SPOKANE, Wash. – Coming off of a solid season that included seven victories, the Whitworth University football team looks to take another step forward in 2013. After all, the Pirates return 16 starters (seven offense, nine defense) and a number of players whose 2012 year was cut short by injury.
"I think we will be better in all facets of the game," said head coach John Tully (96-77 entering his 19th year as coach of the Bucs). "We have several key players back and we are bringing in one of our biggest and most talented group of new players in some time."
Tully will face two distinct questions heading into the 2013 season. On offense, how will he overcome the loss of last year's top playmakers in tailback Ronnie Thomas and wideout Jake DeGooyer, both of whom graduated after earning First Team All-Northwest Conference honors. Secondly, how does he fit all of the pieces together on a defense that suffered several season-ending injuries in 2012, but now returns those injured players along with most of those who stepped up behind them?
Despite the graduation of Thomas, who led the NWC in rushing last season, and DeGooyer, who ranked among the NWC leaders in receiving, Whitworth returns seven starters on offense.
"I think we have a chance to be very good on offense, particularly on the offensive line where we have good size and experience," Tully said.
The Pirates return four starters on the offensive line and the middle of the line is especially experienced. Senior Gavin Horst returns at center and he is flanked by senior guards Liam Brown and Dalton Cosby. Brown is in his third year as a starter. Junior Bryan Bremmer stepped in as a starter at tackle one-third of the way into last season. He moved into that spot when Greg Vibbert suffered a season-ending injury in the game at La Verne. If Vibbert is able to return, then in actuality the Bucs have five starters back on the line.
And several other players gained valuable experience as backups on the line last year. They include sophomores Kyle Cosby, Joe Beattie, and Avery Smetana along with juniors Dylan Jackson and Tyler Gold.
The line will provide protection for junior quarterback Bryan Peterson, who continues to develop into one of the best as his position on the West Coast. Peterson completed 57% of his passes for 1,762 yards last season. He threw 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions.
"In his third year as a starter, Bryan has a chance to be one of the best players in the league," Tully said.
Michael McCune stepped in as a more-than-capable backup last season. He completed 65% of his passes for 407 yards and six touchdowns without an interception.
Several key players who were on the receiving end of those passes in 2012 will return for the Pirates. Senior Wade Meyer was Second Team All-NWC at tight end last season, catching 16 balls for 289 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Anthony Brommer showed promise in 2012 and will provide strong back up at tight end.
Devon Lind is the only returning starter at wide receiver. He caught 13 passes for 163 yards in 2012. Connor Williams split time at tight end and wideout last fall and all six of his catches went for a touchdown with an average of 30 yards per reception. Senior Kekoa Turbeville and junior Dustin Martin both caught passes last season as well.
A couple of newcomers were enrolled in the spring and practiced with the Pirates. Drew Clausen, a junior, is a transfer from Carroll College. Anthony Fullman, a junior is a transfer from Santa Barbara City College.
The tailback spot is up for grabs heading into the season. Seniors D.J. Tripoli and Alphonso Miranda have the most experience playing behind Thomas. Tripoli averaged 3.9 yards per carry on 61 attempts and scored three touchdowns.
"We have a group of experienced and aggressive players back on defense," Tully said. "We have a chance to be very good."
Whitworth returns four starters on the defensive line. Senior Aaron Cochran had a breakthrough year at defensive end in 2012. He led the Pirates with 9.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks, and had 46 total tackles. Sophomore Danny Welstad was forced to move to OLB last year because of several injuries the Bucs suffered in the linebacking corps. Welstad still finished with 42 stops and should be stronger back at his natural position of defensive end.
Seniors Brodrick Hirai and Rob Geissler return as starters on the defensive interior and the pair combined for 69 tackles last season. Hirai will be starting for the third straight season.
Senior Kyle Davidson and sophomore Michael Plueard provided key minutes as backups along the line last year.
At no position were the Pirates hurt worse by injury than at linebacker. Over the course of the season three different starters suffered injuries that ended his year. Those players included senior Ryan Loutsis, junior Grant Livingston and junior Tevin Tyus. All three can be impact players for the Pirates if they return to full strength. Tyus may get a tryout at safety as well.
Amidst the storm of injuries in 2012 junior Nic Brockhoff was the stalwart at middle linebacker. A starter since his freshman season, Brockhoff finished with 52 tackles last fall. Sam Schloesler, a junior, played important minutes last season and showed great improvement in the spring, according to Tully. Sophomore Sean Dennis saw playing time as a true freshman last year. Senior Jacob Kriegbaum has experience as a backup as well.
The Pirate defense was nearly as devastated by injuries in the secondary as at linebacker. Starting safety Fernando Noriega went down early in the season and backup Sean McNeally soon followed. Starting cornerback Paul Miller was lost for the year on a kickoff return at Linfield. Of the three, Noriega and McNeally look most ready to return. Despite missing the final three games of the season, Miller still finished sixth on the team in total tackles and the coaches hope he can be back at full strength by the start of conference play.
Casey Monahan returns for his fourth season as a starter at free safety. He had 46 tackles last season and finished with two interceptions and seven pass breakups. Sophomore Jesse Bresser stepped in as a starter at strong safety and finished with 53 stops and two interceptions.
Junior De' Hall and sophomore Jarrell Norman gained valuable experience after moving into starting roles as cornerbacks last season. Hall led the Pirates with four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
Special Teams -
Whitworth has plenty to work with at placekicker, but will be looking for a new punter in 2013. Junior Dominic Aliano was the starting placekicker coming into last season, but was injured in the third game. Sophomore Robert Thulen stepped in to replace Aliano and made 4-6 field goals. The pair combined to convert 38 of 42 PATs. Thulen punted three times as an emergency backup last year.
The Pirates will also likely have two new primary kick and punt returners in 2013. Miller was averaging almost 25 yards per kickoff return when he was injured, but will likely move out of that role if his recovery proceeds as planned. Tripoli was second on the team with nine kickoff returns and averaged 17.3 yards per attempt. DeGooyer was Whitworth's primary punt returner. Both of those spots will be decided in this summer's camp.
The 2013 football schedule is a mirror image of 2012. The Pirates play the same ten teams and reverse the locations. Instead of four home games, Whitworth will have six games in the Pine Bowl this fall.
Non-conference opponents include St. Scholastica (Minn.), the two-time champions of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, and three schools from the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletics Conference: Whittier, La Verne and Chapman. Only the Chapman game will be played away from home as Whitworth opens the schedule with three straight games in the Pine Bowl. Whitworth opens the season on September 7th against St. Scholastica.
The NWC will be as challenging as ever in 2013. Linfield and Pacific Lutheran both made the NCAA playoffs last fall and Willamette was strong as well. Pacific (Ore.), Lewis & Clark and Puget Sound all continue to show improvement.