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(McMurry Sports Information)

ABILENE, Texas – Coming off of what was arguably one of the most successful seasons in school history, the McMurry University football will charge into the 2012 season facing many new challenges. A young roster, a different national affiliation, an expanded media presence and a renovated stadium are all a part of what fourth-year War Hawks head coach Hal Mumme is incorporating into the upcoming campaign.

Mumme (19-13/4th season) has a roster with just 12 returning seniors (14 overall), 10 of which have been with the “General” of the “Air Raid Offense” all four of his seasons at McM. That group has been a part of an incredible turnaround in the War Hawks’ program. A 0-10 season the year prior to the group’s arrival, has gone in a 180-degree direction after in improved record each year culminated in a 9-3 mark in 2011 and the school’s first-ever NCAA III playoff bid.

Not only did the War Hawks reach the playoffs, but they won their first round game over No. 11-ranked Trinity University before bowing out in McMurry’s final game as an NCAA Division III competitor.

That success has paved the way for 2012 and McM’s move into its inaugural season as an NCAA II competitor. Playing as an independent has come with a schedule that includes two NCAA Division I schools (McNeese State and Lamar), four with NCAA Division II membership (Abilene Christian, Oklahoma Panhandle, Southern Nazarene and Incarnate Word) and four NAIA representatives (Wayland Baptist, Langston, Texas College and Bacone). Just for good measure, the War Hawks will also play one contest versus an international foe (University of Mexico).

“The team’s coming along really good,” Mumme said after wrapping up pre-season workouts. “I’m really proud of all of the seniors. Last year, this team was laden with seniors – we had 24 last year…but about half of this year’s seniors are guys who stayed around and went (to school) part-time in the spring – at some expense to themselves – to be able to play their tenth semester this fall.

“It’s going to make for some good leadership out of those guys. Behind them, we have a really young team, so it’s a challenge for them because we’ve got to bring along our very first class since we re-instituted scholarships. There’s some really good players in that class, but they are freshman.”

While Mumme and his War Hawks face a handful of unknowns entering the season, the cornerstone is pre-season All-America quarterback Jake Mullin. Mullin, who was also an All-American last season at the Division III level, enters his final season already the owner of 18 school records and has been the navigator for the “Air Raid Offense” since his freshman year.

Mullin – who was the American Southwest Conference offensive “Player of the Year” in 2011 – has already passed for 8,979 yards and 89 touchdowns in the Maroon, Black and White. He is also the first quarterback in Mumme’s career to start all four seasons in the “Air Raid.”

“He never looks at me anymore,” Mumme joked of Mullin. “It’s hard to call a play because he calls all of them. I think he’s afraid I will call a play. It’s been kind of fun; I’ve never had that happen before.

“He really is a talented player. He’s a great leader. He’s always been that. This is the first spring that he didn’t play baseball and I think that’s really helped his growth.”

“It was pretty obvious who our quarterback was going to be once he decided to play,” Mumme recounted of Mullin first joining the program after a stellar baseball career for the War Hawks. “We’re just glad he decided to come back for his fourth year.”

Last season, McMurry signal-callers distributed the football to no less than 20 different receivers. Several of those return to the fold (along with a talented crop of newcomers) led by fourth-year senior Eric Shaffer. Shaffer hauled in 39 aerials for 427 yards and two touchdowns last year. Also back is the sophomore trio of Jeret Smith (23 recepts./294 yards), Greg Livingston (18 recepts./190 yards) and Greg Freeman (10 recepts./118 yards).

Returner Courte Gilbert takes over tight end duties for graduated All-American Desmond Diamond. The War Hawks have 19 players listed as either a receiver or tight end on their roster.

Chris Simpson is the team’s top returner at running back. Simpson gained 244 yards on 35 attempts last year, ranking second on the squad. Paxton Grayer – a highly-decorated freshman from Abilene High School – has been impressive during the team’s fall workouts.

“I’m really excited to see Paxton play,” Mumme said. “Every camp you go to you bring in these freshman. There’s going to be some guy you count on who’s going to disappoint you; then there’s going to be some guy you didn’t even know his name and he’s going to all of a sudden rise. And then there’s going to be the ‘steady-Eddie’ kind of guys – like Paxton – who you kind of expected to be (good) and he actually is; there’s very few of those guys and Paxton is one of them. He’s not at all intimidated to be on a college football field.”

Up front, Mullin and company will find protection from a corps of offensive linemen that sport no less than seven members topping 300 pounds and a cache of veteran talent. The leader of the o-line is fourth-year senior center Kiefer Price (6-3, 270-lbs.). Price, an all-conference and academic all-conference performer last season, has been the starter for Mumme the past two years and affords stability in the trenches. Incoming tackle Mike Goodman (6-6, 315-lbs.) – who comes to the War Hawks after a brief career at Boston College – is one of the newcomers expected to make an immediate impact.

