Football Pledges 'Never Enough' In 2014 - Season Preview
Every year, Drake football’s captains and team leaders establish the team’s theme. That theme serves as the foundation upon which the Bulldogs pursue their goals on and off the field.
Those unified themes and rallying cries have created the atmosphere and mentality needed to lay claim to two of the last three Pioneer Football League titles. However, last year’s 6-5 season served as the anvil upon which this year’s theme of ‘Never Enough’ was forged.
“Our team felt like we lost something last year,” said first-year head coach Rick Fox. “They felt that that we got complacent after our two conference championships and now they want to instill a never-ending hunger to get better every day.”
That drive of ‘Never Enough’ carries through every facet of the program from the practice field, to the weight room, to meetings and the pursuit of their academic degrees. For the 2014 Bulldogs to return to championship form, Fox and staff are asking every member of the program to perform every action with purpose and strive to never be satisfied.
While that principle mentally guides the team, the coaching staff is confident the roster also possesses the physical talent necessary to contend for the program’s seventh PFL title. Those returners will be bolstered by a sophomore class, the majority of which redshirted in 2013 to gain valuable experience, and more than 25 extremely talented newcomers vying for playing time.
While the spirit and culture of the program remains the same as it has for the previous seven seasons, the man leading the Bulldogs is different as Coach Fox begins his first season as the head coach.
Fox took the reigns of the program following the departure of Chris Creighton. Fox had served as an assistant coach for six seasons under Creighton and has maintained many of the same pillars of the program that Creighton erected.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last seven months,” Fox said. “But one of the things that has been an incredible blessing has been to follow a guy like Coach Creighton, who established such a great culture here, has made that transition smooth.”
Aiding Fox in carrying out that mission are six new assistant coaches, including a new defensive coordinator, Todd Stepsis, and a pass-game coordinator in Brad Pole.
“Defensively we were very pleased coming out of the spring with how quickly they learned under a new defensive coordinator,” Fox said. “It’s a talented group. The big thing going into camp is getting settled in the defense and the little things to know how to apply that defense to the different situations that come up in games. That’s going to be critical.”
That defense returns six starters from an outstanding 2013 defense that features four all-PFL players including John Hugunin, the PFL’s leading tackler, lineman Matt Acree and defensive backs Brad Duwe and Bob Quilico.
Despite the change in coordinators, fans shouldn’t expect wholesale changes to defensive alignments under Stepsis.
“There’s going to be a lot of similarities to last year,” Fox said of the defense. “The only differences is in how they adjust out of their coverages will look different to the trained football eye, but to the typical fan, they won’t see a big difference.”
The offense will remain very similar to the one fans had grown accustomed to under Creighton and Fox’s previous guidance.
“Offensively, we’re basically staying the same,” Fox said. “We are changing how we’re signaling and calling. The language will be different and one that I’m comfortable with calling. That has been a big adjustment and we’re getting feedback from the players and working with them to refine that process.”
The preseason camp and its days filled with practices and team meetings will allow both players and staff ample opportunities to refine that communication and the activities that will mold the roster into a team.
“You have more time to focus on specific situations and get more detailed,” Fox said of preseason practices. “We can also go into greater depths during preseason camp because we have them all day. They’re living together, eating together and we’re a team 24 hours a day. It’s a great opportunity to do that.”
Heading into last season, quarterback was one the biggest questions facing the Bulldogs as they sought to replace record-setting signal caller Mike Piatkowski.
Andy Rice emerged as the starter and remains so heading into the 2014 season after throwing 21 touchdowns and averaging 254.6 yards per game as a junior. Fox is anticipating an even better year as a senior now that Rice has grown into his role under center.
“Last year was a growing year for Andy and by the last half of the season he was really starting to click and feel comfortable,” Fox said. “He has been doing a great job in terms of leading. But, there’s some guys who are chomping at the bit right behind him.
Those guys include sophomore Andrew Clifford and junior Cody Thibault. The latter Fox compared to Piatkowski for his ability to manage the offense and get the team in position to score.
Drake’s wide receivers are one of the greenest positions on the roster and Fox is counting on many of the group’s younger players to step up and fill the void left by All-PFL receiver Nick Rosa’s graduation.
The Bulldogs have two veterans in fifth-year senior Jacob Dines and senior Grahm Butler ready to lineup at wideout.
“Jacob Dines has struggled with injuries but seems to be healthy and has been working hard,” Fox said. “Grahm Butler is stepping up and we expect some young guys to really push at that position.
Two of those younger players that showed flahes last season are Neko Graf and Matt Denning. Both are expected to make great strides for the offense in 2014.
Interior Receiver/Tight Ends
What the Bulldogs lack in experience at wide receiver, they more than make up for at the interior receiver and tight end positions.
“We’re really excited about this group,” Fox said. “There’s a lot of depth and talent. They need to make things happen for us to have the type of year we expect to have.”
The squad has the benefit of returning first team All-PFL selection Eric Saubert at that spot after he caught 57 balls of 549 yards as a sophomore in 2013.
“The challenge for Eric is a a year ago no one knew about him,” Fox said. “He’s got to raise his game and he cant’ get complacent. That’s our whole theme. We expect big things from him and Lee Snell also looked good in the spring.”
The versatile and athletic Michael Hudson along with Brett Seeger give the Bulldogs tremendous depth at the position while sophomore Grant Menard and Andrew Yarwood will vie for catches as talented newcomers at the positions.
