30 Iowa Conference titles
Experience in some key areas is lacking but there’s no void in enthusiasm for the Central College football team in 2014.
Seven starters return on offense from last year’s 6-4 club but only three on defense, including none up front. Yet coach Jeff McMartin sees the ingredients for another effective defensive unit, which has been a trademark for a program that last had a losing season in 1960.
“We’ve got a lot of experience in the defensive backfield,” he said. “And we have good football players at every position. We have guys who can play Iowa Conference football.”
The Dutch return 37 letterwinners overall as they prepare for a fan-friendly schedule that sees Central playing at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium for six of the season’s final nine games. There’s enough talent to contend for an Iowa Conference crown, but McMartin is looking for the teamwork, intensity and effort that will be required as well.
“It will be a battle every week,” he said. “We have to play as a team to be successful.”
And the Dutch need the confidence to know that.
“In addition to our preparation on the field, we are concentrating our efforts to improve the mental side of our game,” McMartin said.
As always, championship football starts at the line of scrimmage.
“If you play well up front, a lot of other things take care of themselves,” McMartin said.
Three of the five starters return and others have played plenty of snaps. Preseason camp opens with five seniors, four juniors and six sophomores in the line.
“We’ve also got a good group of freshmen,” McMartin said. “I feel like we’re developing some good depth at that position.”
There are plenty of players who are game-tested.
“Potentially, we could have nine of the 11 starters be seniors,” McMartin said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have played. Now they need to take the next step, to show what they’ve learned, apply it and win.”
Seniors Ryan Collins (6-foot-1, 240 pounds) and Jordan Youngman (6-4, 320) return at right guard and right tackle, respectively while junior Nick Watson (6-4, 245) is back at left tackle. Senior Caleb Lynch (6-0, 265) also saw considerable time on the offensive line and has provided great leadership within the unit.
“They’ve played a lot of football,” he said. “Jordan has great size and has gained a lot of experience at right tackle over the past two years. Ryan and Caleb are smart, physical and very good leaders. We need all of those guys to have great senior seasons.”
McMartin also highlighted seniors Garrett Young (6-0, 275) and Lucas Sears (5-10, 225).
“They have gotten better,” he said. “They love the game and they love to play. They care about this team. They are Central guys.”
McMartin has plenty of confidence in Watson as well.
“Nick does a great job at left tackle,” he said. “He’s been very solid for us and has really improved over the past season.”
Juniors Curtis Weeks (6-0, 280), DJ Smith (6-1, 270) and Travis DeFrancisco (6-1, 260) are also looking for time, along with sophomores Cole Tanner (6-2, 250), Kyle Pepper (6-1, 280), Jordan Sanders (6-0, 225) and Yaqoob Ahmad (6-3, 265).
“They’ll all be competing,” McMartin said. “They’ll have a lot of opportunities to get on the field.”
With Central’s frequent use of multiple tight end sets, the position can bolster the offensive line and the Dutch appear to be in good shape there. Senior Jack Norgaard (6-3, 230) returns after catching 12 passes for 121 yards and two TDs last year. Sophomore Mitch Boerm (6-5, 235) showed great promise as a rookie and had three receptions for 23 yards and a score. And junior Jake Wassenaar (6-3, 245) is a veteran as well.
“We’ll use multiple tight ends in every game,” McMartin said. “It’s a very important position in our offense. I really like this unit.”
In addition, sophomore Joey Diehl (6-0, 230) moved over from wide receiver and sophomore Tucker Ornsby (6-2, 225) is back after an injury.
A sure way to fuel some off-season optimism is to have a senior returning starter at quarterback. And Aaron Eiseler (6-0, 215) has been taking the snaps for the better part of two seasons, completing 150 of 265 passes (56.6 percent) last year for 1,385 yards with nine interceptions and 17 touchdowns.
“Aaron has done a lot of good things for us as quarterback,” McMartin said. “We’re going to look to his leadership, his ability to throw the ball and make good decisions.”
McMartin also expects still more improvement.
“He can continue to get better and I believe he will,” he said. “Aaron has a lot of good tools and he’s shown he can win for us. He just has to take another step, use his experience as an advantage, learn to go out and play with a lot of confidence.”
Developing a backup is a preseason priority. Sophomores Noah Stochl (6-0, 185) and Riley Gray (6-1, 205) will be on the fast track to take over that role. Gray began last season as a quarterback but moved to linebacker before switching back in the off-season.
“We really have to develop depth and confidence in that position,” McMartin said. “They’ll get tested a lot in camp.”
Versatile senior wide receiver Brendon Boerm (5-11, 185) gives McMartin some reassurance as an option, if needed. He spent a little time at quarterback the past two seasons and rushed for 128 yards on 24 carries with two touchdowns last year.
“We can use him in certain situations and formations. He makes it tough for teams to prepare for us,” McMartin said.
Further bolstering McMartin’s confidence in the offense is the return of elusive senior running back Josh Osborn (5-10, 200). His workload increased last year and he responded with a first-team all-conference season, rushing for 936 yards on 185 carries with six scores, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and 93.6 a game. Osborn also caught 23 passes for 203 yards and three TDs.
“We look for Josh to have a special season,” McMartin said. “He has worked hard over the summer and I expect to see him continue to improve.”
Competing at tailback will be senior Schyler Bardole (6-0, 210) and sophomore Adam Lindell (5-11, 210).
“Schyler has battled through some challenging injuries but he’s a good football player,” McMartin said. “Adam had a nice season last year and now needs to take that next step.
“We’ve also got some very talented freshman running backs. They see some opportunities with two seniors there.”
Senior Austin Shaver (5-11, 230) is a veteran at Central’s hybrid S-back spot.
“Austin’s a three-year starter,” McMartin said. “He overcame some injuries last year. He’s a very tough, physical football player who will get himself ready to play. When he hits, you not only feel it but you hear it.”
Sophomores Matt Williamson (5-8, 210) and Aaron Marcellus (5-9, 205) will look to gain experience at S-back as well.
Brendon Boerm was the team’s top receiver last year with 43 catches for 378 yards and four scores. He’s listed first at Central’s Z/H receiving positions.
“Brendon is very athletic and has great hands,” McMartin said. “He’s a playmaker.”
McMartin is also enthused about junior Taylor Cox (5-6, 150), who had seven catches for 72 yards and was Central’s top punt returner.
“Taylor is a tough kid with great hands,” he said. “He’s very smart. He’s the type of guy you want in the huddle with you.”
Sophomores Will Meredith (6-1, 190) and Zack Martinelli (5-8, 175) show promise as well.
“They’ll get a lot of opportunities to prove themselves,” McMartin said.
The Dutch also get a boost with Sam Markham’s (6-1, 170) decision to join the squad. A guard on Central’s men’s basketball squad who lettered as a freshman last winter, Markham participated in the football squad’s spring workouts and made a swift impression.
“We’re excited about him,” McMartin said.
“I’m really happy with the wide receiver position,” McMartin said. “We’ve got a really good group of speedy, tall freshmen, too. The future is very bright.”
The Dutch must replace starters at all three defensive line positions, yet have several good options.
Nose guard Brody Jannssen (6-2, 260) is the only senior in the mix. He racked up 21 tackles last year, including 3.0 for loss with a pass breakup and a forced fumble.
“Brody has to be a leader for us,” McMartin said.
Juniors Dustin Smith (6-0, 245) and Trent Smothers (6-0, 235) both saw action as ends last year. Smith was in on six tackles, including 2.5 for loss with two pass breakups. Smothers made two stops.
“They have a great opportunity,” McMartin said. “We need them to come through for the success of the team.”
Sophomore Edwin Ettiene (5-11, 250) moved over from S-back after lettering as a freshman and may have found a home, along with classmates Brett Boddicker (6-3, 240), Hunter Caspers (5-11, 250), Sam Drawbond (6-1, 205) and Peter Ferrill (6-0, 235).
The Dutch also got a welcome late addition with the arrival of transfer Corbin Blythe, who redshirted in his rookie season at the University of Iowa last year.
“It’s a position where we have some depth but don’t have a ton of experience,” McMartin said. “It’s one of the big questions we have to get answered. We need some guys to step up.”
The Dutch are in need of some answers at linebacker as well, particularly on the outside.
But there are no worries at one spot. Senior Mitch Schroeder (6-1, 200) was Central’s top tackler last year with 79, including 35 solos, despite missing one game. He made 7.0 tackles for loss with a sack, one pass breakup and a fumble recovery. He played inside last fall after previously playing outside.
There are three other returnees on the inside in Senior Jordan Wachter (6-0, 210), sophomore Sam Norgaard (6-1, 225) and sophomore Jessie Peterson (6-1, 205).
Wachter made 23 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, with a sack. Norgaard had five tackles and a fumble recovery.
“We’ve really got four upperclassmen for two (inside linebacker) spots,” McMartin said. “They’ll really battle it out. One of them may move if we need to, depending on how people perform. But they can all run and they’re all athletic. Inside linebacker can definitely be a strength of the team.”
The Dutch have to replace to graduated all-conference performers at outside linebacker. Seniors Nick Henry (6-1, 215), and Gideon Kluge (6-0, 210) will work to help the Dutch reload. Kluge played wide receiver last season along with contributing on special teams.
“Gideon has excellent speed,” McMartin said. “He has really worked his way up the ranks.”
Henry made eight tackles, including one for loss and shined on special teams, sharing the team blocked kicks lead with three.
“Nick has worked his tail off in the off-season and is ready for a great year,” McMartin said.
Adding to the competition at outside linebacker are sophomores Drew Carlson (6-1, 195), TJ Huizenga (6-0, 190) and Ryan Fogt (6-0, 195).
“Even though we don’t have a lot of returning experience at this position, I feel like these guys have great speed and they all can play football,” McMartin said. “They all had great off-seasons”
Unlike the rest of the defense, the defensive backfield is among the most veteran areas of the team. Central returns three senior starters in strong safety Jacob Tune (6-1, 205), free safety Jake Edleman (6-0, 190) and cornerback Eric Larson (6-2, 185). They’re joined by junior Jaemin Powell (6-3, 190) who rotated with Tune and Edleman and play either free or strong safety.
Tune made 37 tackles, with 2.5 for loss, two interceptions and two pass breakups.
“Jacob is a three-year starter for us,” McMartin said. “He’s a physical football player who really likes to hit. He’s got good size and speed.”
Other strong safety candidates include senior Spencer Beekman (5-10, 175) and junior Bracken Smith (5-10, 170).
“Spencer had a very good spring,” McMartin said “He’s got an opportunity to play.” “Bracken has also improved a lot.”
Edleman topped or shared the conference interceptions lead at free safety the past two seasons with six in 2012 and three last year. He made 51 tackles last fall with 2.5 for loss and two pass breakups.
“Jake’s a playmaker,” McMartin said.
Powell, who like Larson is a track and field decathlete, can play strong safety, free safety or even cornerback, McMartin said. He made 16 tackles with four pass breakups and a blocked kick.
“Jaemin is a rare combination of size and speed,” McMartin said. “He’s a very good man-to-man defender. He’s a versatile athlete.”
Also competing are sophomores Zach Matter (5-11, 190) and Josh De Waard (5-10, 175).
Larson was a first-team all-conference selection and Edleman was a second-team choice.
Larson made 52 tackles with 1.5 for loss with two interceptions and 12 pass breakups, giving him 14 passes defended, which ranked second in the league. He’s among the best athletes in Division III, winning NCAA national track and field titles in the 2013 indoor heptathlon and outdoor decathlon before being sidelined by injury last spring.
“Not only is Eric an excellent cornerback, but he’s great at blocking kicks and punts,” McMartin said, noting he blocked three last year. “He’s got long arms and just has a knack for being around the ball. He’s a special football player.”
The other cornerback spot is up for grabs. Options include juniors Bryan Mejia (5-7, 160), who has seen action the past two years, making three tackles last season, Cael Halfman (5-10, 185) and Lakota Smith (5-11, 180), along with senior Michael Daigle (5-7, 170), sophomores Tony Oros (5-10, 180) and Sam Schmitz (5-10, 170).
