With 11 consecutive seasons at five wins or more and 10 of the last 11 years with a record above .500 in the rugged Ohio Athletic Conference, the Capital University football team has been one of the most successful programs in both the conference and region for the past decade.
After finishing the 2011 campaign with a 5-5 mark, including a 5-4 record in OAC play, third-year coach Henry Stanford and the Crusaders look to continue the program's success while competing for their first appearance in the NCAA Division III Playoffs since 2007.
Despite the loss of five all-league selections due to graduation, Capital returns 45 letter winners to the fold, including 15 of 22 starters and both specialists, in 2012. Stanford, who is 10-10 in his two years at the helm, is confident in the returning core's ability to mentor and guide over 60 new faces into the program.
Seniors Matt DeMore (Twinsburg, Ohio) and Tyler Dugan (Columbus, Ohio) return as second-year captains, and will be joined for the first game's coin toss by fellow seniors Mike Epstein (Toledo, Ohio) and Nate Nasrallah (Norton, Ohio). Each member of the team's 18-man senior class will serve as a captain at some point during the season.
"I think all the seniors have stepped up since the last game of the season last year," DeMore, an offensive lineman, said. "That's when the next season starts ... each of the seniors has taken multiple guys under their wing to try to build up this team. At the end of the day, we all want to leave a legacy."
The Crusaders open the 2012 slate on Saturday, Sept. 1, against perennial North Coast Athletic Conference power Wittenberg. In the 2011 season opener, the Tigers defeated Capital 45-28 in Springfield. This year's opener will be played at Bernlohr Stadium, where the Crusaders will play six times during the regular season.
Capital begins a three-game stretch where it faces the OAC's top three teams from 2011 against Heidelberg on Oct. 6 as part of the institution's Homecoming festivities. The Crusaders then travel to 2011 national runner-up Mount Union on Oct. 13, and return home to face Baldwin Wallace on Oct. 20.
Capital closes its home schedule on Oct. 27 against cross-town rival Otterbein on Senior Day at Bernlohr.
See below for a position-by-position breakdown of the 2012 Crusaders.
Capital will continue to deploy its spread offensive formations, featuring one tailback and four wide receivers. In 2011, the Crusaders led the conference in passing offense with 260.2 yards per contest.
Besides establishing balance between the running game and the team's potent passing attack, offensive coordinator Robert White pointed out the importance of tempo and ball control in 2012.
"We want to increase our tempo and get 90 or more snaps in per game," White said. "I think the biggest key for us is to eliminate the turnovers we had last year. We have a veteran offensive line to protect, and if we don't turn the ball over, we'll be successful this year."
Junior Ryan Kremchek (Sylvania, Ohio) enters the season with the most game experience on the team following the departure of Chase Carris, last season's starter. Kremchek appeared in five games during an injury-plagued 2011 campaign, passing for 527 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior Alex Nydza (Cleveland, Ohio) also looks to compete for the starting spot. After appearing in seven games as a linebacker a year ago, Nydza returns to his spot behind center, where he competed for a spot in 2010.
Bowling Green transfer Jake Sears (Miamisburg, Ohio) and freshman Ryan McSweeney (Seven Hills, Ohio) also project to be in the mix for playing time.
Senior Casey Meridieth (Toledo, Ohio) looks to take the reins following the graduation of All-OAC second team selection Josh Anderson. Meridieth tallied 88 all-purpose yards a year ago. Sophomore Nolan Gill (Hilliard, Ohio), who appeared in six games last season, also hopes to compete for playing time.
Freshmen looking to contribute in the backfield include Chris Elledge (Pickerington, Ohio), Myles Robinson (Powell, Ohio), Bo Hardy (Galloway, Ohio) and Griffin Mouty (Cincinnati, Ohio).
This seasoned unit should anchor the offense as all five starters return from the 2011 campaign. DeMore is the returning starter at center.
"I love having that title of best pass offense," DeMore said. "It means a lot to an offensive lineman, to keep the quarterback clean. Knowing that he has your trust, that means a lot ... we have to play together, keep strong and play as a unit (to keep that up this year)."
