There's plenty of excitement surrounding The College of Wooster football program heading into the 2018 season thanks to a plethora of major milestones spanning on-field success, academic excellence, community service initiatives undertaken by student-athletes, and aggressive recruiting strategies that have resulted in one of the biggest rosters in recent program history. Now with his stamp fully engraved on every aspect of the program, sixth-year head coach Frank Colaprete has plenty of optimism for what this year's team can achieve.
"From the guys who are in the program to the young guys coming in, you can feel the energy and excitement all throughout the recruiting process, the workouts with the returnees, and with our spring practices," said Colaprete, who is expecting 53 returning letterwinners and 36 newcomers when the team's preseason commences on August 8. "Now with the summer, the incoming first-years have been coming in during the College's ARCH programs, and the energy and excitement they speak with is pretty high right now, as it should be."
While there will be a new signal-caller taking the field for the Fighting Scots this fall, every other offensive weapon from a skill position standpoint is back in the fold from a unit that set or matched 28 school records in 2017, and finished in the top-30 nationally in scoring and total offense.
Nick Strausbaugh headlines the returnees, and he emerged as one of the premier wide receivers in Div. III in his first season on the gridiron. Strausbaugh, a D3football.com All-North Region selection, electrified Wooster's football faithful from his debut, and took the program's record book by storm with single-season benchmarks in yards (1,315) and touchdowns (17), with the latter stat matching the North Coast Athletic Conference record.
While all eyes were on Strausbaugh's home-run capabilities, the Scots' other wideouts kept the program positioned as one of the deepest in Div. III. Six student-athletes logged at least 20 receptions and 250 yards, and Wooster's ability to spread the ball around has become one of the staples of offensive coordinator Zach Dennis' system.
"We're counting on the knowledge and experience of Nick, plus Connor Allan and Russell Boston will be four-year players at wide receiver," summed up Colaprete. "Our wide receivers will be counted on to pick up the play for our new quarterback."
Wooster's ground game found its groove, especially in the latter half of 2017 when returning all-conference honoree Antonio Bailey averaged over 100 yards per game. The forecasted four-year starter provides another valuable veteran presence for whomever emerges from camp as the starting quarterback to lean on.
"Antonio's in the right mindset and has added strength and weight," shared Colaprete. "He's been able to increase his speed while doing all that. His work ethic has been great, and it's what you expect out of a guy who wants to take on more of a load."
Up front, Wooster returns three starting offensive linemen, including Mick Appel and Adam Clark, who earned starting roles in game one as 2016 rookies at right tackle and left guard respectively. Eli Lohrey ended the season as the starting right guard, and projects to move over to left tackle due to his "athleticism and physicality," per Colaprete.
"We're replacing some great seniors with guys who have playing experience, so they're not just going to be thrown in this year," said Colaprete. "We're counting on all our guys being a year bigger, better, and stronger. This is a group that's looking to reload."
Defensively, Wooster is looking to make big strides, and Colaprete feels the Scots have the personnel in place to do so in 2018.
"We were really young last year," shared Colaprete. "We're still kind of young, but we're all a year older, smarter, and better. We're going to be on the upward, improving trend, but we're excited about the defense and where we're going."
Colaprete and defensive coordinator Sam Bauman will lean heavily on the line to set the tone for the unit, a group that started to really click and generate noticeably more pressure on opposing quarterbacks down the stretch in 2017. In fact, Wooster only had one returning defensive line starter last year – Aaron Roberson – who was lost for the season after an injury in the season-opener, but the likes Robert Alvarez and D'Andre Brown led the way down the stretch and were complemented by Marcus Bowers, who moved up to the line to provide a veteran presence after spending his first two years in a Scots' uniform at linebacker.
"I've always held the belief that you're as good as your lines," said Colaprete. "Our offensive and defensive lines have to be great. We're excited about this defensive line being the cornerstone on that side of the ball. They're talented and hungry."
Senior Hunter Coia leads the way among a veteran linebacker unit, and Colaprete's excited that one of his four captains has "really found a position that suits his blend of athleticism, speed, and intelligence on the field."
Wooster's defensive backfield is loaded with plenty of athleticism and play-making ability, as four starters are back here in Danté Fair, Beau Greenwood, Cam Pollard, and Christian Santos, several of whom emerged as multi-position assets with returning duties.
"We should be able to get our hands on the football a lot," said Colaprete.
The Scots will have a tall task each week on the gridiron with the NCAC as tough as ever. Wittenberg University enters the season No. 14 in the D3football.com Top-25 Poll, while DePauw University and Wabash College are among those receiving votes.
"There's a lot of talent in this league right now," said Colaprete. "Besides the talent, it's a well-coached league with great staffs who do tremendous jobs with their student-athletes. As you can see the last few years, the league's been really tough. Numerous teams can win the conference championship."
Here is a closer look at Wooster in 2018, broken down by position.
