---- — DES MOINES — Brad Duwe loved contributing to a championship college football program last fall.
But, even after helping Drake University to a share of its second consecutive Pioneer Football League title, the former Dubuque Hempstead all-stater felt a little unsatisfied. The Bulldogs did not receive an at-large berth to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
"We won the conference, which was a great feeling, but we still wanted more," said Duwe, a junior who is competing for a starting cornerback position in training camp. "We wanted to keep going, and we wanted to see what we could do in the playoffs. It was frustrating, because we felt we belonged in the playoffs.
"Going in to this year, we know we have a chance to keep playing. Right now, we're just working on getting better every day in practice and preparing for the season, but it's exciting to think about the possibility of making history and being the first team from our school and our conference to make the FCS playoffs."
The NCAA granted the Pioneer League an automatic berth to this season's playoffs while expanding the postseason from 16 to 24 teams. The 12-team Pioneer League is the nation's only non-scholarship, football-only FCS conference. The Missouri Valley Conference, which includes the University of Northern Iowa, also competes at the FCS level.
The Bulldogs figure to be in the hunt again this season. They were picked to finish in a third-place tie with Jacksonville — behind San Diego and Butler — in the preseason coaches poll.
Drake claimed a share of its sixth Pioneer League title, but sixth-year coach Chris Creighton faces the significant task of replacing quarterback Mike Piatkowski and linebacker Tyler Moorehead — the 2012 PFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Drake will lean on sophomore running back Gary Scott (152 carries, 616 yards) and senior wide receiver Nick Rosa (54 receptions, 804 yards) on offense. Sophomore linebacker John Hugunin (99 tackles) and senior linebacker Travis Merritt (98 tackles) lead the defense after finishing 1-2 on the team in tackles last year.
"We always try to pursue a championship and our team is really hungry to prove that it's a program and not just a team," Creighton said at media day. "Even though we lost some incredibly talented players, our guys want to prove that we'll be in the title fight every year and that it's not just a few individual players, but that it's a team."
Duwe certainly fits that mold.
After redshirting his freshman year, Duwe found several ways to contribute a year ago and saw action in all 11 games. He saw spot duty at cornerback before starting the final seven games, and he used his athleticism and toughness on the kickoff and punt teams.
Duwe registered 32 tackles, including three for losses and tied for the team lead with a pair of interceptions. He added four pass breakups and a pair of forced fumbles. College Sports Madness named him its Pioneer League defensive player of the week after he contributed an interception, forced fumble and eight tackles (seven solo) in a victory over San Diego.
"I'm not taking anything for granted, because our (cornerback) position is so competitive, and we have so many great athletes competing for playing time," Duwe said. "That's the way I like it. There's no time to relax in practice, because there's always someone pushing you. We really work well off each other.
"You have to work hard and take advantage of your opportunities in camp. Then, you just let everything play out. The great thing about this team is everybody is willing to do whatever it takes to win."