By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director
SALEM, Ore. -- The Willamette University football team enters the 2015 season with an opportunity for new stars to emerge following the graduation of two of the top players in the history of the program. Running back Dylan Jones '15 and inside linebacker Jack Nelson '15 completed outstanding careers in 2014.
Jones was one of four finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, which goes to the top player in NCAA Division III each season. He was named Second Team All-America, First Team All-West Region and First Team All-Northwest Conference. He was chosen NWC Offensive Player of the Year. He rushed for a school record 1,599 yards in 2014 and finished his career with 2,857 rushing yards, just two yards short of the WU record.
Nelson was a finalist for the Cliff Harris Award for the second year in a row. The Cliff Harris Award goes to the top small college defensive player each year. Nelson was chosen First Team All-America and earned First Team Academic All-America honors. He was selected First Team All-West Region and First Team All-NWC.
In 2014, Nelson led the NWC with 104 total tackles, including 63 solo tackles and 41 assists. He set Willamette career records with 315 total tackles, 191 unassisted tackles and 124 assists.
The Bearcats will open the 2015 season on Saturday, Sept. 12 at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Game time is scheduled for 6 p.m. CDT/4 p.m. PDT. Willamette will play its home opener on Saturday, Sept. 19 against California Lutheran University. It will be the Homecoming Game with kickoff set for 12:30 p.m. (PDT) at McCulloch Stadium.
Trent Spallas (Jr., QB, Elk Grove, CA/Franklin HS) returns as the starting quarterback for the Bearcats this fall. Last season, he completed 96 of 192 passes (50.0%) for 1,209 yards and nine touchdowns. He threw 12 interceptions. Spallas played in eight games with seven starts.
Top running threats who are back for the Bearcats include Jimmy Sharpe (Jr., RB, Walnut Creek, CA/Northgate HS) and Ryan Foote (Sr., WR, Sherwood, OR/Valley Catholic HS/Allan Hancock JC). Sharpe carried the ball 35 times for 155 yards (4.4 avg.), while Foote had 20 carries for 132 yards (6.6 avg.) and one touchdown.
In addition, Austin Jones (Jr., TE, Oakdale, CA/Oakdale HS) rushed four times for 124 yards and one touchdown. He averaged 31.0 yards per carry.
Receivers who return to the lineup include Foote and Jones. Foote caught nine passes for 145 yards and five touchdowns, including a 64-yard scoring strike from Spallas against Whitworth University. Foote averaged 19.2 yards per reception.
Austin Jones hauled in nine passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. He gained 16.1 yards per catch.
Returning starters in the offensive line are Trevor Roberts (Jr., OL, Bend, OR/Mountain View HS) at center and Salvador Lopez (So. OL, Chandler, AZ/Hamilton HS) at tackle.
Additional key players on offense include fullback Jacob Swilley (Jr., Olympia, WA/Yelm HS/Central Washington Univ.), wide receiver Daniel Abdie (Jr./So., Beaverton, OR/Westview HS) and wide receiver Bryan Toles (Sr., Clovis, CA/Clovis North HS). Toles has moved to offense after playing defensive back last year.
The top returning tackler on defense is free safety Damian Jackson (Jr., Puyallup, WA/Rogers HS), who recorded 25 solo tackles and nine assists for 34 total tackles in 2014. He intercepted two passes and broke up two other passes.
Inside linebacker Kyle Shaver (Jr., Bend, OR/Mountain View HS) contributed 31 total tackles last season with 21 unassisted stops and 10 assists. He earned 4.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 quarterback sacks. Defensive end Mark Mulligan (Jr., San Francisco, CA/Archbishop Riordan HS) also recorded 31 tackles, with 17 solo tackles and 14 assists. Mulligan was credited with 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Other key returning players in the defensive line and at linebacker include Tyler Ropp (Jr., DL, Corvallis, OR/Santiam Christian HS) at defensive end, Henry Adelman (Sr., LB, Arroyo Grande, CA/Arroyo Grande HS) at inside linebacker and Donny Torres (Sr., LB, Long Beach, CA/St. Anthony HS) at outside linebacker.
Place-kicker Conner Mertens (Jr./So., PK/P, Kennewick, WA/Southridge HS) also returns after connecting on 38 of 39 extra points and 5 of 7 field goals. His longest field goal covered 35 yards. Jackson and Toles will be the primary punt and kick returners for the Bearcats this fall.
Head Coach Glen Fowles enters his fourth season leading the Bearcats. Fowles has earned a 20-8 overall record as the head coach. He is in his 20th season on the coaching staff.