Preparations for the 2014 season began for the Hutchinson Community College football team as the Blue Dragons opened fall camp on Thursday morning at Gowans Stadium.
Eighth-year head coach Rion Rhodes led the Blue Dragons through a lively 2 1/2 hour practice session in shells as the process began to build up for the season opener at Gowans Stadium against the Bethany College Junior Varsity.
NJCAA football teams get to open camp 21 days before the first game of the season. HCC's opener is on Thursday, Aug. 28. The Dragons will be just a handful of teams across the nation to open camp a couple of days ahead of the big August 30 starting day for college football.
A lot of the questions concerning the 2014 Blue Dragons this fall camp will come from the offensive side of the ball.
Under new offensive coordinator Phil Ockinga, the offensive coaches started to evaluate one of five quarterbacks in camp who will fill the shoes of record-setting QB Luke Barnes, HCC's two-year starter who threw for school records of 4,706 yards and 50 touchdown passes.
The offensive coaches will also be retooling the backfield and receiver corps for this season. HCC lost its top four running backs, but has returning receivers Chris Murray and Bryce Harvey returning at receiver.
Defensively, the Blue Dragons will be led by bookend defensive ends Marquavious Lewis and Jeremiah Ledbetter and linebacker Claude George.
Third-year defensive coordinator Dion Meneley will have to replace a bulk of one of the best defensive backfields in team history. Only one starter, Riley Hunsicker, returns from that strong 2013 unit.
The Blue Dragons have nine starters (4 offense, 5 defense) and 19 lettermen (11 offense, 8 defense) returning from an 8-4 team last season. HCC tied for second in the Jayhawk Conference, was Region VI runner-up and won a fifth-straight Valley of the Sun Bowl. The Blue Dragons finished No. 18 in the final 2013 NJCAA football poll.
Hutchinson is once again picked second in the preseason conference coaches' poll and starts at No. 11 in the JC Gridiron.com's "Dirty 30" preseason rankings. The NJCAA preseason poll is due out later this month.
The Blue Dragons will have single practices each day through Saturday and then have their first two-a-day practice on Sunday. Fall camp will run through Aug. 22.
The final 63-man roster will be released after Aug. 22 as the Blue Dragons begin 11 straight weeks of play without a bye. That is a by-product of the new Kansas-Iowa scheduling alliance. All Jayhawk Conference teams will play 10 or 11 games - that's dependent on if a league school uses its bye week as an off week or a schedule an 11th game - and there will be no Region VI playoffs for the foreseeable future.