AZTEC — The Aztec football team is out for redemption in 2014.

The Tigers are coming off their worst season in more than a decade after finishing 4-6 last year and missing the postseason for the first time since 2002. But with 18 returning starters, the team is looking forward to a turnaround this year.

"It's a night and day change. We had a small senior class a year ago. We have a large senior class this year," Aztec head coach Matt Steinfeldt said. "The leadership in this class is second to none. We're nothing but pleased with the results we're seeing. The general attitude toward our football program has had a revitalization."

A return to the playoffs is something the Tigers have highlighted coming into the season.

Second-string quarterback Cody Smith passes the ball on Aug. 27 during football practice at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium in Aztec.
Second-string quarterback Cody Smith passes the ball on Aug. 27 during football practice at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium in Aztec. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times)

"It's something that's unacceptable here," Steinfeldt said of missing the playoffs. "The expectations around here are high. The expectations weren't necessarily low last year, but we weren't capable of reaching the goals we set for ourselves. Missing the playoffs is something we don't plan on doing again. We're ready to compete."

Offensively, Aztec has quarterback Marcus Crawford returning for his second season in the offense. Crawford said having a year of experience under his belt has helped him progress in Steinfeldt's system.

"It's definitely easier having that year experience," Crawford said. "Having a full year of experience will help me a lot this year."

Also returning for the Tigers is Crawford's primary target, All-State receiver Josh Harris. Harris finished with 12 touchdowns in 2013, but a broken elbow forced him to miss all three games of the district schedule. The senior is back healthy for the start of the year and said missing the district season has him hungry for the start of the year.

"Those were the three main games I wanted to play last year," Harris said. "Now I just want to get out there and play."

Aztec will have to make one change on offense at running back with the graduation of Ryneal Lewis-Adams. Josh Harris' twin brother, Jake, will step into that role for the Tigers.

"He looks phenomenal at that position," Steinfeldt said of Jake Harris.

The Aztec defense was a weak point for the Tigers in 2013, but Steinfeldt said the team is bigger and stronger up front and that will go a long way in helping his squad improve on that side of the ball.

"We were averaging somewhere around 185 or 190 pounds on defensive line last year. At any level, that's going to be tough to compete with," Steinfeldt said. "We've certainly bulked up there with some big physical guys."

The Tigers will open their season with local rival Bloomfield and take on Kirtland Central and Durango, Colo., prior to their district schedule. Aztec also has a marquee matchup against Valley, the 2013 No. 1 seed in 5A, on Oct. 3.

Steinfeldt said those non-district showdowns will have his team ready to finish out the season on a high note.

"This is the first year I've had any input on our schedule, and I like the schedule we've put together," he said. "The local games are important because it draws a lot of interest and creates a great atmosphere. Keeping Kirtland, adding Bloomfield and Durango — all three of those are great local games. I believe all five of the teams we see in non-district play will be playoff teams."

Joshua Perry is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577 and Follow him @jperrysuu on Twitter.