When Justin Townsend took over as the head coach for the Fairfield Mules football team 21 years ago, they were coming off three straight 1-8 seasons. A realistic goal was to simply be more competitive. Wins were an afterthought.
They won the first game of his first year, matching their win totals from previous three years in the first game. And it would be nice if that was a turning point, and the Mules were an instant powerhouse. But, no, the evolution was slower than that.
“In that first year, when we won our week-one opener, you would have thought we won the Super Bowl. We were hungry to just get competitive,” Townsend remembered.
They did not win another game that year. But then they followed with seasons of 3-6 and 4-5 the next two years. From there, the goalpost shifted from “let’s be competitive” to “let’s make the playoffs.”
And they did six times in the next seven seasons.
After sliding back to two straight 4-5 seasons and missing the playoffs twice, the Mules program began another evolution in 2013, winning a conference championship. That would be the first of six in an eight-year span. Expectations were no longer “make the playoffs” but winning BDC titles and hosting playoff games.
“The turning point game for us was in 2013 when we went down to Chester and beat them to split the conference championship. If we lost that game, we were 7-2 again, which we had already down. From that point on, that put us in the upper tier of the conference, and our expectation has been to be there every year,” Townsend noted.
In Townsend’s first 18 years, the Mules had one playoff win. In 2018 and 2019, the evolution took another step, with playoff wins in back-to-back years for just the second time in school history. Hosting playoff games was no longer the realistic goal: winning them was.
Last year’s Mules did not get a chance at the playoffs, with Covid wiping out the fall season and postseason, leaving IHSA with just a six-week spring football season. Still, the Mules held themselves to a higher standard, and went undefeated for just the second time in school history, going 6-0. They have expectations to meet, after all.
“To have those expectations beats the alternatives. It does not make it any easier, and it is a lot of pressure, but our kids know that,” Townsend said.
Familiar Names Gone
Just about any name recognizable from a box score from last year’s Mules team is gone this year. The top four rushers from last year? Gone. Anyone who threw a varsity pass? Gone. Five of their top six receivers? Gone. Five of their top six tacklers? You guessed it. Gone.
But that does not mean it is time for Townsend to panic, as he has an ace up his sleeve with four returning starters on the offensive line. And while the stats from last year are largely gone, that cupboard is far from bare, as they still return more kids who received all-conference honors (seven) than any other team in the BDC.
Fairfield will also enjoy their customary numbers advantage most weeks as well, as they continue to turn out kids at a greater rate than most BDC schools. This year, they have 42 varsity players, including 17 seniors, as well as 20 freshmen. They are one of two BDC teams fielding a freshman team this year, something some area schools with three times the enrollment of Fairfield are not capable of doing anymore.
While the skill players are all new names, or old names in new positions, the offensive line should be the stabilizing force for Fairfield, with three all-conference blockers back for another year.
Left tackle Logan Kreiter draws plenty of attention, standing 6 feet, 9 inches, and checking in a 350 pounds. He also drew an Honorable Mention nod last year on the all-conference team, despite battling knee injuries. He had an offseason procedure to clean up the knee, and the early dividends look promising.
“He is moving better. He is still doing therapy,” Townsend said. “He is still actively doing those things. He is getting better each week. With his pure size, when he down blocks or straight base blocks, he is unmatched.”
Lining up next to him at left guard will be returning starter Chris Henry, smaller only by relative standards, checking in a 6-0, 225.
Center Landon Stewart was a second-team all-conference selection last year and the 210-pound senior returns to anchor the offensive line in the middle.
“Stewart is the undersized guy on the line, but he is tough, quick and started there all last year,” Townsend said.
Lining on his right at guard will be junior Payton Allen (6-2, 235), who was a first-team selection last year as a sophomore.
“Payton is probably the most well rounded. He can pull, he can base, he can pass protect. He is a wrestler and it shows,” Townsend noted.
The new face on the line will be a similar name, with Dawson Stewart (6-1, 240) stepping in at right tackle.
“Dawson Stewart is our best puller, out on sweeps or back the other way on counters,” Townsend said.
Even the primary backups on the offensive line have experience. Kaleb Gonzalez and Hunter Biggs both started games last year. They will be starting defensive linemen this year and the top subs on the offensive line. Gonzalez plays center, while Biggs can play guard or tackle.
“I feel like we are deep at offensive line. We have eight or nine guys who start in a lot of other years for us,” Townsend noted.
New Signal Caller
The backfield will be entirely new for the Mules, replacing a group of two and three year starters that departed last year.
The Mules threw the ball 104 times last year in six games, peppering the short passes and screen game at a rate not seen in a Mule offense since the days of Lucas Reever. They actually averaged more yards per run (6.0) than pass (5.5), but the balance made it tougher to game plan for the Mules than previous iterations.
