A school-record five conference wins during the last six games of 2011 has the Bluffton University football team excited to hit the field this season. The Beavers' victory over rival Defiance College capped off a year in which Bluffton won its first ever overtime game at Manchester before taking down Rose-Hulman for the first time in school history. Along the way, Bluffton was victorious over Anderson and Earlham, limiting the Ravens and Quakers to 12 and six points, respectively.
Although the Beavers bid farewell to an outstanding 2011 senior class who made huge contributions to a football program that needed revival four years ago when Coach Veidt took the reins, Bluffton is not short on experience with 75 returners ready to pick up where they left off eight months ago. The 2012 seniors have displayed commitment to the program while often serving as backups during much of their time at Bluffton. The benefit, however, is that they have developed an insatiable hunger to contribute on Saturdays in starting roles.
One area that Coach Veidt has earmarked for improvements this season is how the team starts. Bluffton came out of the gate slowly last year, dropping its first four games before turning the tables with a 23-6 Homecoming win over Earlham. Coach Veidt stated, "We did not start the season well as a team and we also struggled to start games well early on. This year's seniors are hungry to change that after experiencing the success we had over the final six games." Building on the end of 2011 is important to Bluffton's returners and to do that it is imperative that the Beavers seize momentum from day one while taking nothing for granted.
An offense that returns many of its key components is ready go to work for first-year offensive coordinator Craig Smith II who has been the wide receivers coach and special teams coordinator for the past two seasons. The Beavers will be tough in the trenches with seniors David Mango (Fishers, Ind.), Thomas Gingrich (Goshen, Ind.) and Yale Reames (Rushylvania/Benjamin Logan) leading the way up front. Juniors Marquis Brown (University Heights/Cleveland Heights) and Johnny Ballom (Cleveland/Glenville) along with sophomore Philip Nolasco (Fairborn/Tecumseh) give Bluffton experience on the interior while junior Drake Harrington (West Bloomfield, Mich./West Bloomfield) returns at tight end.
As has been the case for the past two seasons, Bluffton will once again count on contributions from a pair of quarterbacks. The difference is that one of them will not be Chris Byrd who graduated in May after two years as a starter. Two-sport standout Tyler Wright (Troy) and Nicholas Sheehan (Monroeville, Ind./Heritage) give Bluffton different looks under center. Wright, who completed over 60 percent of his passes while rushing for 393 yards last year, often breaks down defenses with his legs while Sheehan is a traditional pocket passer. Both are strong and athletic, giving the Beavers options.
While losing three four-year lettermen, including a pair of All-Heartland Conference wideouts, would spell trouble for any college football program, senior Ryan Sabin (Canal Winchester) and Shawn Frost (Edison/Mt. Gilead) have the skill and leadership capability to give Wright and Sheehan a pair of formidable targets on the outside. Both Sabin and Frost were named captains by their teammates for the 2012 campaign. Junior Javelle Eaton (Cleveland/John Marshall) also has experience at receiver and he will help solidify Bluffton's receiving corps.
Senior captain Jason Brown (Napoleon) along with juniors Airic Steagall (Hillsboro) and C.J. Sewell (Lima/Shawnee) give the Bluffton offense experienced options in the backfield. Brown and Steagall combined for over 1,000 yards on the ground, including five touchdowns. Sewell made great strides during spring practice and the Beavers will count on him to help carry the load in 2012.
The loss of eight starters on defense leaves holes to fill, but Coach Veidt's depth chart is hardly bare as Bluffton returns four linebackers and seven defensive backs with extensive game experience. The biggest unknown is the line where two-time All-Region selection and Bluffton's all-time TFL leader Justin Crosier (Columbus/Hamilton Township) plugged up the middle the last two seasons. In addition to Crosier, four other 2011 graduates ate up most of the plays a season ago.
Senior captain Preston Huddleston (Benton Harbor, Mich./Eau Claire) is the lone returner with significant experience on the line. He finished with 24 tackles and a forced fumble as a junior defensive end. Senior Nick Smith (Troy) and junior Ryan Leopold (Ottawa/Ottawa-Glandorf) will battle for a starting spot at the other end position, while juniors Ben Schamp (St. Marys/Urbana) and Jon Dixon (Detroit, Mich./Harper Woods) along with sophomore Hunter Bosch (Elida/Shawnee) will look to fill in the hole vacated by Crosier.
