Keeping in football shape and learning a playbook are always necessities when it comes to starting a new season. But for the Sikeston Bulldogs, preparing themselves for more of a team-driven mentality was first on their list of 2012 off-season workouts.
Although they were 8-3 and for the third-straight year received a playoff berth, Sikeston head coach Kent Gibbs sensed more of a selfish vibe from his 2011 squad.
"We needed to care a little bit more about each other and be better teammates with each other," he said.
Buzzing small, paint-filled bullets at 300-feet per second at one another may have did the trick.
"We've came together as a family. We're all brothers," Sikeston senior Kyland Gross said. "We're committed to each other."
"We've really made a conscious effort to get stronger and to build a little bit of team unity. We feel like we've made some progress there," said Gibbs.
The Bulldogs enter the upcoming season as one of the top teams in the region and state, grabbing Class 4's ninth spot in a recently released preseason poll.
Motivating them to climb those polls and reach a few steps further than last post season will be the bitter images of an onside kick and a lopsided loss which ended their two-year reign as both the SEMO Conference North and the Class 4, District 1 champions.
Courtesy of Hillsboro and Farmington.
"We have a little bad taste in our mouth," senior linebacker Blake Flannigan said. "Every time we come on this field we think about Farmington kicking the crap out of us and Hillsboro. We use that to our advantage. We try to use that as a positive."
Last season was the first time Sikeston lost more than one game since 2008, where they finished 5-5. Although most teams would be ecstatic with an eight-win season that led to the playoffs, from the Bulldog camp, there's a sense of failed expectations.
"We set our expectations high," Gibbs said. "We wanted to get into the playoffs, and we did. We wanted to make a little bit deeper of a run, but we didn't. We're really disappointed.
"It's not like we were 2-8," Gibbs added. "We did end up with a good, productive season and a few years back, we would have really been excited about that. The fact of the matter is, when you go 13-1 back to back you want to keep that going. We're proud of what we done, but we also don't want to get back to where we were before."
Gibbs will be turning back the clock as he will be taking over the offensive play-calling duties after former offensive coordinator Mark Jackson departed for Obion County High School.
Although he has a superb background coordinating an offense, he admits there's been an adjustment period.
"Just as any time you change there's a learning curve and there's been one," Gibbs said. "It's been several years since I've called the offense, although 20 years previous I did. So, it's taken awhile to be real honest about it."
Despite being a bit rusty, he takes over an offense that has been one of the leaders in the area three years running.
In 2011, the Bulldogs averaged 41 points per game and produced Sikeston's fourth all-time leading rusher, James Watson, who scooted around for 1,605 yards.
Sikeston will continue Jackson's misdirection offense that hinders on reading a defense and a speedy backfield -- something Gibbs will have right up front with his starting quarterback, Kyland Gross.
Gross was an all-purpose giant for the Bulldogs last season.
He lined up in the backfield, at wide receiver and pretty much anywhere else the speedy senior could. Gross rushed for 653 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, while averaging 8.6 yards per carry.
"He's really made a lot of progress in that position," Gibbs said about Gross. "It's kind of a gamble on our part because he's an all-conference running back, but it's a switch we felt like we needed to make."
Gross will replace former quarterback David Foster who threw for 1,100 yards, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions last season.
Junior Reese Porter will serve as the back-up, but is expected to get snaps throughout the season as well, according to Gibbs.
"Reese is sort of our all-purpose guy. He plays all over for us," he said. "He'll certainly get some quarterback snaps as the year goes on."
The depth continues into the backfield as Sikeston will feature five players that could possibly see action as running backs: Porter, senior Nick Nichols, junior Clay Porter, junior Patrion Gross and senior JeTerrance Harris.
"We've got a lot of guys in the mix there," Gibbs said. "I really think as we go we're going to be solid there."
