Vespo

Missouri Western quarterback Anthony Vespo drops back during a win at Pittsburg State in 2019.

When Missouri Western made sure to get redshirt freshman Anthony Vespo reps at quarterback in 2019, it was with the intention of having the experience to lead an offense in an MIAA title race.

Though the competition for a conference championship is on hold until 2021 with no season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Vespo will get a chance to mold the group during a fall slate that includes FCS and Division II opponents beginning next weekend at Central Arkansas.

“That one year makes a big difference. Just having those couple games under my belt is huge for my progression,” Vespo said. “Going into this game, I couldn’t be more confident in the guys around me, and the coaching staff has put me in a good position.”

Vespo and the offense will face the Bears at 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, at Estes Stadium in Conway, Arkansas, before following with games against Division II opponents Pittsburg State, Nebraska-Kearney and West Texas A&M throughout November.

Vespo backed up senior Wyatt Steigerwald last year, appearing in six games with one start in the season finale. At Lincoln, he completed 18 of 21 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns. On the season he completed 34 of 52 passes for 411 yards, adding a rushing touchdown in relief at Pittsburg State.He now takes over an offense that ranked fourth in the MIAA at 41.3 points per game. The Griffons ranked sixth in passing with 249 yards per game and 31 touchdowns through the air, third most in the league.

“His freshmen and youthness, he’s part of the new generation and everything,” senior running back Shamar Griffith said. “He’s a dual-threat and is gonna make a big impact on this campus. The man’s elite and can do anything coach tells him to. He can run the ball, throw the ball, read the defense. I can tell he’s been in the classroom doing his Xs and Os. I give him a lot of appreciation and respect.”Vespo’s job will be relieved by a deep receiving corps led by sophomore Devon Holmes, who ranked sixth in the MIAA with 49 catches totraling 668 yards and four touchdowns. Benton grad Cooper Burton, Jhaidyn Richardson and Kyle Berry each had more than 200 yards receiving and a score last year, as well. TJ Flinta, a transfer with past stops at Mississippi State and Arizona, will also join the group.

Where the Griffons excelled through the air was to tight ends, who caught 15 touchdowns on the year. Western welcomes back its top one in junior Cam Grandy, a 6-foot-5 target who caught 20 balls for 261 yards and five touchdowns.

“It’s huge having a hybrid to go to, guys that can block in the run game and also catch the ball like Cam does,” Vespo said. “He’s continued to grow and progress into a really good football player.”Western’s greatest asset, though, comes on the ground. Western was third in the MIAA at 214 yards rushing per game with 33 touchdowns. Griffith ranked ninth at 68.8 yards per game, totaling 826 yards and four touchdowns on 134 attempts. Jared Scott also returns after going for 297 yards and four scores a year ago.

“One good word to describe the (running backs) is deep. We have five or six guys that can really play right now,” Vespo said. “We have some freshmen that are starting to make plays and do good things in our offense and help us out. We’ve got a lot of firepower.”

The Griffons will also replace an offensive line of five seniors who had All-MIAA careers.

Brandon Zenner can be reached at brandon.zenner@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowZenner.