30 Iowa Conference titles
2015 record: 6-4 overall, 4-3 Iowa Conference (third place)
Starters returning: 6 offense, 7 defense, 3 special teams
Starters lost: 5 offense, 4 defense, 2 special teams
Letterwinners returning/lost: 51/14
Returning all-Iowa Conference players: 1 (second-team LB Drew Carlson)
Iowa Conference titles: 30 (18 in past 33 years)
Last NCAA Division III playoff appearance: 2009 (L, 42-40 vs. Mary Hardin-Baylor, Texas)
NCAA Division III playoff berths: 20
All-time NCAA playoff record: 21-19
All-time W-L record: 594-316-24
Centrals’ record at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium (opened in 1977): 168-38
Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl appearances: 3 (first, 1974; second, 1984, 1988)
The experience level has taken a step up for the Central College football team. But so has the schedule.
A veteran squad has its eyes firmly fixed on a finish that surpasses last year’s 6-4 mark. Just 12 seniors were lost to graduation, the program’s smallest outgoing class since 1994. Officially, 13 starters return, but several others have starting experience. Also back is a robust group of 51 varsity letterwinners and some game-tested returning talent at the skill positions. Five returnees received all-Iowa Conference recognition.
Coach Jeff McMartin liked what he was seeing from his 12th Central squad even before 132 players reported Aug. 11 for preseason drills.
“We’ve got a really good culture right now,” he said. “We’ve got great senior leadership. We’ve got guys that want to work hard, guys that are hungry.
But 2016 opens with a jolt September 3, as the Dutch must journey to NCAA Division III playoff qualifier Whitworth University (Wash.), rated No. 19 in the D3football.com preseason poll after a 9-2 campaign. The 1,585-mile trek is the longest the team has ever taken for a regular-season game and will mark just the second time in program history that the Dutch have flown in the regular seasonâ€”a welcomed alternative to an estimated 25-hour bus ride to Spokane. It’s exceeded only by Central’s 1,872-mile excursion to Linfield College (Ore.) for an NCAA playoff game in 2000.
A week later it’s back on the road to Rock Island, Ill. to take on resurgent Augustana College (Ill.), which is on the brink of returning to its traditional role as playoff contender. And a solid Nebraska Wesleyan program has joined what appears to be an increasingly competitive Iowa Conference, leaving no room for a letdown on a 2016 slate which features just four home games, including only one in September.
But McMartin is viewing it as a chance for the Dutch to make a statement.
“It’s a great challenge but with that comes an awesome opportunity,” McMartin said.
The Dutch have the experience up front the squad was lacking last year, which is especially crucial in the offensive line, even if, on paper, they lack star power.
Only junior center Josh Brunk, back from injury, and junior right tackle Cal Smith are listed as returning starters, but several others recorded significant snaps or were part-time starters, most notably right guard Cole Tanner, left guard Kyle Pepper and left tackle Yaqoob Ahmad, all seniors.
“They played a lot of football for us last year,” McMartin said. “They’ve all done a great job of leading the team in the off-season. It’s nice to have three seniors on the offensive line who have a lot of experience. And then we have juniors like Cal Smith and Josh Brunk who’ve been starters.”
Yet they’ll have to hold off several others to secure starting spots. Juniors Tyler Christensen, Max Hytone and Steven Peterman are likely to find the field. Peterman is expected to battle Ahmad for the left tackle nod.
“All three of those guys have a chance to compete and help our team,” McMartin said.
And sophomores Tylor Newhouse, Tanner Gilliand, Dylan Tuttle and Cody Tuttle will push as well.
“Tyler Newhouse got a taste of it as a freshman and could be a factor for us,” McMartin said.Â “They all had a good start last year and are ready to take the next step.”
He’s also enthused about the potential of the freshmen linemen.
“Some of them could be good players for us,” McMartin said.
At 6-5, senior Mitchell Boerm is an inviting tight end pass target for the Dutch. Among the most experienced players on the squad, Boerm had 40 receptions for 489 yards and eight touchdowns last year while emerging as one of the team’s top offensive weapons.
