A new voice is set to lead the Fort Lewis College football team. When he looks out across the locker room before the first fall practice Monday morning, he will know what it is like to sit in the same seats this year’s players will occupy.
Joe Morris took over as the Skyhawks’ interim head coach June 30 when Ed Rifilato resigned citing health concerns. Rifilato remained on the staff as a linebackers coach and Morris, who has been on the FLC staff since 2013 and served as the team’s defensive coordinator the previous season.
Morris, who is from Lafayette near Boulder, played for the Skyhawks from 2002-05 and joined the coaching staff after graduating until leaving after the 2009 season. He returned to Durango in 2013 when famed coach John L. Smith offered him a job as a defensive line coach.
“It’s super exciting to get a chance to represent your alma mater and be the guy that gets to lead a place that means so much to me,” Morris said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I’m ready for our guys to get here and get to work. I’m tickled to death to be the head coach here. I’ll get the chance to speak to the entire team for the first time August 7, and it will be a special feeling to see those guys looking back at me sitting in the same seat I once sat in.”
FLC and the rest of the teams in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference attended a media day Monday in Colorado Springs. The Skyhawks were selected to finish ninth in the preseason coaches poll. There are 11 teams in the RMAC.
Colorado State University-Pueblo, the 2014 national champion, was selected first with 93 points and four first-place voted. Colorado Mesa, which split last year’s conference title with Colorado School of Mines, was selected second with 92 points and another four first-place votes. Mines received the other three first-place votes and 82 points to come in third.
FLC received 37 points and was voted higher than only Adams State (25) and New Mexico Highlands (10).
“That’s probably where teams think we belong. I don’t think we’re a ninth-ranked team in this league,” Morris said. “We have a really good group and are excited about the returners we have. Being picked ninth, we’ll use that as motivation to make sure we don’t end up there. I see ourself as having potential to be a top-four or five team. We have to come to work every day to get to that.”
OJ Thompson was FLC’s only player named to the RMAC Preseason All-Conference team. The senior defensive end from Parker has 11 career sacks and 77 tackles. Morris said Thompson had a great spring and is excited to see the 6-foot-2, 224-pound lineman rush opposing quarterbacks this season.
“That’s preseason, doesn’t mean anything,” Thompson said of his preseason awards at the RMAC Kickoff press conference. “We haven’t played any games. Until we play some games, it doesn’t mean anything.”
FLC has only three winning seasons since 1985 and 11 since the program’s creation in 1963. Thompson believes FLC was overlooked in the preseason coaches poll because of that history and has faith in the returning starters and the rest of the roster to finish higher than the bottom third of the league. The seniors who were part of Smith’s first recruiting class are determined to go out as winners after having a taste of success in a 7-4 season in 2015.
“We got really good camaraderie on our team,” he said. “We all care for each other, all hang out outside the football aspect. I think we’re hungrier than a lot of other teams, too. A lot of people underestimate us and think we’re just Fort Lewis. But we’re really hungry. We want to win.”
Much of the team’s confidence has centered around the play of its defense in recent years, as it ranked third in the conference in scoring defense and second in total defense a season ago. The emergence of Bo Coleman at quarterback during the 2016 season also brings excitement. Coleman showed an ability to make big plays with his arm and legs as a redshirt sophomore when the team went 3-8 overall and 2-7 in the RMAC. He started nine of 11 games and nearly led the team to a comeback at Chadron State in the second half of the season opener when he came off the bench. He finished with 19 passing touchdowns and another nine rushing scores. He ran for an average of 59.1 yards per game and passed for an average of 137.2. He threw eight interceptions and completed 56.9 percent of his passes.
“I believe having Bo take over the reigns is gonna be special for us,” said senior tight end AJ Shaw. “He’s a special guy. Having him calling the plays, calling the offense in the backfield is gonna be great for us. We’ve established our run game in the past few seasons. Now being able to add Bo and our other wide receivers is gonna be a great asset to us. I can’t wait to see how it comes together.”
Practices will begin Monday, and new NCAA rules no longer allow teams to have two practices per day. Morris said every practice is open to the public and fans are encouraged to attend scrimmages Aug. 16 and Aug. 19.
FLC will open the season at home Sept. 2 against Chadron State. The team hasn’t won its season opener since 2011, though the Skyhawks traditionally played a money game against Division I FCS teams until the expansion of the RMAC last season that now forces teams to play only one non-conference game per season.
“It’s a big goal this season to start fast,” Morris said. “My goal at the end of the year is for that interim tag in front of my coaching job to no longer be there. I’m excited for this opportunity and want to be here for a long time.”