Old and new spark Kenyon offense

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Thomas Merkle, top, and Brian Hunca have made a great quarterback-receiver combo early on for Kenyon.
Kenyon athletics photos 

Kenyon wanted to bring freshman quarterback Thomas Merkle along slowly.

The Lords hoped to work him into the team’s offense and let him gradually adapt and find his way.

Forget that. Those plans were scrapped before the season opener when junior quarterback Sam Appel was lost with a season-ending injury. It meant Merkle was the man under center. The results have been pretty good for Kenyon – a 3-1 start, which is its best since 1984.

“I would not necessarily call it being thrown into the fire as I was as prepared for the job as I could have been at that point,” Merkle said. “Coach (Chris Monfiletto) did a great job of making sure I was ready at any moment and that moment came to be just before Week 1. I learned a lot from Sam and I was upset at the fact that he was injured. It became my job to step up and fill his role.”

After four games, Merkle ranks among the NCAC passing leaders with 1,147 yards and seven touchdowns against two interceptions.

“Everyone competed for a spot in camp and, when we came out, Sam was on top,” Monfiletto said. “It thrust (Merkle) into the starting role and he’s been great. He is getting better every week.”

Of course, having the NCAC’s leading receiver back in Brian Hunca has helped ease Merkle’s transition to the college game.

“Brian’s experience is crucial to us as he has been through it all with this team. He understands how to react and lead in different situations, which has helped me control the offense thus far,” Merkle said. “He is an unbelievable athlete and we can rely on him to make plays at any time.”

Hunca, a senior, led the conference with 1,096 receiving yards in 2015. However, three-year starting quarterback Jake Bates graduated, which caused some concern over whether the chemistry would materialize with Merkle so quickly.

It has not been a problem. Hunca ranks among the national receiving leaders with 39 receptions for 644 yards and five touchdowns. He’s averaging 161.0 receiving yards per game. If he maintains that pace, he would eclipse Kenyon’s single-season record of 1,483 yards set by Jim Myers in 1974.

Hunca is not Merkle’s only veteran target, tough.

“It is so helpful to me to be able to throw to experienced receivers like Brian Hunca, Ian Bell, Jibri McClean and other experienced guys,” Merkle said. “I learn from them day in and day out and I enjoy being able to get the ball to them and let them make plays.”

Together, the group has helped the Lords boast one of the NCAC’s better offenses. Kenyon ranks second overall in conference passing yards and first in touchdowns.

“It’s great. They all feed off of each other,” Monfiletto said. “Those older receivers have kind of taken (Merkle) under their wing. They spend time with each other off the field. It all contributes to their success.”

Hunca has welcomed the mentor role with the squad’s other younger players, too.

“He is super athletic and skilled and he is our captain. The numbers he puts up are incredible. You don’t really realize it until after the game,” Monfiletto said. “The biggest thing Brian brings to the table for us is he is just a leader and not just with the receivers. He sets the tone of intolerance for anything that gets in the way of winning.

“I can’t say enough about what a really good kid he is. He comes out early before practices and stays late to work with the quarterbacks. During camp, he took the time to work with two freshmen receivers that may not contribute until after he graduates. We’d get done with meetings and he’d spend 45 minutes with those kids in a room by himself going over things. It’s just something that he did for the team. He is an unbelievable resource for all those kids. That’s how selfless he is. He is just a really good kid.”

Merkle is appreciative of all the extra help he’s received.

“My chemistry with Brian and all my receivers has been tremendous since the first day, but gets better day by day as we perfect our timing, communication and become better friends off the field,” he said. “This group has helped me prepare as well as possible, especially with Brian leading extra offensive study sessions throughout camp to help freshmen become acclimated with our scheme.”

The Lords hope to keep it going against unbeaten DePauw (3-0) on Saturday.

Game of the Week

Wittenberg, 24, Wabash 14: After falling behind, 14-0, in the first 8:16, the Tigers made a furious comeback. They tied the game heading into halftime and pulled away in the second half for the win, which kept Wittenberg atop the NCAC standings with Denison and DePauw.

What to watch

Adrian at Albion on Oct. 1: The two teams expected to contend for an MIAA title stand at a combined 1-5. The Britons (0-3), who won the MIAA automatic bid last year, have an overtime loss to Wabash and a two-point setback to at Lakeland this season. The Bulldogs (1-2) opened with a 30-28 win at Pacific, but dropped their last two. This should be a good clash to open MIAA play.

In the polls

No. 1 Mount Union stayed perfect at 3-0 with a 49-7 win at Baldwin Wallace. Bradley Mitchell rushed for a career-high 259 yards in the win. The Purple Raiders welcome Ohio Northern on Saturday.

No. 16 Thomas More moved up two spots with a key 20-16 win over Carnegie Mellon. The Saints (3-1) survived another huge PAC test and travel to Westminster on Saturday for another huge conference showdown.

No. 18 Wittenberg jumped into the rankings with its 24-14 win over Wabash. The Tigers (3-0) visit Wooster on Saturday in NCAC play.

No. 23 Wabash (2-1) slipped 10 spots with its 24-14 loss to rival Wittenberg. The Little Giants looked to rebound at Hiram on Saturday in an NCAC clash.

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Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

2012-14 columnist: Brian Lester
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