‘Building from the ground up’: Football prepares to start the Keen era
In early August, football players flood into campus after a long summer apart. It is a program tradition, a cornerstone of the biggest sports team at Washington University. For two weeks, players eat their meals surrounded by their teammates, not necessarily talking about Xs and Os but instead discussing the program values and culture. They spend long afternoons under the hot St. Louis sun and play card games between meetings (Exploding Kitten is a team favorite).
This year, camp has been a welcomed return to normalcy before the team begins its first season under new head coach Aaron Keen.
The team is a juxtaposition of an experienced defense and relatively a young offense, as the freshmen and sophomores both lack collegiate game day experience. The senior class and fifth-year players have stepped up as a result, investing in the future of the program and acting as mentors to bring the players together and address any issues that come up. “The biggest challenge we have is coming together as a team,” Keen said. “Playing football has been the easy part of things, and we’re fortunate to be in that situation.”
The team includes five graduate students who anchor the defense and bring valuable experience to the team, including Andrew Whitaker, JT Streepy and Jack Schumacher. On offense, juniors Matt Rush and Cole Okimin and graduate student Emmanuel Ebirim are key returners.
“That blend of the two [experienced and inexperienced players] makes for a really promising and exciting team moving forward,” said Streepy, a graduate student playing a fifth year for the team. “There are going to be some fun games to watch this year.”
In addition to the untried freshmen and sophomore classes, even the juniors do not have much gameday experience. The last season they played they were freshmen with strong upperclassmen ahead of them in the lineup, which meant that they did not get much time on the field. Rush has the most seniority of any quarterback on the team, yet he has only played one game for the Bears, having come in for Johnny Davidson in a loss to North Central College in 2019. “It’s definitely weird to think that I’m the most senior quarterback on the roster,” Rush said. “It’s crazy, but I’m super excited and I’m ready to go.”
The team’s one scrimmage so far this season was a good omen — WashU crushed Illinois College 42-7 in 30 minutes of competition. For the younger athletes, it was a chance to practice new schemes; the upperclassmen shook off old nerves. “I don’t know if it’s just that I’m getting old, or maybe it’s just been a while, but yeah, it’s a little different,” Streepy laughed. “I think a lot of people feel a little bit rusty, and [playing games again] just takes some getting used to.”
Keen replaced Larry Kindbom, who retired after 31 seasons, in January 2020, but has not yet coached an official game. Now, Keen serves as the offensive coordinator while Kindbom still coaches the defensive backs and special teams. “He has big shoes to fill,” former player Tim Tague said about the new coach. “I don’t think anybody can replace Coach K, but if there is someone who can come in and run the program successfully, he can do a very, very good job.”
Since starting last year, Keen has brought a new perspective to the program, altering the practice schedule and the intensity of the practices. “Keen brings a fierce intensity that you don’t see quite often, and that I haven’t really seen from a coach,” Streepy said. “We’re building from the ground up with a new culture and team.”
The team’s schedule is packed with competitive games with two nationally ranked teams in their conference. The season opens with Saturday’s Founders Cup game against the University of Chicago, a matchup that Keen said means a lot to him as a graduate of the WashU program. “We’re hoping to play efficiently on the offensive side and then play with a bit more reckless abandon defensively and create some havoc on that side,” Keen said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how our guys can express themselves on the field.”
This season, the Bears’ work will be cut out for them with two of the best teams in the nation in their conference, Wheaton and North Central (Ill.). The players themselves are concentrating on one game at a time, though. “With the experience and talent we have, everybody has high expectations,” Rush said. “We’re definitely looking to win every game out there.”
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