When your QB's a newbie

More news about: Bethel | Central | Springfield

Ben Wetzell was 14-for-25 passing in Bethel's season opener.

By Keith McMillan

When it comes to quarterback, few teams are fortunate enough to have a star like Brett Elliott returning, like top-ranked Linfield does. But there is an inordinate amount of returning talent at the position in 2005.

No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor will trot out two quarterbacks with starting experience in sophomore Josh Welch, currently top on the depth chart, and junior Andy Padron, who started 11 of the Crusaders’ 15 games last season. Many of the top 25 teams return star quarterbacks, and some teams that aren’t ranked got their team-to-watch labels because of returning signal-callers.

It’s the year of the star quarterback seemingly everywhere, at Albright (with senior John Port), Delaware Valley (senior Adam Knoblauch), Hampden-Sydney (senior J.D. Ricca), Occidental (junior Andy Collins), Rowan (with junior Mike Orihel), Texas Lutheran (senior Sean Salinas), Washington and Jefferson (senior Chris Edwards), Whitworth (junior Joel Clark) and UW-Stevens Point (junior Brett Borchart) to name a few.

But what of the teams that have high hopes and an unsettled situation under center? There are different ways to develop a first-year starting quarterback, as Bethel, Central, Howard Payne and Springfield — all involved in big games this weekend — demonstrate.

Bethel and Central meet each other after opening-week road wins and solid performances by their sophomore quarterbacks. Ben Wetzell rushed for a touchdown and passed for another in the second quarter to lead the Royals over Buena Vista 38-21, while Central’s Tim Connell scored a two-point conversion in overtime to help the Dutch win at Augustana.

For a pair of sophomores with limited varsity experience, the results certainly could have been worse.

Bethel’s Steve Johnson is in his 17th season as head coach, but something that happened in the past few years changed how he approached new-quarterback situations.

Scott Kirchoff, Bethel’s all-time leading passer and a first-year quarterbacks coach, led the Royals offense from 1999-2001 and in 2003. In 2002, when Kirchoff was lost for the year, his good friend Tommy Lachermeier stepped in as the starter. As Johnson recalls, “Tommy knew so much, but he couldn’t do it like Scott did.” The coaches were so confident in Lachermeier’s knowledge of the offense, they forgot how much of it was tailored to Kirchoff.

When Lachermeier was injured later that year, then-freshman A.J. Parnell stepped in, and the coaching staff adjusted its game plans.

“We were forced to give A.J. just a little bit,” Johnson said. “We spun him around and had him hand off. We brought it down for A.J., and we should have done it for the other senior (Lachermeier) too. We didn’t dictate (the game plans) to his skills.”

Now, the Royals feature 6-3, 210-pound Wetzell, who became the starter midway through last season, replacing Parnell. Johnson says Wetzell has “a gun for an arm,” but knows that if he had to turn to backup Jared Hall, he would adjust this time.

“We might have a Wetzell game plan and a Jared Hall game plan,” Johnson says.

Game planning for Central’s Connell won’t necessarily be easy. Johnson describes him as “the gunslinger type,” and uses the words “unorthodox” and “elusive.”

Connell’s own coach calls him “a little squirt,” but only when comparing him to Wetzell. Connell, who led his high school team to a state championship as a senior, is listed at 5-11, 180.

Jeff McMartin, second-year coach of the Dutch says “we really preach having fun. We want our guys to be as relaxed as they can.”

But part of Connell’s poise was developed by playing in Central’s six JV games last season. Although he was the varsity second-stringer, he attempted just nine passes as a freshman. McMartin’s staff figured that Cole Goodchild would back up Mark Isaacson, who set the school record for passing yards in a season in 2004 and set several more Dutch records by going 25-for-55 for 345 yards in a 28-14 loss to Coe in 2003. But Goodchild left for a junior college, and Connell was never thrust into duty.

McMartin said that by playing JV, Connell knew the terminology well and was able to control the huddle from the start of this season, despite being a sophomore. And on JV, he’d been able to make some mistakes at full speed — sometimes, as McMartin noted, without the best blocking.

“If you make a bad pass or a bad decision in JV, it’s not good, but it’s not the end of the world,” said McMartin, whose staff tapes JV games and evaluates them together. If Connell threw an interception, he and the coaches could discuss what happened on the sideline, instead of being angry or disappointed.

