Back to the gridiron

Receiver Lance Lenoir is the all-time leader in receiving yards at Western with 2,703.

Cody Rivera

The mission of improving on a 2015 playoff appearance officially begins on Thursday for the Western Illinois football team.

Exit Bob Nielson, who, in his three years in Macomb, turned the program from a 3-8 team in 2012 to a 6-5 team this past year that squeaked into the FCS playoffs, and even won a game.

Enter Charlie Fisher, who is coming to Macomb after helping Richmond to the FCS playoffs during each of his two years as an assistant, as well as helping Eastern Kentucky to a national championship.

And the Leathernecks, now Fisher’s team, will return to the field on Thursday to begin spring practice.

“It’s been awesome,” Fisher said of his short time in Macomb thus far. “I took the job on January 4, and it’s been a process to get to know the guys. It takes time to know what makes them tick, and get to know them. That’s been a day-to-day thing.”

Fortunately for Fisher, most of the team’s key players will be back on the field in 2016.

Four All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selections are returning; Second team selections Lance Lenoir (wide receiver), Brett Taylor (linebacker) and Jacob Judd (offensive line), and Honorable Mention selection Trenton Norvell (quarterback).

Lenoir, who will be entering his senior year in 2016, already holds a number of Leatherneck football records. He leads in yards with 2,703, receptions with 197, 100-yard games with 10, and is tied for most touchdown receptions with 21.

He also holds the season records in receptions (83) and yards (1,184), which he set during his junior season.

Taylor, entering his junior season, was the team leader in tackles last year with 144, and even scored two defensive touchdowns. He averaged 11.1 tackles per game, good enough for 12th in the nation.

Judd started every game at center last year, and Norvell threw for 2,110 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing the last two games of the season, as well as the two playoffs games, due to appendicitis.

As the Leathernecks start getting in shape during the spring, Fisher said there are three goals he hopes the team can accomplish.

“We want to improve our schemes on offense and defense, and we absolutely need to improve on special teams,” Fisher said. “Those are three specific goals. We’re putting in a new defense, we’re putting in a new offense, and we basically have two new special teams coordinators.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. That’s what spring is all about.”

Also returning in 2016 are All-Newcomer team picks Sean McGuire (quarterback), and defensive backs Xavier Rowe and Timothy Smith — all sophomores.

It was the backup quarterback McGuire who stepped in at the end of the season when Norvell went down, leading the Leathernecks to victory in the final two regular season games and a playoff win over Dayton.

Fisher has a total of 46 letter winners returning to his team next year, and he believes his team has what it takes to be successful with his new schemes — even if it may take some time to adjust.

“In my experience with this offense, it does take a little bit, particularly from the guy taking the snaps,” Fisher said. “It’s a pro-style offense; he’s basically running the show so that it takes a little longer. But the good thing is we’ve got three really veteran quarterbacks. They’re not freshmen or redshirt-freshmen, these are guys that have played and been in the system. So they’ve played football, and at the end of the day, football is football.”

The Bruce Craddock Memorial Spring Game will take place on Friday, April 22 at Hanson Field, and Fisher expects his team to have made plenty of progress by then.

“There’s no doubt once we leave the night of the spring game, we want to see continual improvement,” Fisher said, “and we should see our team at a higher level than the beginning.”

Twitter: @CodyRivera33