CANTON, Mo. -- A lot of familiar faces were featured behind helmets when the Culver-Stockton College football team kicked off fall practice at Ellison Poulton Stadium on Saturday.
The Wildcats bring back 20 of 22 starters from last season's team -- 10 on offense and 10 on defense -- which is something third-year head coach Tom Sallay is salivating over.
"It's the first time we've ever had that as a program here," Sallay said at the conclusion of Saturday's practice. "These same guys have been starting for three years, and they're probably going to start for another one next year. So that's exciting to see them and watch them take ownership."
With that wealth of returning experience also comes an influx of fresh talent, as C-SC has added 79 newcomers to the program.
The first practice of a new season can have a lot of kinks to be worked out, especially with a new crop of players joining, but Sallay said he was satisfied with what he saw.
"It was only good things on the first day. You really can't have too many bads with the new guys coming in and other guys coming in that haven't been here for the majority of the summer," he said. "Just getting them here and getting them line up and excited for practice, that's the most important thing about the first day. After that, it's keeping their attention and making them want to stay here.
"We've got a lot of freshmen coming in, and their parents are all still here. Getting them through that first and second day of home sickness and getting them excited about staying is a big deal."
What's helping bring those freshmen and other new players along is the willingness of more experienced players to help out.
"I had Ian Sweeney -- one of our safeties who started for us the last couple years -- come up to me and say, 'Hey, Coach, how was the day?' And he's going to go and coach those young guys up on his own before I even get a chance to," Sallay said. "They take pride in that because they didn't have that. It matters to them to be there for the young guys and help them through the process because they had to figure it out for themselves."
Some of the newcomers even made their presence felt on the field.
"There's a few freshmen that kind of popped on the chart," Sallay said. "We had a young guy with a pick-6 early, a couple defensive linemen that looked explosive in our one-on-one drills. Now we did that all without pads, so we will see what happens when those things get on.
"On offense, we saw speed and that's what we look for. I would love for all of our guys to be 6-foot-4 and run a 4.5 second 40-yard dash, but sometimes you can't find that. So we try to find the fastest guys we can and give them the ball in space and let them go make plays."
Last season, the Wildcats finished 4-7, a marked improvement from the 1-11 campaign in Sallay's first season. Four of those seven losses came by 10 points or fewer, so a big theme of the first practice was a focus on discipline and finishing.
"It's not an ability thing, it's a discipline thing," he said. "We lost four games by pretty tight scores and at the end of the day we lost those games because we weren't disciplined enough to finish them. We won't make that mistake again."