Wooster's quarterback competition is "wide open," per Colaprete, heading into camp, and seven student-athletes are listed at that position, including returnees Caden Croft and Grady McHugh. One thing is for certain – the Scots will have plenty of experience on that side of the ball to support whomever lines up under center come September 1.
The Scots' depth at running back from a game experience standpoint is noticeably stronger than it was at this point last year when Bailey was the only student-athlete on the roster with significant playing time. Last season, Bailey proved he could shoulder the load as the every-down back, and the senior continued to rank as a reliable threat out of the backfield in the passing game with the second-most receptions (43) on the team.
Returnees Nick Barto-Brown and Seth Burke were both contributors in the backfield last year, and give the Scots plenty of capable options at the position.
Wooster's wide receiving core was one of the deepest in Div. III once again last year, and in fact, the Scots were the only team in the NCAC with six players with at least 20 receptions.
On the outside, Strausbaugh logged 11 receptions at least 40 yards in length, while Jason Cerniglia and Cyrus Boardman combined for 36 receptions that went for 392 yards on the opposite edge. In the slot, the shifty duo of Allan and Boston combined for 675 stripes and seven touchdowns.
Other letterwinners back in the mix at wide receiver include the rising sophomore quartet of Bryce Gresham, Brooks Herrington, Jon Milliken, and Keetrone Singleton.
The Scots' system still utilizes the tight end extensively, and the match-up problems Wooster's veterans at this position pose for the opposition bodes well for the Black and Gold. Jacob Lewis earned all-conference laurels in his first collegiate season on the offensive side of the ball, and the sure-handed junior turned 30 receptions into 461 yards and six scores.
Senior Conor Shimabukuro has spent extensive time in the system at the position and is the other returning letterwinner at tight end.
As mentioned earlier, Wooster returns three starters on the line from an offense that averaged 37.8 points and 456.3 yards per game a season ago, and Colaprete's confident the Scots will be reloading versus rebuilding at the other two positions.
Appel and Clark both project to be three-year starters on the line, and Colaprete anticipates having another veteran presence start alongside them at center in Trent Leggett, who spent last season as a starting defensive tackle, but as the team's top lineman, will be the starting center, per the Scots' head coach.
With Lohrey projected to move to left tackle, that leaves right guard as the spot to keep an eye on this fall, and among the returnees, there'll be plenty competition. Matt Hartzell, Tyler Poeschel, Justin Robinson, and Jake Stewart are the most seasoned of the other letterwinning offensive linemen, and all four have the skillset to play multiple positions up front. Sophomores Kalvin Adkins, Dan Alessi and Willem Mills are also back in the fold in 2018.
Led by the line, Wooster's defense averaged 3.5 sacks per game over the final four contests, with Alvarez kick-starting the stretch with a single-game program record 4.5 at Hiram College. The rising junior will continue to be complemented by returning starters Bowers and K.C. Okoronkwo on the edges, while two-year letterwinner Jacob Bueter is back in the mix on the outside. Steve Maryo enters camp at defensive end after spending last year at tight end, and now fully healthy, the staff has noticed "huge strides."
Brown earned all-conference honors while anchoring down the interior, and rapidly rising sophomore Kobe Matesic is "looking to start," per the staff, at the other tackle position. Returnees Bryce Danovskis, Nick Godsey, DeShaun Jones, and Artemus Scissum, add plenty of depth to the position.
While Wooster had game experience at linebacker last year, the Scots' position experience was somewhat limited due to Colaprete shifting the likes of Bowers and Cornelius Gyamfi up to the defensive line and Coia up to linebacker from defensive back. Now, with full seasons under their belts at the position in Jake Cohen and Coia, this could be another breakout area for the Scots' defense. Special teams standout Drake Pence and Brandon Vincenzo round out the returnees at the position.
Wooster's secondary is loaded with talent this year despite the loss of three-time all-conference honoree Patrick Johnson. Johnson anchored a youthful unit that saw three first-years start in the back end of the Scots' 4-2-5 system, and now Santos is projected to lead the way as a 1.5-year starter. Fair and Greenwood combined for over 130 tackles from their safety positions last year, while Pollard emerged as a sure-handed tackler at corner.
Mark Herron is also in the mix in the secondary, and gives Colaprete someone with the skillset to play multiple positions after starring on special teams last year. Junior Kamal Morgan is in the running for time as well after spending last season at running back, and Brett Stern is the other 2017 returning letterwinner back in the fold.
Colaprete's hopeful the Scots could see a big boost defensively with the return of Derrick Florence and Kea'Shaun Phillips to the team, the latter of whom finished second on the team in tackles as a rookie in 2016.
Wooster's specialists are another spot to keep an eye on this fall, as the Scots graduated Trevor Bowden, one of the program's top statistical placekickers.
Henry Whyte had a chance to settle in while prepping behind Bowden, and Colaprete's "excited about what the sophomore can do."