Springfield, which travels to Union in an Empire 8/Liberty League clash on Saturday night, graduated its top two quarterbacks. Ryan Sylvia, the primary signal-caller, played in all 10 games last season, but backup Mike Judge played in nine.

“We’re going to do what we do,” says longtime coach Mike DeLong. “In the past, with Mike and Ryan, we’ve used two quarterbacks, and you’ll see us use two this year. In an option system, you really have to have two ready at all times anyway.”

This year’s main candidates, senior Damien Gunningsmith and junior Joe Deptula, aren’t dissimilar in size or playing style, DeLong says. But Gunningsmith has started at split end for two years, one of those players DeLong says was so good, the staff had to get him on the field. Deptula, however, transferred from King’s and spent last season as the third quarterback.

DeLong says the differences between having experienced quarterbacks like Judge and Sylvia in his system or two new ones isn’t that great. “You probably adjust a little less,” he says, but Springfield’s offense is about timing, not adjustments.

“We haven’t held anything back with these guys,” says DeLong, whose team faces UW-Stout on Sept. 17. “I want to see them both play. They’re good students, good athletes and good guys.”

The quarterback shuffle sometimes brings out the good in a guy, as Johnson says it did in Parnell. The Bethel staff realized Wetzell would “be better than A.J. pretty soon,” late last season, and started him in some games, though injuries slowed his development.

But Parnell, Johnson says, “is one of the best leaders on the team. He’s incredibly respected.” His offensive contribution might be limited in an offense that also features star back Phil Porta, but Parnell works in as the third of five receivers and plays special teams.

In replacing Adam King, Howard Payne may go another route entirely. Adam Johnson, who started for Division I-AA Rhode Island in 2003 and Division II Tarleton State in 2004, may line up under center when the Yellow Jackets host No. 13 UW-La Crosse on Saturday. King threw for 3,252 yards and 28 TDs as a senior, numbers that put him among the best in Division III.

It would be tough to expect first-year coach Mike Redwine to sustain an offense that averaged 37 points and 469 yards in a 7-3 2004, especially without King’s experience. But a talented transfer replaced a highly touted longtime starter last year at Linfield, and look what happened.

Stat of the week
Well, Around the Nation doesn’t have to pick its own this week, as ‘what’s the most surprising stat from the (opening) weekend’ became a front-page poll question early in the week.

With about 2,400 votes in as of midnight Wednesday, 29% of you were most surprised by Wittenberg’s offensive ineptitude in a 54-0 loss to Capital. ATN probably would have agreed with the 21% of you who thought Rowan’s 21 points and 609 yards was most stunning. About 18% of you liked McDaniel’s 19-point rally to beat Bridgewater (Va.) and 12% went with the three safeties in the Mt. St. Joseph’s 21-18 win over Wilmington. Nine percent each were most surprised by Principia surrendering 80 points to Southwest Assemblies of God and Franklin & Marshall losing to Bethany.

If ever a week goes by when surprising stats don’t make the front-page poll, Around the Nation will resume acknowledging its own stats of the week. 

Road trip of the week
We don’t have to look any further than Kings Point at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. It’s the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy from the New York City suburbs taking on a team from half of a five-school, one-campus conglomerate in suburban Los Angeles. Oh, and 2,841 miles separates Claremont, Calif., from Kings Point, N.Y.

Recommended road trips of the week
Last week we thought you could hit three games in 24 hours with minimal travel. Let’s keep that theme going, and see what you could do this week, if your life was just that devoid of other excitement that you’d dare try.

A mid-Atlantic suggestion involving about 90 minutes of travel each way is to take in Augustana at Catholic at 1 p.m., then Bridgewater at Shenandoah at 7 p.m. By adding 45 minutes or so to your trip, you could take in Randolph-Macon at Johns Hopkins at 1 instead.

In New England, catch Friday night fever at Westfield State, who hosts Western New England at 7 p.m. The following afternoon, your options are plenty, but we’d recommend seeing two of the NEFC’s best teams when Curry visits Fitchburg State at 1:30 p.m. You could stay in the same hotel room you did Friday night if Union were playing at Springfield, but getting to that 7 p.m. game in Schenectady, N.Y., can be done with a little hustle. It’s a three-hour drive, or 174 miles from Fitchburg, according to MapQuest.