“Mitchell has gotten better each year,” McMartin said. “He’s had a great three years already but I feel like he could be one of the best tight ends out there. He’s got the size and experience, and he has great hands. He makes a lot of clutch catches. He’s definitely a guy we’re going to work hard to utilize.”
The Dutch are doing some juggling to improve the position’s depth. Junior Jordan Fox is moving from quarterback to tight end a year, joining sophomore Aaron Fogt and junior P.J. Norem will also contend.
“We need one of those guys to step up and be a good complement to Mitchell,” McMartin said.
Junior Kyle Gritsch is a returning starter at Central’s hybrid fullback/tight end position. He rushed just 10 times but also caught 15 passes for 167 yards and four touchdowns while giving the Dutch what they need in other ways as well.
“Kyle had a great season for us last year,” McMartin said. “We’re looking for him to do great things this year. He’s got size, speed and really soft hands. He brings a lot of different dimensions to our offense that a lot of other teams don’t have.”
Back-up options include senior Matt Williamson, along with sophomore Daniel Coovert, who excelled in junior varsity play.
With two years of eligibility still remaining, Sam Markham has already made a huge dent in Central’s pass receiving record book. A first-team all-conference pick, Markham’s school-record 69 catches last year produced 980 yards and seven touchdowns. He ranks fourth in school history in career receptions (121) and eighth in career receiving yards (1,630). His 13 catches for 206 yards last year at Loras were single-game marks.
“Our receiving corps starts with Sam Markham,” McMartin said. “Sam had a record-breaking season and he had a great off-season. He got stronger and faster. It will be exciting to see what he can do for us. We’ll definitely look for ways to utilize him.”
There’s depth at the position as well. Seniors Zack Martinelli and William Meredith are veterans. Martinelli had eight catches for 191 yards in a season reduced to just four games by injury, but not before sparking a come-from-behind overtime victory at Monmouth (Ill.) with a school-record 99-yard TD reception.
Meanwhile Meredith had 10 catches for 134 yards and one TD.
“Both guys have played a lot,” McMartin said. “Zack’s made a lot of great catches. He was playing really good football until he got hurt.
And junior Kohle Helle is a versatile threat. Also a quarterback, Helle caught 10 balls for 157 yards and a touchdown.
McMartin also likes his junior receivers, headed by PJ Carey, along with Jeremy Shannon, Drew Doehrmann and Mat Mills. He terms his sophomore group a “great class” as well with Tyler Bryant, Tristan Peters and Spencer Barber. And with the arrival of some promising freshman receivers, some position switches could be pending as McMartin tries to get the squad’s best athletes on the field.
There’s also talent at running back. Sophomore Pat Gray got fans enthused as his playing time steadily increased. He closed as the team’s leading rusher with 665 yards on 103 carries and six scores, averaging a hefty 6.5 yards per carry. The biggest question is how quickly he’ll regain top form after suffering a significant injury in last season’s final game.
Junior Cory Archer flashes potential as well. He gained 159 yards on just 17 carries.
“It’s a competitive situation,” McMartin said. “Pat Gray played a lot and had some really good games. Cory Archer has been a staple for us. He’s gotten better each year.”
Forcing their way into the picture are sophomores Donny Groezinger, Austin Engstrom and Nathan Fitzgerald. Groezinger arrived as a running back, moved to defensive back last year and returned to running back in the spring.“He’s going to play,” McMartin said. “He’s a talent. Austin Engstrom and Nathan Fitzgerald also had good freshman years. They’re very good backs.”
“They’ll all compete,” McMartin said. “They’re athletic and they’re versatile. Each has different strengths. Utilizing them and getting them on the field, that’s our challenge and it’s a challenge we love because they’re great guys and great playmakers.”
Gray is a dual threat. He rushed for 247 yards and seven touchdowns on 73 carries while completing 110 of 185 passes (59.5 percent) for 1,460 yards with six interceptions and 13 touchdowns.
