Bearcats Seek Solid Football Season with Balanced Offense, Strong Defensive Line

Ryan Knowlton (Jr., QB, Puyallup, WA/Emerald Ridge HS)
Ryan Knowlton (Jr., QB, Puyallup, WA/Emerald Ridge HS)

By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director

SALEM, Ore. -- Led by a balanced offense and a talented defensive line, the Willamette University football team looks to achieve success during the 2016 season. The Bearcats will begin their quest on Saturday, Sept. 3 when they take on Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. CDT/5 p.m. PDT.

In 2015, the Bearcats earned a 2-7 overall record and a 2-5 record in the Northwest Conference. The Bearcats lost five games by seven points or less, including four games in NWC action.

Willamette finished the year with strong play on both sides of the ball during the final three games of the season. In those games, the Bearcats averaged 410.7 yards of total offense and held their opponents to just 219.0 total yards per game.

Ryan Knowlton (Jr., QB, Puyallup, WA/Emerald Ridge HS), who played in seven games a year ago and started the final five games, returns at quarterback. Knowlton completed 53.2% of his passes, while  hitting 101 of 190 tosses for 1,124 yards and six touchdowns.

Knowlton threw for more than 200 yards in each of the last three games. He completed 25 of 43 passes for 281 yards against George Fox University and tossed four touchdown passes against Lewis & Clark College. Zack Moore (Jr., QB, Atherton, CA/Menlo-Atherton HS), who moved to wide receiver as a freshman and then missed last season due to an injury, will back up Knowlton.

Top returning receivers are Austin Jones (Sr., TE, Oakdale, CA/Oakdale HS) and Kevin Martz (Jr./So., WR, Salem, OR/South Salem HS/Claremont McKenna College). Jones hauled in a team-high 26 passes for 373 yards and five touchdowns. He tied a WU record with four touchdown catches against L&C.

Martz tied for second on the team with 20 receptions, as he gained 227 yards through the air. He grabbed seven passes for 111 yards against Whitworth University, including a 71-yard touchdown catch.

Daniel Abdie (Sr./Jr., WR, Beaverton, OR/Westview HS), who caught 13 passes, Jeremiah James (Jr./So., WR, Salem, OR/South Salem HS/Chemeketa CC), who hauled in 12 passes, and Alex Israel (Sr., WR, McMinnville, OR/McMinnville HS), who caught nine passes, also return for the Bearcats.

Willamette's top new receiver is Ben Verhoeven (Fr., WR/P, Redlands, CA/Redlands HS). Verhoeven was a team captain at Redlands High School in California. In addition to battling for a starting position at wide receiver, he will be the Bearcats' punter.

Taylor Wyman (Sr., RB/P, Bellevue, WA/Issaquah HS) returns to Willamette after missing the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In 2013, Wyman carried the ball 87 times for a team-high 555 yards, while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. During his career, he has rushed for 990 yards and 15 touchdowns on 151 carries.

Jimmy Sharpe (Jr., RB, Walnut Creek, CA/Northgate HS) led WU with 321 rusing yards last season, despite missing four games due to injury. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Jacob Swilley (Sr., RB, Olympia, WA/Yelm HS/Central Washington Univ.) rushed for 314 yards and three touchdowns a year ago.

Matt Stone (So., RB, Brainbrige Island, WA/Bainbridge HS/Eastern Oregon Univ.), who transferred to Willamette this past semester, provides additional strength at the running back position. Sharpe and Swilley will see significant playing time at fullback.

The offensive line has plenty of experience. Sal Lopez (Jr., OL, Chandler, AZ/Hamilton HS) and Trevor Roberts (Sr., OL, Bend, OR/Mountain View HS) will lead the line, but they won't be alone in blocking for the Bearcats.

Other linemen with experience include, Elmer Hamidy (Jr./So., OL, Newark, CA/Newark Memorial HA/Chabot College), Chris Skarda (Jr., OL, Aliso Viejo, CA/Aliso Niguel HS), Conor Feeney (Sr., OL, Petaluma, CA/Casa Grande HS), Chris Feskens (Jr., OL, Salem, OR/North Salem HS), Alex Holguin (Jr., OL, Benicia, CA/Benicia HS), and Dalton Haselgrove (So., OL, Chandler, AZ/Hamilton HS).

Nikk Ryan (Jr., DE, Oakdale, CA/Oakdale HS) The Willamette defensive line has quite a bit of experience as well. Nikk Ryan (Jr., DE, Oakdale, CA/Oakdale HS) was named First Team All-NWC in 2015 after earning 24 unassisted tackles, 18 assists and 42 total stops. He led the Bearcats with 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 quarterback sacks.

Ben Keller (Sr., DL, Honolulu, HI/University Laboratory School) and Tyler Ropp (Sr., DL, Corvallis, OR/Santiam Christian HS) each played in all nine games last season, with Ropp recording 18 tackles (7.5 for losses) and Keller providing 13 tackles.

Benjamin Jahn (Jr./So., DL, Juneau, AK/Thunder Mountain HS), who did not play last season, was named Second Team All-NWC in 2014. As a freshman, he registered 39 total tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks. Additional experience in the defensive line will be supplied by Mark Mulligan (Jr., DE, San Francisco, CA/Archbishop Riordan HS) and Thomas Murphy-Piro (Sr., DL, San Mateo, CA/Saint Ignatius College Prep).

The Bearcats return several quality defensive backs in Rayvon Owens (Sr., CB, El Cajon, CA/Christian HS), Nick Brickous (Sr./Jr., SS, Mesa, AZ/Perry HS/U.S. Military Acad.) and Kendrick Pearson (So., DB, Pebble Beach, CA/Robert L. Stevenson HS). Brickous contributed 50 tackles last season to tie for second on the team. He also led WU with seven pass break-ups. Owens earned 37 tackles, while Pearson provided 24 tackles and five pass break-ups.

Dante Spencer (So., DB, Morgan Hill, CA/Live Oak HS), Tao Oulman (So., DB, Portland, OR/Lincoln HS) and Connor Maloney (Sr./Jr., DB, Camas, WA/Camas HS) also return in the secondary.

Key returning players at linebacker are Kyle Shaver (Sr., LB, Bend, OR/Mountain View HS), Conner Olson (Sr., LB, Tigard, OR/Tigard HS) and Paimon Jaberi (Sr., ILB, Bainbridge Island, WA/Bainbridge HS). Jaberi finished 2015 with 49 total tackles. Shaver achieved 30 tackles for the Bearcats. Olson registered 22 tackles.

Head Coach Glen Fowles is in his fifth season leading the Bearcats and in his 21st season a member of the coaching staff. He owns an overall record of 22-15 (.595) as the head coach. Willamette is 126-77 (.621) since he joined the coaching staff in 1996.