SALEM, ORE. -- Head Coach Mark Speckman and the Willamette University football team have set high expectations for themselves regarding the 2007 season. The players and coaching staff concentrated on quality during spring practices, remained focused throughout the offseason and arrived at preseason camp ready to practice and compete with great effort and determination. As a result, Speckman and his team anticipate great improvement over 2006, when the Bearcats finished 2-7, including 2-4 in the Northwest Conference (5th place).
Due to improved efforts in the weight room, plus successful spring drills and a great recruiting class, the Bearcats are confident they will achieve the type of success that led to four conference title and four national playoff berths since Speckman joined Willamette as the offensive coordinator in 1995. During those 12 season, Willamette has achieved an overall record of 76-46-1 (.622), including 48-41-0 (.539) since Speckman became head coach prior to the 1998 season. Willamette qualified for the NAIA Playoffs in 1996, reached the NAIA National Championship game in 1997 and earned berths into the NCAA Division III Playoffs in 1999 and 2004.
Willamette enters the 2007 season with depth and experience at quarterback. Kevin Whipps (Sr.) started all nine games last year, while Grant Leslie (Jr.) saw action in seven contests. Whipps completed 61 of 116 passes (52.6%) for 798 yards and three touchdowns. Leslie connected on 20 of 51 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns.
Also contributing at quarterback will be transfer student Ryan Whitcomb (So.), who joined the Bearcats in January after attending College of the Canyons. WU has even more quality depth at quarterback, as a group of talented freshman also will battle for playing time.
With plenty of talent in the backfield, Whipps will move to wide receiver, where the Bearcats will continue to rely on his athletic skills. Such a move will allow Leslie or Whitcomb to be on the field at the same time. Whipps also is expected to see some action at quarterback this season.
Last year, Kevin Whipps and Grant Leslie both played significant minutes and both showed real flashes of success, Speckman said. Im also really pleased with Whitcomb, as well as our freshmen this season.We need a playmaker at that position. Its going to be a good race.
Willamette also has experience at running back, but the team must replace last years top two ground gainers, following the graduation of Ryan Hernandez at flanker and Kevin Dean at fullback. Hernandez led the Bearcats with 589 rushing yards on 85 carries. He averaged 6.9 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns. Dean also tallied five touchdowns, as he rushed for 310 yards on just 50 carries (6.2 avg.).
Although Hernandez and Dean are gone, the next three leading rushers, return for the 2007 season. All three are running backs, led by senior C.J. Washington, who gained 203 yards on 51 carries last season. Skylar Swinford, also a senior, gained 168 yards on 40 carries a year ago, despite missing four games due to injury. Dan King, a junior, played in every game in 2006 and earned 125 yards on 29 carries.
Returning players Cody Anthony (Jr.) and Deon Horne (So.) and a group of great freshman runners, will press the upperclassmen for playing time. Willamette will be faster than a year ago and will have the depth to use several running backs in each game.
Following Deans graduation, the Bearcats dont have a true fullback this season, but Speckman isnt concerned. Hes pleased with the versatility of this years group of running backs.
This is more like the 97 team (which reached the NAIA National Championship game), where everybody was a tailback, he said. In our offense, both backs better be able to block anyway.
WU must replace Hernandez at flanker, plus Mike Plank and Jonathan Irizarry at wide receiver. All three were seniors in 2006. In addition to leading the Bearcats in rushing, Hernandez also ranked third on the squad in receiving, with 12 catches for 183 yards and three touchdowns. Plank topped the receiving chart with 34 catches for 466 yards, while Irizarry caught 10 passes for 126 yards.
Those three positions are going to be the most important to our success on offense ... thats going to be critical for us, Speckman said.
Returning players include sophomore wide receiver Drew Shepherd and sophomore flanker Tony Krikorian. Both performed well during spring practices. Also providing experience will be Whipps, who possesses good receiving skills to go with a solid knowledge of the offense after starting at quarterback in 2006.
Willamette has a couple of talented transfer players at flanker in Merben Woo, from Hartnell Junior College, and James Yamashita, from Diablo Valley College. Rounding out the flanker and wide receiver positions are several quick and talented freshmen.
We have some freshmen and some junior college players who have the potential to have an impact, Speckman said. Were extremely talented (at the receiver positions). Im just excited about this group."
Starting tight end Tony Davis, who caught 13 passes for 172 yards as a junior last year, will remain a key blocker and receiver in 2007. He was named Honorable Mention All-NWC. Josh Lee, also a senior, played in the offensive line a year ago, but will move to tight end this fall.
Willamette will anchor its offense with an experienced line that includes six players who started all or part of last season. Led by senior Brandon Bennett, who earned AFCA First Team All-America honors in 2006, the WU offensive line should be tough to handle. Other returning starters are Scott Hirschberger (So.) at center, Jake Forshey (Jr.) and Joe Penkala (So.) at offensive tackle, plus Robert Garcia (Jr.) and Justin Cole (Sr.) at offensive guard.
They did a really good job ... Thats the strong point of our offense going into the season, Speckman said regarding the returning starters.
Several newcomers also will battle for playing time in the offensive line. The list includes a number of freshmen, who will attempt to follow the examples set by Hirschberger and Penkala, who developed into starters as freshmen a year ago.