Of those 104 passes, however, none were thrown by a player on the roster this year. Stepping in to take over is a familiar name, however. At least the last name. Junior Eric Rodgers is the new quarterback. Eric is the younger brother and occasionally spitting image of Joseph Rodgers. Joe was the quarterback on the breakthrough 2013 team that won conference.
“Eric is very similar in mold to what Joe was. He manages the offense very well. He can run the ball. We have been running more option with him,” Townsend said. “The throws may not always look the prettiest, but it gets the job done. We have expanded our spread set and can run some quick screen stuff. Our backfield has a little more speed than what we have had.”
And it will be an almost entirely new backfield for Fairfield as well, although not entirely unexperienced at the varsity level.
The Mules top four rushers from last year and 93 percent of their team rushing yards have moved on, with players on this year’s team accounting for just 100 rushing yards last year.
Fullback Konnor Dagg had 62 of those, starting one game last year on offense. The 5-11, 200 pound senior averaged 5.6 yards a carry last year.
“Dagg is a guy that, physically from spring to now, is a different kid. I really think he is going to have a monster year. We like to run our fullback off tackle and run traps. He is built for that,” Townsend said.
In the double wing, the fullback is a blocker first, however. And Dagg will be leading the way primarily for a trio of seniors sharing the two wing spots.
Camden Robbins was the Mules’ leading receiver last year, starting at tight end and receiver in spread sets. He will move back to the left wing spot. At 6-3, 185 pounds, Robbins showed off his athleticism and explosiveness in the pass game last year, as well as on the basketball court. The Mules will look to translate that to the run game this year, while still using the pass catching skills as well.
“I like Camden’s speed on sweeps. I like being able to throw to him out of the backfield. He is no secret. Most people know about Camden,” Townsend said.
Townsend hopes the known commodity in Robbins will free up the other side, with a couple of options leading the way for that spot in seniors McGwire Taylor and Noah Barger.
Taylor is more of a downhill option at 170 pounds, while Barger provides more top end speed at 150 pounds. Barger played football for the first time last year, after playing golf his first three years and then taking advantage of the spring football season to try football.
All four of those names are also defensive starters, which may mean spelling on offense some. Backfield depth will include junior Luke Sork at fullback, along with sophomore Latrael Mooring, as well as Jay Mooring at both wing and quarterback. Sophomore Kaden Baker could also get snaps at quarterback.
“We have 8-9 kids I am completely comfortable with running the ball on any Friday night,” Townsend noted.
The Mules will also have two new tight ends this year in a pair of juniors stepping up. Luke Duckworth (6-4, 245) will play the right side, while Jaxon Combs (5-10, 210) will play on the left side.
“I think Duckworth is probably one of our most improved guys. He is not taller or weighs any more, but his weight has changed in he is a lot stronger. He is starting to play like the 6-4, 230-pound kid he is,” Townsend said. “Combs is not tall, but pound for pound, he is the strongest kid on the football field.”
Senior Blaine Milner will be used at receiver in passing sets.
On defense, the Mules will have to replace their top two tacklers from last year and five of their top six. The one returning in that group is switching positions.
The strength of the defense for the Mules should also be upfront, where they play an odd-man front to utilize their depth there.
Dagg is the top returner, production-wise. Playing defensive end last year, he had 17 total tackles, including 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss. He will shift back to linebacker this year, although he can still rush the passer on passing downs. He was a first team defense selection last year.
Biggs played defensive tackle last year and will slide out to one of the defensive end spots, with the Stewarts splitting the other defensive end position.
Clogging up the middle will be Allen, Gonzalez, and Trent Martin (6-2, 250). Gonzalez was an Honorable Mention all-conference player last year. Martin has emerged this year.
“Martin has been a pleasant surprise and one of most improved players the last few months. He has been almost unblockable to this point,” Townsend noted.
“Up front is our strength this year, the offensive line and defensive line, the physicality up there. It is not just that they are returning starters, but they are physical. Our front seven on offense and front five on defense can be a real strength,” Townsend noted.
Joining Dagg at linebacker will be Combs, who flashed in his lone start last year at Carmi. Backing up at linebacker will be Sork and Eli Carter, who is back out this year as a senior.
The Mules do have experience back in the secondary, where Robbins was an all-conference first teamer at safety and Taylor was a starter all of last year at cornerback. Barger will step in at the other corner spot, while Milner will start at free safety.
Perhaps the biggest drop off from last year to this year will be in the kicking department, a testament to the prowess of Aaron Peréz, one of the better kickers in the state last year. For the Mules, it will be a return to normal this year. Hunter Scott will take over the kicking duties.