“Riley is a great leader,” McMartin said. “He has improved as a passer and he runs the ball really well. He’s very physical and he has a spirit about him that elevates other people’s play.”
Boland is more of a pocket passer, although he also scrambled for 90 yards on 17 carries. He completed 48 of 77 passes (62.3 percent) for 678 yards with one interception and three TDs.
“Nate has a great arm,” McMartin said. “He’s one of the best athletes on the team, pound for pound, with both speed and strength. He’s smart and can think his way around the field.”
Helle is an exciting option. He rushed for 224 yards on 46 carries while also completing 27 of 35 passes (77.1 percent) for 296 yards with one interception and four touchdowns.
“Kohle is tremendously athletic,” McMartin said. “He throws a good ball and he runs the ball well. When things break down, that’s really when he’s at his best. He’s got great moves. When he has the ball in his hands, he’s a pretty special athlete.”
McMartin would prefer to settle on a starter but also knows he wants to get all three on the field.
“I’d like to find one but I don’t have a problem playing more than one,” he said. “Anytime you have an offense that’s going to feature a quarterback running the ball, you’d better have depth. If we didn’t have depth last year, we’d have been in trouble. We played three quarterbacks, partly because they’re all good, but also because we had injuries.”
The reassuring presence of all-conference senior Corbin Blythe fuels confidence in a rebuilt defensive line. Blythe, who transferred to Central two seasons ago, has excelled much like several members of his extended family before him. He made 74 tackles with six sacks and 13 tackles for loss last year.
“Corbin’s coming off a great season,” McMartin said. “Ever since he got here, he’s made plays.“
On the opposite side of the line, seniors Edwin Etienne and Brett Boddicker will get the early looks. Etienne, a three-time letterwinner, had 22 tackles last year, including 15 solos and 5.5 for loss. Boddicker is a two-time letterwinner and was in on four stops last season, including a sack.
“They’ve both played,” McMartin said. “Keeping Edwin healthy is really important.”
Juniors Wes Wheat is the early leader at nose guard. Wheat had six tackles last year and has lettered twice.
“Wes did a great job for us at nose guard last year,” McMartin said.
Several others could emerge, including sophomores Trevor Argo, Austin Kosusnik, Corey Hauptmann and Chase Brumm.
“A few of those guys are going to play,” McMartin said. “They’ve just got to come in and compete. In this day and age, you’ve got to rotate a lot of guys up front. They will give us some depth and quality minutes.”
Three of four starters at linebacker return, bolstered by a host of younger players.
Senior Drew Carlson brings the lengthiest rÃ©sumÃ© and is back to man the outside at Central’s Will position. A two-time second-team all-conference pick, Carlson also received a league player of the week award and was voted the team’s Lankelma-Menning Award in 2014 as the top underclass player. Carlson is also a CoSIDA academic all-district honoree. Last year he racked up 79 tackles, including 40 solos and 3.5 for loss. He also had two interceptions, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery.
“Drew is very athletic,” McMartin said. “He’s always around the ball. He’s what you want in a linebacker, with both speed and strength. He’s a playmaker.”
Juniors Chris Neeld and Ben Mitchell, along with sophomores Louis Kriegel and Jacob Lehmkuhl, back up Carlson.
“Chris Neeld and Ben Mitchell have both played a lot on special teams,” McMartin said. “They do a great job. Scott Sievert and Louis Kregel did a good job on the JV last year and they’ve both gotten stronger and bigger. They’re pretty athletic and they can help us.”
At the opposite outside linebacker spot, tagged the Bandit position, junior Tyler Peters is a returning starter last year, but senior TJ Huizenga is making a strong bid to win the spot. Both will play key roles. Peters made 32 tackles last year, with 18 solos and six for loss. Huizenga had 34 tackles with 18 solos and 6.5 for loss, including two sacks. They’re joined by senior Sam Drawbond, originally a defensive lineman, and junior Josh Scheible, along with sophomores Thomas Fox, Ryan Berg and Scott Sievert.
