CANTON, Mo. -- The process turned out to be as humbling as it was exasperating for the Culver-Stockton College football players. Yet, they believe they are better for having endured last season.
The Wildcats went 1-10 in Tom Sallay's first season as head coach as a roster overloaded with freshmen steadily adjusted to the rigors of college football before beating Graceland 67-30 in the season finale. It helped change the tone for the offseason, providing motivation for the Wildcats to put in extra effort.
"My momma always taught me when something bad happens, there is a reason for it," said sophomore linebacker Dalton Huffman, a Hannibal product. "She always called it a blessing in disguise. I feel like that's what last year was. We went through a rough patch and ended on a decent note.
"This year, we have everything together. We have a quarterback who is a leader. I'm a leader myself, and I'd follow him. People have to do their jobs, and now they understand how to do those jobs."
For the first time in a while, it gives the Wildcats a leg up instead of starting a leg behind. C-SC opens its season Saturday with a trip to Ellendale, N.D., to face Trinity Bible College.
"If we start off the way we should and the way we're intending to, we should start off fast and send a message to the rest of the conference that we're not the same old team we've been the last few years," sophomore offensive lineman Andrew Rupcich said.
The Wildcats certainly aren't the same team they were a year ago.
Sallay was hired to revamp the program after back-to-back seasons in which C-SC finished last nationally in defensive statistics. The Wildcats started a freshmen at quarterback and running back, all five spots along the offensive line and at several positions defensively.
With a year of experience under their belts, those freshmen have become sophomores and leaders.
"They were trying to figure out themselves how to play college football," Sallay said. "Now they've kind of figured it out, and they're going to be darn good football players. They can look around and hold others accountable while still having very high, high expectations for themselves.
"They are the ones setting the tone. As much as we want to coach and have them do and listen to what we say, sometimes it means a little more when the guy you slept next to says, ‘Hey, when you don't get to the ball, you're embarrassing all of us.'"
That starts with quarterback Korbin Marcum, who threw for 1,292 yards and 11 touchdowns after taking over as the full-time starter in Week 6. Sallay said Marcum embodies the "rivercats" notion the team has adopted by being willing to get his hands dirty on every play.
"He's not scared to yell at anybody, and he's not scared to take the blame himself," Sallay said. "When you have a great leader, that resonates. His teammates embrace him because he's not afraid to do whatever it takes."
Sophomore running back Nathan Barnes rushed for 404 yards and five touchdowns in nine games and will run behind an offensive line anchored by Rupcich, who was an honorable mention All-Heart of America Athletic Conference North Division selection a year ago.
"Last year, as we went along, we started to click," Rupcich said of the offensive line. "This year, we're talking more and really in sync with each other. As a group, we're all high energy, high voice."
Huffman earned second-team all-conference honors after making 92 tackles with one sack and one fumble recovery. He is one of seven returning starters, all of whom are sophomores.
The emphasis is on gang-tackling and creating turnovers.
"When you go to make a tackle, you wrap them up, and you start ripping," Huffman said. "It's a mindset. You want the football. You want to give the ball back to the offense in good position."
If the offense plays as physical as it intends, it should capitalize on those change-of-pace moments.
"Our mentality is we have to go out there and do our job so they know who they played," Rupcich said.
That's only a start. They have to continue to takes steps forward this season.
"If we can get some momentum, we can surprise some people," Huffman said. "On paper, people aren't expecting very many wins from us. We're better than that."
C-SC at a glance
Coach: Tom Sallay (1-10 at C-SC, second season).
2017 record: 1-10 (1-4 Heart of America Athletic Conference North Division).
Offense -- QB Korbin Marcum, 6-4, 185, Soph.; RB Nathan Barnes, 5-11, 235, Soph.; WR Denzel Campbell, 5-6, 160, Sr.; WR Stephen Murphy, 5-8, 171, Sr.; OL Andrew Rupcich, 6-7, 305, Soph.; OL Alex Gonzales, 6-4, 300, Soph.; OL Kaleb Garner, 6-2, 290, Soph.
Defense -- LB Dalton Huffman, 5-9, 21, Soph.; CB Stephen Benson, 5-10, 185, Soph.; DE Pat Robinson, 6-2, 220, Soph.; LB Brody Hassel, 6-1, 180, Soph.; LB Seth Mahar, 5-11, 185, Soph.; DE Kendall Kothe, 6-3, 250, Sr.; S Ian Sweeney, 6-1, 190, Soph.
New faces: S Mayles Williamson, 6-2, 192, Fr.; S Jahmar Bingham, 6-1, 165, Fr.; LB Eric Nicks, 6-3, 215, Fr.; WR Sidney Luna-Long, 6-4, 195, Fr.; WR Alex Nicks, 6-1, 180, Fr.; LB Robert Bradley, 6-0, 215, Fr.; LB Briar Julian, 6-0, 215, Fr.
Key losses: LB Matt Kelly, DL Karlin Entoe.
Schedule: Aug. 25 at Trinity Bible, 1 p.m.; Sept. 1 vs. Central Methodist, 6 p.m.; Sept. 8 vs. MidAmerica Nazarene, 2:30 p.m.; Sept. 15 at Baker, 1 p.m.; Sept. 22 at Evangel, 2:30 p.m.; Oct. 6 at Missouri Valley, 2 p.m.; Oct. 13 at William Penn, 2 p.m.; Oct. 20 vs. Benedictine, Noon; Oct. 27 vs. Grand View, Noon; Nov. 3 at Peru State, 1 p.m.; Nov. 10 at Graceland, 2 p.m.