“I’m not overly concerned about it because it pretty much was what we dealt with for 20 years. Don’t get me wrong, I would take an Aaron Peréz every year if I could, but last year was certainly the exception for us,” Townsend said.
Baker will handle the punting duties, with Robbins serving at long snapper.
“He is one of the better long snappers in southern Illinois, and it is kind of nice having an athlete of his caliber getting a free release on punts,” Townsend observed.
BDC Standings 2020-2021
Johnston City 6-0
Edwards Co. 2-4
Hamilton Co. 2-4
Aug. 27—at Eldorado, 7 p.m.
Sep. 3—Sesser-Valier, 7 p.m.
Sep. 10—at Johnston City, 7 p.m.
Sep. 17—at Flora, 7 p.m.
Sep. 24—Carmi, 7 p.m.
Oct. 1—CZR, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9—at Hamilton Co., 1 p.m.
Oct. 15—Edwards Co., 7 p.m. (Homecoming)
Oct. 22—Vienna, 7 p.m.
The Mules did not get to play three of the top four teams in the six-week season last year, with Johnston City, Chester and Sesser-Valier the three teams left off the schedule. That left them sharing the BDC title with the also undefeated Indians of Johnston City.
Chester is out of the league this year, replaced by Flora, who is coming in from the Little Illini Conference.
The schedule looks to be front loaded for Fairfield, starting with a road game at Eldorado in week one. The Eagles gave the Mules their sternest test last year in conference play. That is relative, however, as Fairfield allowed just two scores by BDC foes and beat the Eagles 17-0. The Mules outscored their opponents 218-27 last year.
Johnston City looks to be the toughest challenge on the schedule this year, and that game is in Johnston City week 3.
“They have some shake, some speed and the skill players. We did not face them last year, but everything we heard was they improved a ton up front, too,” Townsend noted. “I think it will be battle.”
The Indians have the reigning MVP of the conference in Austin Brown, a senior who has committed to play football for the University of Wisconsin next year. He will also be switching back to wide receiver after a quarterback moved in from West Frankfort.
“We can’t look too far ahead. The old ball coach in me always says to start with week one. On the road, week one in Eldorado, we have to be locked in,” Townsend warned.
Sesser in week two will also bring a test, featuring a trio of returning all-conference players.
“We have had a really good run across the board on everything and people may thing that run is over, our run of athletes is over. I’m telling you, it is not. We have another really good group, and we have some younger guys who are developing as we speak. They are invested in the program. It goes back to those expectations. These kids, from their freshman year on have not lost a conference game. That is their expectation again. They expect to win and they know what it takes,” Townsend said.
The Mules and the Indians both return six players who received some form of all-conference mention last year, following by CZR with four.
The Flora Wolves are the new kids on the block, but they return as much experience at the skill positions as anyone else, with five players named to the All-LIC teams last year.
“They legitimately throw the football around, and that is something we don’t see in this conference a lot. That might be something that will give them an advantage offensively,” Townsend said. “I know they are excited about coming into the conference. They think they can compete and I think they absolutely can.”
Payton Allen, 1st Team Offense. Konnor Dagg, 1st Team Defense. Camden Robbins, 1st Team Defense. Landon Stewart, 2nd Team Offense. McGwire Taylor, 2nd Team Defense. Logan Kreiter, HM.
Kaleb Gonzalez, HM.
Austin Brown, MVP.
Isiah Watson, 1st Team Offense. Zander Saylor, 1st Team Defense. Riley Randolph, 2nd Team Offense. Corbin Hickey, 2nd Team Offense. Brock Baker, HM.
Cole Freeman, 1st Team Defense. Payton Mazur, 2nd Team Offense.
Eli Reeves, 2nd Team Offense.
Colin Sveda, HM
Josh Bevis, HM.
Wyatt Carlile, 2nd Team Offense. Parker Price, 2nd Team Offense. Dylan Henshaw, 2nd Team Defense.
Layton Karcher, 2nd Team Offense. Aden Futrell, HM,
Dylan Rhodes, 2nd Team Offense. Mitch McFall, HM.
Brock Chelf, 2nd Team Offense. Quinn Gajewski, 2nd Team Defense. Jordan Reynolds, 2nd Team Defense.
Weston Henderson, HM.
Jonathan Green, HM.
Isaac King, HM,
Draxton Aud, HM,
Kit Harris, HM.
Travis Henson, 2nd Team OL.
Cole Young, 2nd Team Receiver. Hayden Gibson, 2nd Team LB.
John McGee, 2nd Team DB.
Jace Helm, HM.
(* In LIC last year)