Junior Chris Word and sophomore Dustin Oakes fill the fullback positions. Seniors Markeith Bratcher, Jacob Stinnett, Spenser Clark and Audrea Golden make up the wide receiver positions replacing Sikeston's leading receiver from a year ago, Keldon Warfield, who caught 27 balls for 406 yards and five touchdowns.
Gross is particularly pleased with how the offense is shaping up. Last Friday's jamboree, where the Bulldogs traveled to Hillsboro, gave him confidence that it's heading in the right direction.
"Everything went well and like it was supposed to," Gross said. "I'm proud of us."
Sikeston's offense may have grabbed headlines, but their defense was just as stout.
Last season, they held opponents to 249.5 yards per game and forced 28 fumbles while recovering 14 of them. They also intercepted 13 passes and had 14 sacks on the season.
They also completed two shutouts on the year on top of allowing less than 10 points a total of five times as well.
Blake Flannigan, who returns for his final year at linebacker, led the team with 99 tackles.
"Our defense this year, I say, is better than the last four years," the 6-3, 210 pound Flannigan said. "We've been overlooked this year on defense -- highly. We went to the jamboree and didn't get scored on once. I take pride in that."
Also returning for his senior season is senior Matt Green.
Green, who stands at 6-3, 205, totaled 77 tackles at linebacker.
"If we can keep them healthy, we definitely feel like our inside linebackers are going to be an asset for us," said Gibbs. "Certainly we look for those two guys to be leaders for us on the defense."
At outside linebacker, Clay Porter, Austin Brown and Golden.
"We're a little bit thin as far as depth goes on the outside, but we feel pretty good there," Gibbs said.
On top of their offensive duties, Gross and Clark will highlight the defensive back position. Gross was also an all-conference corner back last season as well.
Stinnett and Reese Porter will occupy the safety positions.
"We feel really good there," Gibbs said about his secondary. "Kyland and Spenser, who we think is really good, hold spots for us in the secondary. Jacob Stinnett and Reese Porter have really stepped up for us at the free safety positions, so we should be okay there."
At the defensive end, Word, Bratcher, Nichols and Patrion Gross are expected to fill those holes.
And just like their offense, Sikeston's speed thrills on the defensive side as well. But just because they have speedy players who can close in on a defender, doesn't make them a great defense, according to Flannigan.
"When it comes to our speed, it kills on the outside, but all really defense comes down to is heart," Flannigan said. "All of our defensive coaches have taught us really well to run to the ball. Everybody has to be around it.
"Everyone says in the game that speed kills and that's true, but it's more heart when it comes to our defense."
Flannigan and Green will also anchor the offensive line. Senior Michael Burdin, who is back from an injury, as well as senior Taylor Barnes will shape their line. Also in the mix are sophomores Tanner Henson, Austin McMillan and Louis Galang.
"We're kind of in a bit of a flux within our guard positions," Gibbs said. "You're only going to be as good as your offensive or defensive front is going to be and certainly we have issues there."
The Bulldogs' biggest concerns are the offensive and defensive lines.
"We have to get better at being able to stop the run and get a good pass rush," said Gibbs. "On the offensive side, we have to be able to have the time to throw it and we feel very strongly that we're going to have to develop some kind of power running game to take advantage of our speed to the outside.
"Those positions are in a bit of change right now, but we feel like we have some capable people and we'll use the first part of our schedule to figure those things out."
As a possible measuring stick for how his team has shaped up so far, Gibbs said he was pleasantly surprised about how the Bulldogs performed during their jamboree at Hillsboro last Friday.
"I felt really good and I felt like our kids would compete and give good effort, and I was extremely pleased in the end with things," said Gibbs. "I was also pleased with our defense with how they took to some of their assignments -- running to the ball and gang tackling. Offensively, when we executed, ran where we were supposed to and made the throws that we need to make, we did okay. I saw a lot of positives we can work on."
Sikeston begins the 2012 season by hosting the Charleston Bluejays for the 127th time at 7 p.m. at Sikeston Public School Stadium.