Another unit that saw its three starters, all three All-Heartland Conference honorees as well, whisked away on graduation day was the linebacking corps. Ready to continue Bluffton's tradition of All-HCAC linebackers are seniors Joe Maldonado (Dade City, FL/Zephyrhills), Ben Kaufman (Ottawa/Ottawa-Glandorf) and Mike Johnson (Browns Mills, NJ/Pemberton Township). Maldonado was sixth on the team with 37 stops, while 2012 captain Ben Kaufman finished 10th with 31 tackles, including 4.5 TFL's. Junior Derrick Baksa (Paulding/Wayne Trace) and senior Erik Wilfer (Bloomville/Buckeye Central) provide depth to the backers after seeing action on special teams last season.
The Bluffton secondary is a source of strength for the Beavers as seven returners speak to the depth of this group. Senior captain Justin Hahn (Rocky River) is a three-year letterwinner at safety who has been a mainstay for Bluffton since day one. He was fourth on the team with 54 tackles, including 5 TFL's and two interceptions. Fellow seniors Dominique Chester (Mansfield/Madison Comprehensive), Tyler Hensley (Batavia), Antwon Brooks (Cleveland Heights) and Derek Woods (Springfield/South) have all seen action for the Beavers, while juniors Birchel Ralph (Cape Coral, FL/Island Coast) and Joshua Hadley (Harper Woods, MI/Harper Woods) racked up 42 and 14 tackles, respectively, in 2011. Ralph broke up seven passes and picked off one.
Junior Austin Sweeney (Adrian, Mich./Whitmer) and senior punter Heath Underwood (Mansfield/Ontario) have taken care of the kicking duties for the Beavers during the past two seasons and they will continue with those roles in 2012. Sweeney converted 9-of-13 field goal attempts and finished the season with 52 points, while Underwood punted 48 times for 1808 yards. Sweeney ranks first all time with a .727 field goal percentage (16-of-22).
With over 75 percent of its rushing production back, coupled with an offensive line comprised of three experienced seniors, the Bluffton offense has the tools to give Coach Veidt his best season since taking over four years ago. There will be a learning curve on the offensive side of the ball as Coach Smith takes over the play-calling duties. Smith, however, handled the pass-game for the past two seasons so he is very familiar with the returning personnel. Also returning for 2012 is 23-year veteran Lou Stokes who will serve as the offensive line coach, Associate Head Coach and Director of Academic Success. Jason Diller, who takes over the running backs after previously working with quarterbacks, is back for his fifth year. Ricky Ciccone is beginning his first year as the special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach. Returning to Bluffton after four seasons on the defensive line is first year tight ends coach Jerry Stone.
Coach Veidt will continue to handle the linebackers while Denny Phillips is in his 24th season as defensive backs coach. New graduate assistants Jon Wheat and Jonathan Cooley take over on the defensive side of the ball. Wheat, who was an assistant at Hanover for two years, is serving as the defensive line coach and video coordinator. Directing the safeties and taking over as the equipment manager is Jonathan Cooley who gained experience at Millikin in 2011.
Franklin was once again picked to finish first in the pre-season HCAC coaches poll after claiming the title and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in four of the past five seasons. Mount St. Joseph and Hanover were selected second and third in the pre-season poll, while Bluffton came in fourth after earning a share of second place with a 5-3 HCAC mark a season ago. The biggest change in the Heartland Conference for 2012 will be the head coaches on the sidelines. No fewer than four teams will be under new leadership this season (Earlham, Anderson, Defiance, Hanover) with RHIT's Jeff Sokol starting just his second season with the Engineers.
Bluffton opens its 2012 season when it hosts Kenyon College in Salzman Stadium on September 1. Following a trip to Baldwin-Wallace, the Beavers kick off conference action at Earlham on September 15. Bluffton welcomes Mount St. Joseph and Manchester for back-to-back home games on Sept. 22 and Sept. 29 before a Homecoming matchup with Hanover on October 13. The Beavers wrap up their regular season when long-time rival Defiance College makes the trip to Bluffton on November 10.