With one quick glance around the practice field at Rocky Mountain College, it’s easy to see that there is a lot to like about this year’s Battlin’ Bears football team.
Quarterback Bryce Baker is back to pass for another season, wide receiver Andre McCullouch is ready to reel in more balls on the run and safety Kyle Mai is on the lookout for another interception or two.
Those three playmakers were among the nearly 130 players out on the field Monday afternoon as the Rocky launched the college football season locally by taking part in its first official workout.
"I think we're all definitely excited," Baker said before heading out on to the field. "We've been kind of cooped up in the weight room, conditioning all summer. Anytime you can come out and actually do what you've been preparing for, it's exciting.
"There's a lot of energy, and a ton of new guys that I'm excited to see."
The Rocky players, decked out in shorts, green or white jerseys and helmets, practiced for a little more than two hours in the nearly 90-degree heat.
Contact was limited, fundamentals were emphasized early, but the offense and defense also got a chance to mix it up on opening day.
"I thought it was a good first day," sixth-year head coach Brian Armstrong said. "I thought the effort was good. I think we've got a decent knowledge base for the first day. There's a lot of work to be done, but for Day 1 I think that's the best Day 1 we've had, which is encouraging."
Rocky, which compiled an 8-4 record last fall and made the NAIA playoffs for the first time since 1999, will have almost three weeks to prepare for its Aug. 30 season opener at Dickinson State. The Bears have won seven of their last eight openers.
"I would say we all feel the expectations -- not necessarily pressure," Baker said of the coming season. "But like I've said a million times -- and coach Armstrong reiterates it constantly -- we just have to take things one week at a time once the season starts, and it's the same with what we're doing now.
"We've just got to focus on each practice individually and really try to get better at what we're inserting offensively that day ... and the same for the defense. I'm assuming."
Baker, a fifth-year senior, is heading into his fourth season as a starter. He completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,893 yards, 31 touchdowns and had just seven interceptions last year.
McCullouch, who made the American Football Coaches Association NAIA All-America Team last season as a sophomore, wound up making 78 catches for 1,328 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Mai, who will be a junior this season, had four interceptions in 2013 and was in on 60 tackles.
"It's going to be competitive," Baker said of the fall practices. "I can already feel the energy of the defensive guys chirping at me."
Armstrong, too, was impressed.
"I thought the kids worked hard," he said. "With that start, if we come out and get a little bit better each day, I think we're going to have a chance to be OK."
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Rocky will begin the season as the No. 9-ranked team in the NAIA Top 25 preseason coaches poll, which was released Monday afternoon.
Frontier Conference rival Carroll College is No. 2 behind defending national champion Grand View, Iowa.
Southern Oregon University, also from the Frontier, is No. 22 in the NAIA rankings. Eastern Oregon University was among the schools receiving votes in the poll.
In the recent CompughterRatings.com preseason poll, Rocky was ranked 10th out of the 87 NAIA football programs. Grand View was No. 1.
The rankings for the other Frontier schools were as follows: Carroll (4th), Southern Oregon (16th), Eastern Oregon (17th), MSU Northern (31st), Montana Tech (32nd), College of Idaho (33rd) and Montana Western (37th).
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While the defensive line and wide receivers performed well on opening day, Armstrong said offensive line and linebacker are the two position groups hit hard by graduation that will receive significant attention during fall camp.
On the offensive line, Rocky returns starters Matt Hearn and Kyle Breschini, along with Dylan Johnston, who also played quite a bit.
"We had some young guys that we redshirted last year that got a ton of reps in the spring," Armstrong said. ""We've got three transfers that we brought in to compete as well, so I feel, at least on paper, pretty decent about our depth at the offensive line position."
The Bears do not return any starters at linebacker, but Anderson Otuafi, Cole Jelinek, Chase Kaufman, Burke Burgess, Jason Baker, Daniel Chester, Eric Johnson, Will Peppard and Anthony Carrion give Rocky a long list of candidates to work with in trying to fill the vacancies.
"Hopefully that will get shored up here at some point in camp and we'll get a good idea of what we have," Armstrong said.
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The Bears will have a couple of their former standout players -- Neal Coon and Eric Buer -- assisting as coaches this fall.
Coon, who wrapped up his career as a four-year starter on the offensive line last fall, will be working with the tight ends. Buer, who last played as a safety for Rocky in 2012, will be coaching with the wide receivers.
Both Coon and Buer were all-conference performers for the Bears.
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Rocky will practice twice on Tuesday, and the Bears are planning to be in full pads by Wednesday morning.
The morning practices on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will be on the artificial turf at Wendy's Field at Daylis Stadium.
"More than anything it's to save the grass on the practice field," Armstrong said. "We're trying to keep it as nice as we can for as long as we can."