Willamettes strength in the line continues on defense, where it is represented by returning players Mitchell MacCready (Sr., DT), Chris Mulitalo (Sr., DT), Matt Gomez (Sr., DT) and Jayson Vogt (Sr., DT). Those four players give Willamette tremendous skill and experience at the tackle position.
MacCready led the defensive line with 31 tackles a year ago, while ranking first on the team with seven tackles for losses and 3.5 quarterback sacks. Mulitalo added eight total tackles and forced a team-high four fumbles. Gomez achieved four tackles, recovered a fumble and registered one quarterback sack. Vogt also earned four tackles for the Bearcats.
The teams most experienced defensive end is junior Mike Reeves, who recorded 27 tackles in 2006. Six of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage. Other returning defensive ends are sophomore Cory Lowe, who provided 15 tackles as a freshman, and sophomore Craig Sather, who added 10 tackles a year ago.
Those kids worked hard in the off-season, Speckman said. Weve got some explosive pass rushers and I think weve got the size and strength to hold up against the run.
Willamettes top two leading tacklers in 2006 both return at the inside linebacker positions. Phil Sweet (Sr.) held first place on WUs tackle chart with 59 total stops. He tied for the team lead with 27 solo tackles and ranked at the top with 32 assists. Tyler Hermes (Sr.) followed closely with 57 total tackles. He recorded 26 unassisted tackles and 31 assists. Sweet recovered two fumbles, while Hermes earned four tackles for losses and three quarterback sacks.
Depth at inside linebacker will be provided by junior Jack Bevins and by sophomore Andrew Ross. Bevins accumulated 14 tackles in 2006, then performed well in spring practice. Ross also worked hard in the off-season, after receiving limited playing time as a freshman.
At outside linebacker, the Bearcats must work to replace Ben Weyerhaeuser, who graduated after ranking third on the team with 48 tackles last season. He tied Sweet for team-high honors with 27 solo tackles and also recorded six tackles for losses. Battling to take over Weyerhaeusers position will be junior Greg Dixon, junior Jon Feld and a group of solid newcomers.
Speckman said he expects a spirited competition at outside linebacker and that the new guys could push for some significant playing time. Feld played in seven games and Dixon saw action in six games as sophomores a year ago.
Three key players will anchor the defensive secondary. Senior Tyler Gill returns for action at cornerback or rover, while senior Ben Fennimore is back at free safety and junior Ryan Bettencourt returns at cornerback. Gill recorded 26 solo tackles and 46 total tackles in 2006, while Fennimore added 24 tackles and Bettencourt achieved 21 tackles.
Other players who will bring experience to the defensive backfield are Grant Piros (Jr., FS), Matt Banta (So., RV), Carson Chihara (So., RV) and Chris Wong (So., RV). At cornerback, Gill and Bettencourt will be joined by Artie Atencio (Jr.), several returning players with limited experience and a group of talented freshmen.
Were awfully young (especially at rover), but their attitude is great, Speckman said.
Willamette has five returning defensive players who earned All-NWC recognition a year ago. MacCready and Sweet both received Second Team All-NWC honors, while Fennimore, Gill and Hermes were selected for Honorable Mention All-NWC status.
The Bearcats should have one of the top special teams in the Northwest Conference, as WUs list of returning players includes place-kicker Matt Bicocca (Sr.), punter Clint Moran (Sr.) and long snapper Stephen Shamus (Sr.), plus Atencio as the teams top punt returner. The only specialist not returning is Wesley Randall, a Second Team All-Conference cornerback who averaged 19.8 yards per kickoff return as a senior in 2006.
Bicocca earned First Team All-NWC honors last season, after converting 7 of 9 field goals, including a 47-yarder, and 19 of 22 extra points. Moran averaged 35.3 yard per punt and placed seven kicks inside the 20-yard line. Shamus provided consistently good snaps on special teams plays, while Atencio averaged 9.6 yards per punt return.
Thats another huge area for us, Speckman said of the special teams. Were really excited about our specialists.
With most of last years specialists back for another season, the key battle will be for the kick returner spot. No single player stands out as the likely threat to set up deep on kickoffs, but it could be a key position, since touchbacks should be less frequent with place-kickers booting the ball from their own 30-yard line this season.
We expect the new group of players to come in and compete (at kick returner), Speckman said. Its wide open.
Strength of Schedule
Willamette will play a very challenging schedule this season. The season opener is a road game on Sept. 1 at nearby rival Western Oregon University, which competes in NCAA Division II. After taking on NCAA Division III West Region rival Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., on Sept. 8, the Bearcats will return to Salem, Ore., for their home opener against California Lutheran University on Sept. 15.
The home schedule at McCulloch Stadium also includes defending NWC champion Whitworth University on Oct. 27 and arch rival Linfield College on Sept. 29. Other home games will be against Southern Oregon University, an NAIA team, on Sept. 22 and against Pacific Lutheran on Nov. 10.
Overall, WU will play 10 regular season games. Two contests are against programs with athletic scholarships (Western Oregon, Southern Oregon) and six games are against Northwest Conference foes. All of the NWC match-ups, as well as the encounters with Gustavus Adolphus and California Lutheran, will count in the West Region.