In the middle or Mike position, senior Jessie Peterson is a returning starter. A three-time letterwinner, he racked up a team-high 85 tackles, including 52 unassisted stops with five for loss, a pair of sacks, three pass breakups and an interception.
“Jessie has played a lot of football for us and has made a lot of plays on defense and special teams,” McMartin said. “He’s given us great leadership.”
Juniors Tyler Olson and Carson Remick are also pushing for time on the field. Olson made nine tackles last year while Remick had eight, but is coming off an injury.
“Tyler’s a special teams warrior,” McMartin said. “He’s really improved. And If we can get Carson healthy, he’s another guy who can compete.”
Sophomore Austin Carney is also an option.
The other inside linebacker sport, known as the Sam position, is up for grabs. Senior Sam Norgaard was in the Mike spot last year, recording 36 tackles with 21 solos and two for loss along with three pass breakups and a fumble recovery.
“Sam has also made a lot of plays for us and is another great leader,” McMartin said.
Junior Andy Butts is also contending. Butts made 13 tackles last year.
“Andy’s another special teams warrior,” McMartin said. “He runs well.”
Sophomore candidates include Drew Kithcart, Jake Poster and Alex Tamerius.
Three starters also return in the secondary, although depth needs to be developed.
Free safety Zach Matter had a breakout year. A first-team all-conference pick, he was also given second-team all-West Region distinction by D3football.com and was twice the conference defensive player of the week. He made 57 tackles and had a team-high eight pass breakups with four interceptions.
“Zach’s gotten better every year,” McMartin said. “If you looked at him as a freshman and look at him nowâ€”he’s a completely different player. He’s really transformed himself the last four years.”
Behind him are sophomore Josiah Soderstrum, who lettered as a freshman, and junior Steven Adkins.
“We expect a lot out of those guys,” McMartin said.
Junior Tate Jensen is the returning starter at strong safety. The two-time letterwinner had 46 tackles, half of which were unassisted. He also had 4.5 stops for loss with a breakup and an interception.
“He’s also in track and had an injury at the end of the season but now he’s healthy and we’re excited to see what he can do,” McMartin said.
Sophomore Collin Erickson and senior Sam Schmitz are also at strong safety.
“Collin Erickson did a nice job for us last year and Sam Schmitz is another guy who will compete,” McMartin said. “He’s moved around a bit in the defensive backfield and we feel like strong safety is a good spot for him.”
Senior Tony Oros is a three-year starter at cornerback. He made 31 tackles last year with 21 unassisted along with seven pass breakups.
“Tony has also played a lot of special teams,” McMartin said. “He had a great spring.”
Junior Nick Greteman is the early frontrunner at the other cornerback position. He had 16 tackles, a breakup and an interception in a reserve role last year.
“Nick has done a good job for us,” McMartin said. “He played a lot of football last year.”
Also returning are sophomore Trevor Smith and junior Derrick Gray, but those are the only other upperclass cornerbacks on the rosterâ€”for now. The Dutch are a sure bet to quickly swipe some help from other positions.
“We’ve got to develop some depth at cornerback,” McMartin said. “That’s going to be a really important part of preseason practices.”
Senior Aaron Marcellus stepped in as the kicker last year and turned into a first-team all-league performer. He connected on six of nine field goals, none bigger than his career-long 42-yarder in the closing seconds to force overtime at Monmouth College (Ill.), an eventual Dutch victory.
“Aaron had a great season and had a great spring,” McMartin said. “He has worked hard this summer and we’re expecting him to keep improving.”
Sophomore Cam Kiner won the punting job and averaged a respectable 36.3 yards on 36 kicks.
“For being a freshman, Cam punted really well, and now we’d like to see him take that next step,” McMartin said.
Another option is Bryant, a sophomore who also plays wide receiver.
Oros is the most experienced punt and kick returner, having returned 10 kicks in 2014. But he ran back just one kickoff last year and his lone punt return was in 2013, albeit a 44-yarder. Pat Gray returned 14 kicks as a freshman last year, but given his increasing load at running back, he’s likely off limits.
