three starters, including the team's leading returning tackler, Adrean Johnson-Wigley. The senior safety made 78 stops a year ago and broke up five passes. His classmate, Patrick Steffen, led the team with eight pass breakups and two interceptions from his corner position a year ago. Safety Justin Shepherd will begin the season on the injured reserve list, but will likely factor into the mix upon his return.
The Storm led the Iowa Conference in kickoff coverage and kick returns in 2015, a trend Jeter wants to continue to emphasize in 2016.
"Field position is very important," he said. "We want to gain the winning edge in field position. Whether we can keep the opponent inside the 20 or we can get a good return, we'll be in good position."
Simpson has the tools in place to stay atop the league in the field position battle thanks in large part to kickoff specialist Travis Tupper and first team All-IIAC kick returner Davey Jergens. Tupper tied for the league lead with 11 touchbacks in 2016 while the speedy Jergens averaged almost 25 yards per kick return.
The Storm also return a two-time honorable mention all-conference pick in placekicker Drew Jensen. The junior made 24 of 28 extra points a year ago and went 8-for-10 on field goal attempts. He went 3-for-4 from 40-plus, including a career-long 45-yarder.
The schedule makers weren't kind to the Storm in 2016. Simpson won't play a home game until October and has just four home games in all.
But Jeter isn't concerned.
"We're looking forward to it," he said. "We want to be road warriors. We won't be making any excuses and haven't brought it up one time. We have to play the game anyway. Let's go to Wisconsin and Illinois and Dubuque and Buena Vista the first four weeks and shock some people."
Simpson opens with four straight road games – Wisconsin-Stout, Illinois College, Dubuque and Buena Vista. After a bye week, the home schedule opens with homecoming on Oct. 8 against Luther. The regular season closes Nov. 12 when Coe visits Buxton Stadium.
"We don't have to play a perfect game every week, we just have to be the best that day," Jeter said. "Our guys have to believe they can go in and beat a top-tier team. That's where we're trying to close the gap. That's the 1-and-0 mentality. We have the tools to do it. Now we have to go do it."