Late kickoffs at Wartburg (hosting Augsburg), North Central (against Benedictine) and Rose-Hulman (hosting Mt. St. Joseph) make two-game days possible for fans of several teams in the Midwest.

Mildly amusing matchups
With all the Concordias, Wesleyans and such out there, we’re bound to have a few matchups worth a chuckle each week. Here are ours for Sept. 10:

Pacific Lutheran at Cal Lutheran — The Lutherans, of course, send shouts out to Luther, Martin Luther, Wisconsin Lutheran and friends.

Try not to get confused when Worcester Polytech meets Worcester State. And save your best seafaring water joke for when Mass Maritime battles Coast Guard.

Five games to watch
Okay, so we give you more than five. What can we say? It’s early, all the games still look good.

Curry at Fitchburg State: A rematch of the NEFC Championship game last season. The Colonels handed Fitchburg two of its four losses, 14-3 and 17-3.

No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor at Willamette: At least it’s in Oregon, otherwise we’d have no reason to believe this would be as good a game as it was last year (two overtimes) following the Bearcats’ season-opening 35-0 loss to Western Oregon.

Chapman at No. 8 Occidental: The Tigers get a crack at the only team besides Linfield to beat them in 2004, this time with Andy Collins under center.

No. 12 Salisbury at Brockport State: The 8½-hour road trip for the Sea Gulls might have an effect on this game.

Aurora at Alma: Last season’s playoff representatives out of the IBFC and MIAA get together.

Redlands at Whitworth: The Pirates won 52-49 in California last season.

Texas Lutheran at No. 11 Trinity (Texas): Their opener is also time for the Bulldogs to live up to the “next big thing” hype.

Also keep an eye on: No. 13 UW-La Crosse at Howard Payne, Lakeland at No. 15 Carthage, Bridgewater (Va.) at Shenandoah, Central at Bethel, Cortland State at TCNJ, Ohio Wesleyan at Thiel, Concordia (Wis.) at UW-Oshkosh.

Who are those guys?
As tracked by our friend Ralph Turner on our message board, Post Patterns, here’s what Division III teams did while playing out-of-division in Week 1, and which Week 2 games feature unfamiliar teams on the opposite sideline.
We didn’t do so well last weekend. Ralph lists the game-by-game breakdown on the board, in separate threads under the General Football category.

Against Division I-AA: 2-3 in Week 1
This week’s opponents:
Greensboro at Davidson
Wittenberg at Dayton

Against Division II: 2-5 in Week 1
This week’s opponents:
Linfield at Western Oregon
Humboldt State at Menlo
Concordia-St. Paul at UW-River Falls 

Against NAIA: 2-4 in Week 1.
This week’s opponents:
Anderson at Taylor 
Iowa Wesleyan at Cornell
Greenville at Trinity International
Loras at St. Ambrose
Waldorf at Martin Luther
No. 24 McDaniel at Seton Hill
Southern Virginia at North Carolina Wesleyan
Sul Ross State at Southwest Assemblies of God
St. Xavier at UW-Whitewater

Mark my words (or eat ’em) 
I’ll give a new Around the Nation feature a shot this week. I figure I’ve been doing this long enough to stick my neck out on a few hunches and see what happens. 
We’ll stick this here at the bottom to reward the die-hard readers … either that, or hide it from the angry e-mailers. Feel free to discuss these on the ATN thread on Post Patterns.

-> Principia will bounce back from giving up 80. But then again, a game against Trinity Bible is good therapy for most teams.
-> An early nominee for most rushing attempts this weekend: Carnegie Mellon vs. Grove City. Maybe those teams aren’t as run-happy as their reputations would suggest, but that just sounds like a grind-it-out game.
-> Howard Payne’s game against UW-La Crosse will have them surpass Texas Lutheran as the third team to watch from the ASC, and a Willamette loss will keep the Bearcats at No. 3 in the NWC.

Readers have always been a big part of Around the Nation, and this year we’ve added another way for you to talk back. We’ve always listened to what you had to say — good, bad or indifferent — with our our feedback form or via e-mail to keith@d3football.com. Now, we’re adding a thread on the new Post Patterns board to discuss issues raised in Around the Nation.

Housekeeping/Attention SIDs
As always, Around the Nation requests media guides and any other aids in helping us cover your school this season. For the first time, we are open to reviewing game tapes if schools are interested in sending them.

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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