“That’s a spot we’re going to have to fill,” McMartin said. “We have to find some guys.’
The absence of an immediate answer does not reflect a lack of concern.
“Nothing is off the table,” McMartin said. “Being good in special teams is really important to us.”
There were a few changes to Central’s coaching staff, long one of the nation’s most stable. Assistant Nick Mulder was promoted to defensive coordinator as he enters his fifth season, replacing 35-year veteran Don De Waard, while long-time high school assistant Jason Anderson joined the staff as a defensive line coach and May grad Spencer Gritsch will work with running backs.
It’s the youngest staff Central’s had for several years, but still well-versed in the powerful Dutch tradition. Ten of the 11 staff members are Central grads. But just as the staff has evolved, McMartin said, so has the game. The offenses Mulder must scheme against are much different beasts than those De Waard faced in his early years, when the Dutch made first downs a precious commodity for opponents.
“The definition of playing great defense has really changed,” McMartin said. “We’ve gone from 20 years ago when you were shutting people out and holding them to a few yards rushing, to now where just getting stops is important. If you keep a team under 20 points now, you’ve done a great job. Getting stops, creating turnovers and getting the ball back to your offense. Those are important things.”
McMartin said the daunting opener at Whitworth (Wash.) came about when Central’s scheduled opener was cancelled by its opponent.
“We had to look for another game and had a short amount of time,” he said. “A lot of teams that play Division III football on the west coast struggle to find 10 games, so (playing at Whitworth) was an opportunity for us.
“We’ll find out how good we are right away, because that’s a playoff-caliber team.”
Augustana presents some worries as well.
“Their head coach came over from Monmouth two years ago and he’s really rebuilt their program,” McMartin said.
The Vikings have a high-speed attack.
“We’re going to see fast-tempo offenses in three of our first four games,” McMartin said. “They’re going to score a lot of points and we’re going to have to be ready for that challenge.”
An increasingly taxing conference slate becomes even dicier with the addition of Nebraska Wesleyan.
“I think Nebraska Wesleyan will be very good,” McMartin said. “They’re well-coached. They’ve got a great staff there and will do a very good job.”
That’s become a familiar description for league opponents.
“I think every team in the Iowa Conference has gotten better,” McMartin said. “There’s nobody that looks like they’re trending in the wrong direction.”
Getting out of the blocks strong is among the season keys. That begins with a productive preseason.
“You want to get off to a good start,” McMartin said. “Building consistency and playing up to our standard each week is what we have to do.
“I think we have some really talented players on our team. I think blending them, finding the right positions, putting people in the right places, getting them to play hard all the time and getting them to make good decisions, those are really important things for us.”
The Dutch will encounter resistance at every turn.
“We’re going to have to fight, scrap and claw and be very gritty on defense,” McMartin said. “But I think we will play with a lot of energy. I’m excited to be a part of this defense. We had a good spring. We will tweak a little of what we do in our overall philosophy and then watch these guys grow and improve.
“Offensively, we’re going to have to score points. We’ve got a number of offensive skill people who are very talented and we’ve got an experienced offensive line. Getting into the end zone and scoring points is going to be a critical thing for us. We need to have high expectations and set a high standard. We have to avoid dipping below that.
“We need to have the ball more and we need to do a lot with it when we’ve got it.”
There’s also an aspect of the game that McMartin prizes but is often overlooked.
“We were very solid on special teams last year but I want us to be great on special teams,” he said. “I want us to win two or three games because of special teams.”
Obstacles abound, but the size of the Dutch roster is indicative of the energy and optimism within one of America’s most consistenly successful college football teams.
“There’s a lot of excitement around the program,” McMartin said. “Our staff has gotten a lot younger and there’s a lot of enthusiasm. What we do offensively and defensively are exciting to be a part of. And I think when recruits come in and meet our players, that does it for them. They get around people who have great character, are close knit and fun to be around. They sense that feeling of family here and they also know we have a great legacy, and to be a part of that legacy is pretty special.”