Neosho seniors Devin Hames, Lukas Werneke and Jordan White signed their letters of intent Wednesday to play football at Missouri Southern.

Neosho seniors Devin Hames, Lukas Werneke and Jordan White signed their letters of intent Wednesday to play football at Missouri Southern.
Three players who helped rebuild the Wildcat football program over head coach Dustin Baldwin’s three seasons at the helm now have a chance to help Missouri Southern head coach Denver Johnson rebuild a Lions football program that finished 1-10 last season during Johnson’s first campaign.
Having three players sign with a school that’s a member of arguably the premier athletic conference (Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association) in all of Division II reflects favorably on Neosho’s program.
“We had a successful season,” Baldwin said, “and a lot of it had to do with their hard work, and obviously others. It’s a great team game, but anytime younger kids, freshmen and sophomores, can see those guys have success and go on to the next level, it’s motivation in the drive to be successful, to be as good as those guys or better. It creates a good buzz for the program, but most of all, we’re excited for them. They’re good guys and they’ll have a chance to play at the next level, and get a good education.”
Hames, Werneke and White all have experience in one area that other recruits may not — being part of a losing program eventually turned into a winner.
“I sit in my office with every one of these kids,” Johnson said. “There were a couple things I kept hammering home. I want guys that love football and I want guys that hate losing. To get done what we’re trying to do here, we’re going to have to have both of those passions. I was very upfront with them that it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be hard and it’s not going to be immediate. There’s going to be some tough times here in the near term and you’re just going to have to bow your neck, spit in your hands and grab an axe because there’s a lot of wood to be chopped.”
Johnson took over the Southern program last April and this is his first recruiting class. He touched on what he and the Lions focused on in the recruiting process.
“I look out at our opponents and there’s a visible difference in those huddles a lot of times,” Johnson said. “We felt like we’ve found some offensive linemen, signed some guys that have 6-4, 6-5 height and a couple longer receivers. Overall, this is a strong class academically. All but one or two of these guys are already qualified and some of them have quite impressive academics. Character counts.
“We were very diligent evaluating kids. We just didn’t talk to coaches. We talked to principals. We talked to guidance counselors. We talked to cafeteria ladies. We talked to bus drivers. We think it’s important to get the right kind of person, as well as the right kind of football player.”

Devin Hames
Hames rushed for school single-season records of 1,800 yards and 28 TDs last season for the Wildcats during their 7-4 season. A team captain alongside Werneke and White, Hames earned all-Central Ozark Conference Large first team and Class 5 all-state second team honors.
The 6-foot, 190-pound running back-athlete would never have expected to go to college for football earlier in high school.
“If you asked me that my sophomore year,” Hames said, “I would tell you no. But now, it’s all I could see myself doing. At the time (sophomore year), I was more of a basketball player.”
Hames attracted schools from the MIAA like Northeastern State in the process and he touched on what attracted him to sign with Southern.
“The facilities were great,” Hames said. “The coaches seemed like they knew what they were talking about. Not just being close to home, I felt like I could start something new there as I did here, and just continue my football career.
“They’re starting over again. I feel like I know what I’m doing now and I feel more confident. I feel like a new start will be good for me and I can do whatever I can to help the team.”
Hames and some of his fellow Neosho football players, including Werneke and White, watched multiple Southern and Pitt State games last season.
“The competition was great,” Hames said. “The rivalries are awesome. That’s what makes the game great and that’s what brings out the real players.”

Lukas Werneke
Werneke was quick to answer the question about what attracted him to Southern.
“The similarities in offense,” Werneke said. “Coach Johnson is running a great program up there, rebuilding it. There’s great facilities there and the things they have planned for the future were definitely key, deciding factors.
“I love a challenge. Rebuilding a program again is something I’m used to and it’s something that myself and everybody else out there, we’re up to that challenge. I’m excited.”
Werneke attracted interest from Benedictine, Southwest Baptist, Avila and Central Methodist, but he will be staying close to home.
“It was the best fit for myself and my family,” Werneke said. “Staying close to my little brother is a huge thing for me.”
Of course, playing against teams like Northwest Missouri and Pittsburg State and Missouri Western and Central Missouri factored into his decision. Some have called the MIAA “The SEC of Division II.”
“This is definitely the best Division II conference in the country,” Werneke said. “It’s not even close. Being able to play at the best Division II level, it’s very satisfying. A team from this conference plays for the national championship every other year and they’re getting players to the NFL every year. It’s exciting to know that you’ll be playing alongside guys that will be playing at the next level. I’m very excited about the competition in the conference.”
Northwest Missouri won the national title this past season.
Werneke, a strong blocking and receiving tight end with good size (6-3, 220) for the position, gets a chance to remain teammates with Hames and White.
“Being able to rebuild a team here (at Neosho),” Werneke said, “it’s the closest knit group I’ve ever been a part of. We were truly a family. We were truly brothers. I’m looking forward to playing with them and seeing what they have to bring to the table. I know that they’re going to bring it, just like I will.”

Jordan White
Like his fellow signees, White improved as a football player every year he was in the Neosho program.
“Jordan’s a three-year starter for us,” Baldwin said. “Worked really hard, made himself a better football player each and every year. Another high-character kid, voted captain, well-liked and he’s going to continue to get better, there’s no doubt about it. He’s got a great frame, long arms and I think Missouri Southern has a guy in that a year or two up there just focusing on football and being in the weight room year round, they have a guy they’ll like.”
White earned the IronCat award three years in a row for his weight room diligence. At last weekend’s COC Large wrestling tournament in Carthage, the 6-4, 270-pound White earned the heavyweight championship with a pin late in the fifth period of his title match.
Benedictine, Southwest Baptist, Central Methodist and Ottawa all showed interest in White, but in the end, Southern won.
“It’s a good college,” White said. “I like being in places that we can build up. They didn’t win a lot last year. I believe that me and Devin and Lukas, we can help them be what they want to be. It’s going to be hard competition, but I’ll work my butt off.”
White gets a chance to continue to block for Hames and Werneke.
“It’s going to be fun,” White said. “I’ve been with Lukas since the third grade and Devin since the seventh.”
White said that he’s met Johnson, a veteran coach who’s known for his work with offensive linemen. Prior to Southern, he was a head coach at FCS schools Illinois State (2000-08) and Murray State (1997-99), and he finished his fourth season at his alma mater Tulsa as the Golden Hurricane’s assistant head coach and offensive coordinator before accepting the Southern job.
“I love him,” White said. “He’s a good Christian. I look up to him.”
Johnson coached the offensive line at four different schools before becoming a head coach — for example, at Oklahoma State (1985-89), Cowboy running backs included Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas. An offensive lineman himself in college, Tampa Bay selected Johnson in the eighth round of the 1981 NFL Draft and his professional career included two years in the NFL and three in the USFL.