The inside track for the remaining starting spots on the offensive front appear to be long to sophomore transfer Rafael Gallo ((6-2, 270-lbs.), sophomore returnee Daquon Brachter (6-1, 250-lbs.) and junior transfer Matt Newby (6-5, 350-lbs.). Gallo – a native of Canada – comes to McMurry from cross-town rival Abilene Christian, while Newby played two years at NCAA I Stephen F. Austin.

On the defensive side of the ball, the senior tandem of D.J. Baiza and Corey Hall are expected to set the tone for the unit. Both were All-ASC and all-region honorees in 2011.

“They are both very steadying forces,” said Mumme of his veteran leaders on defense. “But the rest of (the defense) is going to be young. They’re going to have to learn and it’s a huge challenge for them to go out and play against a team like Abilene Christian (in the season opener September 1) right off the bat.”

Baiza, the right cornerback, heads a cast of defensive backs that could have as many as three new faces in a starting role. Baiza was McMurry’s co-leader with five interceptions last season, including one 81 yard return for a score (he averaged 28.2 yards per return). Sophomore Spencer McNeil saw limited action last season, but is projected as a starter at right safety in McMurry’s 3-3-5 scheme this year.

As they survey the field around them, Baiza and McNeil are likely to see three new faces in sophomore transfer Desmond Guy (Sam Houston State) at left corner, Cisco C.C. junior transfer Corey Pippen at left safety and freshman Ryan Williams at free safety. Williams looks to fill the shoes of two-time All-American Will Morris, who was McM’s top tackler last year with 90 stops.

Three veteran players – nose guard Markell Rice, right tackle Chris Horton and left tackle Corey Hall – anchor the defensive front. Among the returning players, Hall had the most tackles last season with 52 (28 solo), including a team-leading 14.0 tackles for loss and 5 ½ sacks.

A pair of returning sophomores lettermen – Josh Jones and Jonathan Blair – are expected to get the start at right and left end, respectively.

The War Hawks have a solid nucleus to handle kick returns entering the 2012 campaign. Livingston and Smith will pull double duty as formidable foes on kickoff returns. Livingston returned 28 kicks for an average of 22.8 yards per return, while Smith brought back 10 kickoffs at a clip of 37.4 y.p.r. Each also had one return for a touchdown last season.

Baiza will again handle punt return chores, a specialty which got him noticed by Mumme three years ago as a freshman. In 2011, Baiza fielded 14 punts and had a return average of 14.9 yards per return. Two of those returns were for touchdowns.

Corey Foust, a transfer from Texas College after starting his college career as a soccer player for McMurry, is slated to be the placekicker. Fourth-year senior John Kowalski has been tabbed as the punter (Mullin also punted in 2011, averaging 46.0 yards per his 21 attempts).

“It’s kind of a strange mix,” surmised Mumme of his team’s chemistry heading toward the clash with ACU. “We’ve got the old guys who were Division III players here and four years ago they were just trying to figure out how to win a games here. Then, last year they had the great season and then stuck around for this (transition) year.

“And then you’ve got the totally new freshmen. It’s a bit of an enigma there with their attitudes. So, what we’ve tried to do is be real business-like; just try to get them to play the next play all the time, and not think too far ahead or who we are playing against.”

Not only will Mumme and his protégés face some new tests in 2012, but the University will be opening the airwaves for more people to be able to follow the team, as well. The two main venues will be an expanded “War Hawk Radio Network,” which has grown from one station to seven for this year. At the present time, network affiliates include: in the Amarillo area, KNNK FM 100.5; in the Lubbock area, KZZN AM 1490; in the Eastland area, ATX FM 97.7; in the Stephenville area, K300BD FM 107.9; in the Dublin-DeLeon area, KWBY FM 98.5; in the Ft Worth area, KBFW FM 87.7; and, in the Abilene area, flagship station KZQQ AM 1560. Fans will be able to listen to all games via their Smartphones and other mobile devices, as well.

Additionally, all video broadcasts will be free of charge, with the majority of the games being produced in high-definition quality and with multiple camera angles, according to Mumme. McM is partnering with to host the enhanced video streaming.

The final new piece of McMurry’s 2012 puzzle is the $2.2 million renovation being given to its home field, Wilford Moore Stadium. The addition of chair-back seating, new suites and an entertainment deck, along with upgraded concessions and restroom facilities, will give the War Hawks a top-flight venue to call home.