#5 FHSU hosts ranked opponent in Thursday's opener

HAYS, Kan. (FHSU release) Fort Hays State Football opens its 2018 season when it faces Central Missouri at Lewis Field Stadium on Thursday night (Aug. 30) in Hays. The matchup features two nationally ranked teams, the Tigers at No. 5 and the Mules at No. 18 as referenced in the AFCA Preseason Poll. Kickoff is set for 7 pm.

Fort Hays State is coming off its first MIAA Football Championship, going a perfect 11-0 in MIAA/regular season play during the 2017 season. The Tigers finished the year at 11-1 overall after falling in the Super Region 3 semifinals of the NCAA Playoffs to Ferris State. The Tigers were the No. 1 seed in the Super Region and made their first appearance in the NCAA Playoffs since 1995. The conference championship was Fort Hays State's 11th in program history.

The Tigers get a tough test right out of the gates in defense of their conference crown. Central Missouri comes to Hays for a second straight year. Fort Hays State defeated Central Missouri last year, 35-6, in the second week of the season. The Mules had a No. 13 national ranking at the time, while the win pushed the Tigers into the AFCA Top 25 for the first time in program history. Fort Hays State has won three of the last four meetings with Central Missouri.

Central Missouri fell just shy of making the NCAA playoffs last year. The Mules received an invite to the Mineral Water Bowl in 2017, where they defeated Minnesota-Duluth 38-28 to finish 9-3 overall.

The Tigers have several key pieces back in place in hopes of making another run at the conference crown. On the offensive side of the ball, senior Jacob Mezera is back to serve as the team's starting quarterback for a third straight year. Mezera is a two-time All-MIAA performer, including a second-team selection last season. He enters the year with 5,377 passing yards and 42 passing touchdowns in his career at FHSU.

Charles Tigner looks to continue Fort Hays State's trend solid running backs in recent history. Kenneth Iheme earned All-America honors last year rushing for 1,380 yards, but Tigner gave the Tigers an electric 1-2 punch in the backfield. On just 92 carries Tigner produced 631 rushing yards, averaging 6.9 yards per carry.

Mezera will have plenty of good options to spread the ball around to at receiver. Veterans looking to lead the way are All-MIAA performers Layne Bieberle and Harley Hazlett. Bieberle is just 10 receiving yards away from 1,000 in his career at FHSU.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers return several key players, including a pair of All-America selections in Jose Delgado and Doyin Jibowu. Delgado has 285 tackles in his career and serves as a general for the defense in the middle of the field. Jibowu had five interceptions to go with 62 tackles last year and started all 36 games at the bandit back position since the start of 2015.

Joining Delgado and Jibowu in the middle of the defense are All-MIAA selections Kolt Trachsel and Tanner Hoekman. The pair combined for 141 tackles last season, 86 for Hoekman and 55 for Trachsel.

Wyatt Parker looks to be the anchor of the defensive line that lost three starters, including MIAA Defensive Player of the Year and NFL Draft third-round pick Nathan Shepherd. With a lot of attention by opponents going to Shepherd the past couple of years, Parker has quietly put together a solid resume. He led all FHSU defensive linemen in tackles last year with 58 and now has 116 for his career. The senior also has 4.5 sacks to his credit. He has company on the edges that could be on the verge of breakout seasons in the likes of Sterling Swopes and Sheldon Schmidt. Swopes tied for the team lead in sacks last year with four, while Schmidt added three sacks.

Senior Connor Shedeed patrols the back of the defense once again for the Tigers at safety. He was an All-MIAA pick last year, finishing with 75 tackles and one interception. Aquil Knowles also returns for his senior year at cornerback after producing 45 tackles and 11 pass break-ups last year.

Dante Brown also returns for the Tigers as kicker and punter. Last year, Brown served only in the punter role, but earned All-America honors by averaging 43.5 yards per boot. That average ranked sixth in the nation. This season, he adds placekicker onto his duties as 2017 MIAA Special Teams Player of the Year Brandon Brown exhausted his eligibility last year.