Willamette Football Team is Ready to Start the Season with Battle at La Verne

Mathew Castaneda (Sr., QB, Salinas, CA/Salinas HS)
Mathew Castaneda (Sr., QB, Salinas, CA/Salinas HS)

By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications

SALEM, Ore. -- Willamette University will begin the 2019 football season on Saturday, Sept. 14, when the Bearcats play at the University of La Verne in La Verne, California. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. (PDT). After taking on the Leopards, the Bearcats will play their home opener on Saturday, Sept. 21 against Occidental College (Calif.) at McCulloch Stadium, starting at 12 p.m.

The Bearcats have a total of 13 returning starters on offense and defense. Willamette returns five starters on offense and an impressive eight starters on defense.

Saturday's game will be the first for Willamette Head Coach Isaac Parker, who was hired this past December after serving as the offensive coordinator at Lewis & Clark College from 2015 through 2018. Parker was a football player for the Bearcats from 1998 through 2001. He graduated from Willamette in the spring of 2002.

The Willamette Offense

Heading the list of returning player on offense for the Bearcats is senior quarterback Mathew Castaneda (Sr., QB, Salinas, CA/Salinas HS). Last year, Castaneda completed 156 of 304 passes (51.3%) for 1,650 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also ran with the ball 73 times for 300 yards (4.1 avg.) and scored two touchdowns on the ground. The Bearcats completed at least five passes to 12 different players last season, including nine players with 10 or more catches.

During his career, Castaneda has connected on 304 of 562 passes (53.9%) for 3,117 yards and 17 touchdowns. His career rushing totals are 156 carries for 692 yards (4.4 avg.) and seven touchdowns.

Key returning players who will contribute to the passing game are Caine Farmer (Sr., WR, Kit Carson, CO/Kit Carson School), Ben Verhoeven (Sr./Jr., WR, Redlands, CA/Redlands HS) and Kodiak Hussey (So., WR, Idaho Falls, ID/Skyline HS). Farmer caught 17 passes for 66 yards last year as a running back. He also rushed for 102 yards. Verhoeven hauled in seven passes for 100 yards and 14.3 yards per catch, but played in only three games due to injury. Hussey grabbed 10 catches for 109 yards and one touchdown.

Miles Bryant (Jr., TE, Pasadena, CA/Bishop Alemany HS) moves from quarterback to tight end. In 2018, he completed 26 of 52 passes (53.8%) for 154 yards. Other top players in the passing game include Jordan Jenkins (Gr., WR, Placentia, CA/Valencia HS), Brayden Mills (Jr./So., H, Woodinville, WA/Inglemoor HS) and transfer student-athlete Max Andersen (Jr., WR, Chico, CA/Moreau Catholic HS/Butte College).

Jenkins will be competing as a graduate student after playing basketball at Willamette the past four years. He was named First Team All-NWC and Third Team All-West Region in basketball in 2018-19 after earning Second Team All-NWC honors as a junior. Mills missed last season after playing in three games as a freshman in 2017. Andersen transferred to Willamette from Butte College (Calif.).

Top running backs are Dylan Sparks (So., RB, Beaumont, CA/Beaumont HS) and Ethan Koler (Jr., RB, Sonoma, CA/Sonoma Valley HS). Sparks provided quality efforts as a blocking back in all nine games during his freshman season last year, while rushing 23 times and catching seven passes.  Koler missed last season and is ready to contribute on offense.

The Bearcats feature two seniors among the projected starters in the offensive line for Saturday's game in Chris Mann (Jr., OL, Eugene, OR/Mission Hills HS, CA) at center and Cameron Combs (Jr., OL, Antioch, CA/Antioch HS) at right guard. Three other returning players complete the line. They are Matthew Fick (Jr., OL, Chandler, AZ/Corona Del Sol HS), Austin Cummings (So., OL, Kenmore, WA/Inglemoor HS), and Daniel Cina (So., OL, San Gabriel, CA/La Salle HS).

