DEFIANCE, Ohio - One word can be used to describe nearly everything about the Defiance College football program in 2012, and that word is new. The Purple and Gold will enter the campaign under new head coach Brian Sheehan and will showcase new schemes on both sides of the ball, along with a host of new faces that will be embracing new opportunities.
Sheehan and his staff brought in 59 freshmen and enter the season with a 110-man roster that features 30 returning lettermen and 12 returning starters from the 2011 team that went 4-4 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. The even record marked the sixth time in the last seven seasons that DC has ended at .500 or better against conference foes.
Improving on that streak will hinge on Sheehan's ability to bring all of the new pieces together into one successful unit. That process was started immediately and has carried on throughout the spring season, through the summer and into preseason camp.
The hard work appears to be paying off, as a committed and enthused roster has emerged eager to tackle the challenges of reaching its full potential on and off the field in 2012.
The first challenge will be under center, where juniors Aaron Spence and Garrett Teague will battle for the starting role at quarterback for Defiance. Spence and Teague have seen action at quarterback for DC over the past two seasons as the backups for All-HCAC perfomer and four-year starter, Rick Powell. Both should be able to make a smooth transition into the offense, as their speed and arm strength will translate well into DC's spread attack. Spence played in five contests in 2011 and capitalized on his lone start by completing 15 passes for 122 yards and rushing for a pair of touchdowns and 107 yards at Franklin. Despite not seeing any varsity action last season, Teague served as the primary backup in 2010 by taking snaps in eight games as a collegiate rookie.
The Yellow Jackets will also feature a new look in the backfield, with sophomores Eric Strickland, Denzel Moore and Trevon Burrell all hoping to power the DC ground game in 2012. The young trio will be asked to replace the production of All-HCAC rusher, Drew Kuesel, who was the program's featured back over the majority of the past four campaigns. Strickland will convert from the linebacker slot as a freshman, where he played in nine varsity contests. Strickland boasts the speed and toughness needed to excel in a successful rushing attack and will have the opportunity to grab the starting role in camp. Moore used a tremendous spring to leap up the depth chart and will join Burrell in battling for carries. A pair of promising rookies will also have an opportunity to impact the rotation, as Aaron Smith and Shaq Monahan-Estes will each get a long look during the preseason and figure to have an impact before the end of the 2012 season.
Coach Sheehan's new-look offense will also utilize the slot back position to complement the power and size of the running backs mentioned previously. Joey Chester enters his third season with the Jackets as the projected starter. Chester has played in 17 games already for DC and averaged 7.3 yards per touch one year ago. Sophomore Todd Roberts played in all 10 outings as a member of the special teams unit during his rookie collegiate season and will be asked to bring his physical approach to the offensive side of the ball in 2012. Newcomer and Defiance High standout, Nick Lopez, will also see time in the backfield for the Yellow Jackets as another piece of the exciting freshmen class for Coach Sheehan's staff.
A young Defiance lineup will be the least experienced at the tight end positions, where freshmen Sam Mason and Mitch Lhamon will be asked to contribute immediately. Mason will bring tremendous athleticism and hands to the position for DC, while Lhamon excelled as a blocker during his prep career and will be a valuable part of the running game for Defiance.
In contrast to the youth at the tight end slots, the Jackets will feature seniors Jon Carrabino and Aaron Choice, junior Brian Mircovich and sophomore Bryan Weaver at the wide receiver position. Carrabino and Mircovich have each proven to be impact performers in the DC offense when healthy and could be primed for big years in 2012. Carrabino has played in 27 games over the past three seasons and can exploit opposing defenses with his speed and versatility. Mircovich broke out with 18 catches for 188 yards over his first four varsity showings in 2011 and provides Defiance with a solid route runner on the edges.
In order for Defiance's offense to perform more efficiently in 2012, it will need steady production from the offensive line throughout the season. The Jackets will turn to returners Chase Cohen, Tanner Engle, Mitch Smith, Seth Kimberlin and Patrick Hartman to anchor the improved unit. That group will be bolstered by a stout incoming crop of linemen, with Joe Niehaus, Garrett Waiters and Lance Vetter leading the pack of freshmen looking to earn time in the trenches.
While DC features many new faces on offense, the defensive unit of the Purple and Gold is flush with experienced returners. That is especially true on the front line, where seniors Gregg Pickett and D.J. Brigham join juniors Seth Evans and Andrew Leverenz. The physical group is anchored by All-HCAC tackle, Pickett, who registered 52 tackles, 10.0 hits for lost yardage and 3.5 sacks during his breakout junior year. Brigham also excelled in 2012 with 32 hits and 2.5 sacks. Leverenz boasts the most strength on the roster and used an outstanding camp to position himself for a starting role on the edge, while Evans is also poised to see time as a pass rusher. Juniors Jon Day and Ryne Rogers will join sophomore Jack McIntee and promising freshman Rayon Calloway on the depth chart.
Seniors Hunter Robertson and James Buari will be expected to hold down the starting linebacker positions, with junior Blaine McGowan and sophomore Calab Wagner also seeing significant time. Robertson was tabbed as an All-HCAC standout after pacing the Jackets with 79 tackles last season and has picked up 154 stops over the 2010 and 2011 campaigns. Buari earned four starts and played in all 10 games as a junior, and McGowan averaged 9.8 hits over his final four contests and ended his breakout 2011 season with 70 tackles and 5.5 hits for lost yardage.
Three-time First-Team All-HCAC selection, Tony Sierra, will highlight an experienced secondary for Defiance in 2012. Sierra ended with 52 tackles one year ago and has played in all 30 varsity contests during his outstanding career on the gridiron with the Purple and Gold. Sierra will be joined by fellow seniors Matt Forry, Brad Sealey, Mason Foulk and Jordan Taylor in DC's new three-safety lineup, with sophomores Vinny Polverine and Torrence Smith also expected to contribute after making significant improvements during the offseason. Another key cog in the secondary will be sophomore Josh Slayton, who earned All-HCAC honors as a collegiate rookie, after finishing third in the HCAC with 10 passes defended in 10 starts. Slayton also notched 27 solo hits among his 41 total tackles in 2011. Senior Kyle Keegan should hold down the other cornerback position, after adding strength during the offseason. Senior Terrence Plummer and junior Kaleb Rexrode could also battle for time, along with an outstanding freshmen trio of Jorry Matherson, Chris King and Leroy Cheatham. Matherson boasts the best speed on the Yellow Jacket roster and could make an impact on the DC return game as well.
A pair of familiar names will anchor the kicking game, with junior Aaron Spence handling the punting duties and sophomore Spencer Saunders repeating his rookie season role by handling kickoffs, point-after attempts and field goal tries. Saunders connected on 19-of-22 point-after tries in 2011 and split the uprights in three of his five field goal attempts. Spence averaged 32.6 yards per punt over 18 attempts and stuck a trio of punts inside the 20-yard line. Spence and Saunders will also be asked to showcase their athletic skill sets on fake plays, which should make the Jackets a dangerous team to defend in fourth-down situations.
The Jackets will open their 2012 campaign on Saturday, September 1 against Albion College in a non-conference tilt. The game is slated to begin at 1:30 pm inside Justin F. Coressel Stadium and will be webcast live at www.DefianceAthletics.com/video courtesy of the Yellow Jacket Sports Network.