“We want to see someone in that group solidify the position,” McMartin said.
“We expect that Michael (Daigle) will contend. He’s done a great job as a defensive back and on special teams.”
The most decorated player on the roster is senior kicker Kevin Sheldon (6-0, 175). A three-time first-team all-conference honoree and two-time league special teams player of the week, Sheldon was a third-team pick for the D3football.com all-West Region squad in 2012. He was 29-of-30 on extra points last fall while hitting 10 of 15 field goals. For his career, he’s connected on 101-of-103 on conversions and 29-of-43 on field goals, with a long of 47 yards.
“We just want Kevin to continue to get stronger and better,” McMartin said.
The punting job is open, however. Edleman was a backup last year and Aaron Marcellus is also competing for the spot. McMartin thinks there will great competition for the job.
“I believe we have some freshmen who will be very competitive,” he said. “Jake is very solid and Aaron has a strong leg.”
All of Central’s punt and kick returners are back. Cox handled the bulk of the punt return chores, averaging 8.2 yards on 24 returns. Brendon Beorm returned 10 kickoffs for 20.1 yards while Osborn returned seven for an average of 25.6 yards. Oros is a good candidate as well.
“Brendon, Tony, Taylor and Josh all have experience and there are a number of others we could try,” McMartin said. “Special teams are important to us. We spend a lot of time on it and it has got to be a major factor in our success.”
The Dutch appear to have landed a rookie class that is both deep and talented. . It’s among the team’s largest classes in the past several years.
“There are a lot of similarities to our sophomores,” McMartin said. “We’ve got good depth and good talent. At just about every position, we’ve got players who can compete with the upperclassmen for playing time. As we move forward to 2015, we’ve got guys who are going to be on the field a lot.”
But that’s never a sure thing.
“Time will tell,” McMartin said of the class. “But I like them.”
The schedule has some firsts. The Dutch have never previously had six regular-season home games (Central played host to six games in 2003 but one was played at Altoona due to unplayable field conditions) and the Sept. 13 home opener with Monmouth (Ill.) will be the first night game at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium since the facility opened in 1977. Central has not previously played its three non-conference opponents: Monmouth, Benedictine (Ill.) and Maranatha Baptist (Wis.).
“We’re excited to play a couple of teams from Illinois,” McMartin said. “Benedictine is a very good football team. They’re well-coached and will be a new challenge for us. Monmouth has played a number of Iowa Conference teams in the past and has made the NCAA playoffs multiple times. They battled Coe last season and the game came down to missed kicks. We’re excited to play Maranatha Baptist for the first time as well.”
McMartin calls a night home game a unique experience for his team.
“It will be different for us,” he said. “I know the players and fans are very excited about it.”
While defending champion Wartburg likely carries the favorite’s tag in the conference race, McMartin said it’s a remarkably balanced league.
“Everybody can walk into the season and feel like they have a great shot,” he said. “There’s not a bad team in that bunch.”
That includes Central College. How quickly the new starters adapt to new roles is crucial.
“We’ve got to develop on both sides of the ball,” McMartin said. “I think the offensive line and defensive line took good strides in the spring. We know we’re going to be young at many positions, but I like the talent we have at our open spots.”
But it’s not just new starters who need to progress.
“It’s important to play as a team and the guys who have played a lot in the past must continue to improve and not just rely on their experience,” McMartin said. “That message has been put out there.”
McMartin also puts a high priority on intangibles. He’s relinquishing his role as quarterbacks coach partly to give attention to those.
“I’m not coaching a position this fall, so I can involve myself in this team at every position and make sure there is a connectedness that I think is critical for our success,” he said.
And what McMartin is looking for from his players—as well as his staff—hasn’t changed.
“Above all, we want guys that will compete, guys that will play smart, and guys that will play with great intensity,” he said. “We want guys who we can trust and who can trust each other.
“We want them to play together as a team and to have fun playing football.”