Experienced depth in the offensive line will be supplied by Kyle Bonn (Sr., OL, Keizer, OR/McNary HS) and James Willis (Sr., OL, Concord, CA/Northgate HS). Last season, the line helped Willamette complete 201 of 384 passes (52.3%) for 1,926 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The Bearcat Defense

On defense, Alec Stevenson (Sr., LB, Malibu, CA/Calabasas HS) leads the way after topping the Willamette chart with 53 unassisted tackles, 23 assists and 76 total tackles. He tied for fourth in the NWC with 8.4 total tackles per game. Along the way, he earned nine or more tackles seven times, and provided the Bearcats with 10 or more tackles three times. He was credited with 6.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 quarterback sacks, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. He was chosen Second Team All-Northwest Conference for the second consecutive season.

Stevenson registered 99 total tackles in 2017, including 56 unassisted stops and 43 assists. His average of 11.0 total tackles per game ranked him second in the NWC. He has achieved 181 career total tackles with 113 unassisted tackles and 68 assists. He had recorded 14.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 quarterback sacks. 

Joining Stevenson as probable starters at linebacker will be returning players Tommy MacDevitt (Sr., LB, Santa Clara, CA/Saint Francis HS) and Andrew Rodriguez (Sr., LB, Santa Clara, CA/Wilcox HS)

MacDevitt provided WU with 48 tackles. He registered 33 unassisted tackles and 15 assists, while finishing the season with 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 quarterback sacks, and five pass break-ups. Rodriguez, a defensive back at Willamette the past three years, led the 2018 team with nine pass break-ups and three interceptions. He also achieved 26 solo tackles and seven assists for 33 total tackles. Preston Doyle (So., LB, Sacramento, CA/Inderkum HS), who amassed 26 unassisted tackles and 10 assists last year, also returns at linebacker.

The projected starting front four on defense includes one senior, one junior and two sophomores.

Teddy Rose (Sr., DL, Atascadero, CA/Atascadero HS) earned 41 total tackles a year ago with 25 solo stops and 16 assists. He led WU with 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Jared Bothel (Jr., DL, Elmira, OR/Elmira HS) saw action in five games last season. Keaton Adams (So., DL, Colorado Springs, CO/Doherty HS) earned 25 total tackles (18 solo) while playing in all nine games, while Blake Rose (So., DL, Atascadero, CA/Atascadero HS) competed in seven games. In addition, Dom Torres (So., DL, North Salt Lake, UT/Woods Cross HS) returns after producing 12 tackles in seven games as a first-year player last fall.

Kyle Martz (Jr., DB, Salem, OR/ South Salem HS) leads the secondary after compiling 23 unassisted tackles and nine assists in eight games as a sophomore. He also broke up four passes. Albert Ramon (So., DB, Hesperia, CA/Northview HS) showed skill as a first-year contributor last season, when he supplied 21 solo tackles and four assists. This year, first-year players Andrew Allen (Fy., DB, Oxnard, CA/Calabasas HS) and Zach McLellan (Fy., DB, Vacaville, CA/Will C. Wood HS) have made strong pushes for spots in the starting lineup.

Other returning defensive backs include Michael Herington (Jr., DB, Tucson, AZ/Salpointe Catholic HS) and Ryan Morgan (So., DB, Big Timber, MT/Sweet Grass County HS). Both played in seven games last season, with Morgan accumulating 18 total tackles.

The WU Special Teams

The Bearcats return Sam Adams (Jr.., LB/P, Sacramento, CA/Rio Americano HS) as the team's punter. Last fall, Adams punted 60 times and averaged 35.2 yards per punt with 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. He also forced 17 fair catches.

Kyla Gordon (Fy., PK, Salem, OR/West Salem HS) will handle the place-kicking duties. She is the third female kicker for the Bearcats, following the examples of Liz Heaston (Thompson) in 1997 and KayLyn Stirton in 2017 and 2018. Punt returners will be Verhoeven and Bryant. Farmer and Ty Benny (Sr., WR, St. Louis Park, MN/St. Louis Park HS) will return kickoffs.