Surrounding DeMore at the guard spots are junior Anthony Colucci (Ashtabula, Ohio) and senior Troy Thompson (Pickerington, Ohio). Sophomore Trevor McGowan (Northville, Mich.) and junior David Howson (Hudson, Ohio) project to return to their starting tackle slots. Sophomore Bradley Beck (Fremont, Ohio) also returns from last season's two-deep depth chart.
Epstein and junior Alex Coleman (Columbus, Ohio) return to the wide receiver corps, which lost all-conference and all-region selection Matt White from a year ago. Epstein is the team's leading returning receiver with 36 receptions for 301 yards and a touchdown, while Coleman followed closely behind with 272 yards on 28 catches with three touchdowns.
Projected returning contributors at wide receiver include juniors Justin Bubar (Strongsville, Ohio), Jacob Batcho (Massillon, Ohio), sophomores Benjamin Woycke (Mason, Ohio) and Nick Gonzales (Cleveland, Ohio).
Consistency will be critical for the Capital defense. In 2011, the Crusaders allowed just 12 points or less three times, but surrendered 37 or more points four different times. Eight starters return to the unit, including all four defensive backs.
"We've got to play every play like it's our last play," Dugan said. "You've just got to get on the field and treat it like you're not going to play again."
Eight defensive linemen with a plethora of game experience return for the Crusaders, who will rely on strong play up front from a seasoned group of veterans.
Seniors Nate Nasrallah, Jay Bondzeleske (Columbus, Ohio), Aaron Knisley (Bexley, Ohio), Aaron Rittgers (Pickerington, Ohio), Jason Hutchins (Springboro, Ohio), Seth Nelson (Columbus, Ohio), Zac Randall (Greenville, Ohio) and Blayne Cornwell (Proctorville, Ohio) form the core of the line. Nasrallah is a 2011 All-OAC honorable mention pick, while Knisley and Nelson are also returning starters. The trio combined for 122 tackles, including 13 sacks, a year ago.
Despite the loss of all-conference and all-region honoree Troy Spiker, Dugan, the lone returning starter at linebacker, is confident that others around him will step up.
"Troy Spiker was a great player," Dugan said. "He had to fill the shoes of (2010 OAC Linebacker of the Year) Sam Jacobs, so we just constantly have that 'next man' mentality, where you don't know when your number's going to be called, so you've got to be ready to go."
Dugan is the team's returning tackler with 58 stops (40 solo) in 2011. Junior Kyle Shaeffer (Pickerington, Ohio), who appeared in four contests last season, looks to fill the void in the middle. Others projected to be in the rotation include sophomores T.J. Langermeier (West Jefferson, Ohio), Wesley Meadows (Athens, Ohio) and Gene Rucker (Marion, Ohio).
All four starters return to the defensive backfield, including 2011 All-OAC honorable mention pick Domenic Hebebrand (Hinckley, Ohio), who placed fourth on the team with 50 tackles and a combined 15 pass breakups and passes defensed. Senior Ryan Neuberger (Milan, Ohio) is the team's other starter at safety and led the Crusaders with three interceptions a season ago.
Juniors Antoine Roberts (Lithonia, Ga.) and Andre Cousin (Fostoria, Ohio) project to return to their starting cornerback positions. The two combined for 67 tackles in 2011.
Senior Ted Cox (Marysville, Ohio), junior Larez Harper (Columbus, Ohio) and sophomore Clay Smith (West Jefferson, Ohio) were mainstays on last year's two-deep and look to contribute as well.
Senior kicker Nick VanMeter (Marion, Ohio) and sophomore punter Joseph Riley (Twinsburg, Ohio) form the kicking corps. VanMeter booted three field goals and averaged 57.4 yards per kickoff last season, while Riley averaged 40.0 yards per punt and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line six times. Rittgers returns as the team's long-snapper, while Coleman will handle the bulk of punt and kick return duties.