The Carroll College football team began spring practice Saturday, officially kicking off the Saints' campaign to improve after a 4-6 season in 2016.
That after also finishing 4-6 in 2015, one season after making a run to the second round of the NAIA playoffs, falling to eventual national champ Southern Oregon, 45-42, in what many believe was the de facto NAIA title game.
Despite the uncharacteristic two-year skid, the Saints have reasons to be optimistic -- mainly due to the return of the bulk of starters on both sides of the ball. That group includes three of five offensive linemen, a unit that has struggled with youth over the past two seasons.
The key goal for the Carroll coaching staff is to build depth and work reserves, transfers and redshirt players into the lineup.
"Our goal again, like every year, is to try and get the two-deep depth chart," coach Mike Van Diest said. "We want to try and find two in every position. We may or may not accomplish that this spring, but it will give us an idea of what we need to work on in summertime and as we go into fall camp."
The Saints return seven starters on defense, including both inside linebackers, both safeties and two defensive linemen.
The offense also returns seven starters, not including quarterback Tanner Gustavsen, who played significant minutes in 2016 when starter JT Linder went down with injuries.
"It's exciting for our coaching staff; it's certainly exciting for our football team and Tanner, because he did play and he played in critical situations," Van Diest said. "He started three games, and he came in a couple of other games when JT got hurt. He was in a position where he was playing when the game was still on the line, and that's encouraging."
Carroll will practice four to five times a week, with a scrimmage scheduled for April 8. Drills will culminate in the annual spring scrimmage on April 22 at Nelson Stadium.