BOWLING GREEN — Spring practice for the Bowling Green State University football team is just six practices old, but already the differences from this year and last are clear to coach Dave Clawson.
"It looks like an older, more experienced team," he said. "There's a sense of purpose, there's a better understanding of what we're trying to get done.
"When you return that many guys who have played, your whole practice starts at a different level. I like the way we are practicing."
The Falcons return all but one defensive starter from last year's 5-7 squad and have 23 defensive lettermen from a year ago on the practice field. Clawson said that experience will allow the coaches to teach players multiple positions: for example, this spring starting rover BooBoo Gates is learning the "stud," or strong safety position.
"Last year it was about guys learning one position in the base defense," Clawson said. "Now they should know their position and should know the base defense.
"So how do we get our best 11 players on the field at all times and in all situations? To do that involves some cross-training."
Offensively, Bowling Green returns eight starters and 17 lettermen, with the biggest losses coming at wide receiver and on the offensive line. Quarterback Matt Schilz likes how the offensive line is coming together to replace All-MAC center Ben Bojicic.
"We have so many guys with experience [on the offensive line], it's something we haven't had in a while," Schilz said. "The big thing I notice on the offensive line is, whether it's the ones, twos, or threes, everyone is making plays.
"Last year there was a big jump from the ones to the twos. Now we have some younger guys who have been here and have gotten better, have learned the offense."
At receiver, the Falcons need to replace Kamar Jorden and Eugene Cooper, who combined for 145 of the team's 254 pass receptions a season ago.
"We're starting to make a connection," Schilz said. "I'm trying to take a leadership role, helping them get lined up and making sure they know what to do.
"Shaun Joplin is getting a lot better, and I'm excited about playing with him, playing with Je'Ron Stokes, playing with all of those guys. It should be fun."
Clawson said the Falcons are looking to improve in three areas. The first is turnover margin, where last season BG committed 13 more turnovers than it produced and ranked 116th nationally out of 120 FBS schools.
"Last year, with a positive turnover margin, we're probably a bowl team," Clawson said. "We turned it over 28 times and only generated 15, and those are numbers that have to flip."
The second area of improvement is the running game on both sides of the ball. The Falcons' rushing offense averaged 122.92 yards per game, which ranked 91st in Division I, while BG's rush defense allowed 203.42 yards per game and ranked 104th nationally.
"We improved last year in running the football. I think we were the most improved rushing team in the country, and we made a significant jump," Clawson said. "But we still need to get better. And our rushing defense needs to take a huge step."
The third area where Bowling Green needs to improve is in winning close games. Last season the Falcons twice lost games by a single point in the finals seconds.
"We've been in so many tight games, now that we have that experience we need to eliminate the mistakes that cost us those games," Clawson said."
Bowling Green has practices scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday this week, with the team's first scrimmage set for Saturday. The Falcons also will hold a scrimmage on Saturday, April 7, in preparation for their spring game on Friday, April 13.
NOTE: Central Catholic grad Kyle Burkhardt is no longer with the team. Burkhardt began last season as the team's kicker but missed three extra points in 16 attempts and was replaced by Stephen Stein.
Contact John Wagner at: email@example.com, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.