Running back is another position in which the Bulldogs have great depth as an injury riddled 2013 season allowed for the development and creation of depth.
Gary Scott got the bulk of the carries last year and returns healthy for 2014. Helping carry the load this year will be T.J. James who missed the entire 2013 season.
One of the benefits of the thin 2013 season was that it allowed the development of sophomore standout Conley Wilkins.
“Conley Wilkins really came on and played well,” Fox said. “We feel like we’ve got three pretty experienced game ready running backs. We’re also looking at how we can get those guys in different spots and use their talents.”
Prior to taking the reins as head coach, Fox served as the Bulldogs’ offensive line coach. In his final season in that role he only had one returning starter. That lean year created an experienced group of returnees in 2014.
“We’re excited because we have a lot of experienced guys coming back,” Fox said of the offensive line. “A year ago we were replacing a lot of guys and Troy Whitmer was our only returning starter. This year we have a whole group of guys that have some starting experience in Aaron Johnson, Dan Hohenstein and Whitmer.”
The Bulldogs also have starting center John McMahon back along with the tandem guards of Phil Hespen and Al Hern along with Jack Beck.
However, the Bulldogs’ depth extends well beyond just the starters with talented reserves vying for their opportunity.
“We’ll have some other guys like Aaron Melton who are ready to get after it,” Fox said. “Mason Massei has been working real hard and Ryan Wilbur is a guy we’re excited about who moved over from the defense. We also have a real good class coming off their redshirt year with guys like Ryan Lemke and Rocco Stefanini who are young, eager and hungry for playing time”
Drake’s defensive line has traditionally been the foundation of its defense and a source of tremendous pride for those on it. The unit has a storied history of producing great players and terrorizing PFL offenses. This year promises to be no different as the line is bookended by a pair of captains in Matt Acree and Brett Park.
“Going into my seventh season at Drake, the one thing that has been consistent is a tremendous defensive line,” Fox said. “They are the rock of our defense and our team. The passion that Matt and Brett bring to the game and their work ethic is what defines those two guys.”
While Park battled injuries all year, Acree chased down opposing quarterbacks and ball carriers with enough success to merit All-PFL honors.
With those two veteran presences in place, there’s plenty of room for younger players to emerge in their shadows. The staff anticipates big contributions from the likes of Colton Rodgers and Michael VanKat. Additionally, the physically imposing Devon Dodds made the offseason transition from offense and has flourished with the change of scenery.
Should a ballcarrier manage to find a seam in that defensive line, they will immediately meet the PFL’s leading tackler in standout linebacker and first team All-PFL honoree John Hugunin.
The captain brought down ballcarriers 113 times and 11 times behind the line last season and returns as arguably one of the top defenders in the PFL.
“He’s such a compliment to Matt and Brett on the defensive line,” Fox said. “He runs so well and is such a leader. He was chosen a captain as a junior which speaks volumes to what he means to our team.”
Flanking Hugunin will be a cadre of defenders who have patiently earned their chance to contribute.
“Sean Conerty did a great job filling in and he’s chomping at the bit to get back at it and Alec Recker moved over from offense and had a fantastic spring,” Fox said of two of the options at linebacker. “There’s a lot of competition there and Taylor Coleman played quite a bit last year along with Rory Driscoll and Michael Roane.”
The team’s defensive secondary has the unique combination of both experience and youth. The depth of the group has allowed many defenders to get snaps at various positions over the last two seasons.
“We’ve had good depth over the past couple of years and there’s still some youth in the group with John Bloss, Brad Duwe and Drew Ormseth,” Fox said. “They’ve all played a lot in the past couple of years and have been on the field in some big games against some good receivers.”
Duwe, who along with Bob Quilico, Jr., earned All-PFL honors last season given the team proven skill in the defensive backfield and both have shown the ability to consistently make plays every Saturday.
“Bob Quilico is a returning starter and his challenge is to be the leader of the secondary in replacing Mike Ratelle,” Fox said. “It’s his turn to step up and take that leadership role. He’s a very smart football player and has to step into that role as a leader.”
In addition to outperforming their heights and weights on the roster, the team’s defensive backs also possess incredible versatlity with multiple players capbable of playing both safety and cornerback positions.
The Bulldogs return a nearly full stable of kickers for 2014 including three placekickers that will vie for the opportunity to put the ball through the uprights.
Ben Tesson, now a sophomore, handled the majority of the placekicking duties in 2013, but kickoff specialist Lee Spencer and first team All-PFL punter Cam Bohnert will also challenge for kicking duties.
“We couldn’t be more excited about this group,” Fox said. “Those three guys battling out is a great thing to have on your special teams.”
As a punter, Bohnert helped pin opponents deep with 17 of his 50 punts ending up inside the 20-yard line and another 14 that were fair caught. He also boomed nine punts 50 yards or more and held a 39.8-yard average.
In addition to kicking and punting units, Fox again anticipates special teams providing opportunities for the Bulldogs’ younger players to make a name for themselves and earn playing time on offense and defense.
The Bulldogs face another challenging schedule standing in the way of a potential seventh PFL title.
The Bulldogs open the schedule against crosstown foe and reigning NAIA national champion Grand View. Two non-conference games against Truman State and Western Illinois follow before PFL action gets underway against Marist on Sept. 20 at Drake Stadium.
The Bulldogs also host Davidson, defending league champion Butler, and preseason league favorite, San Diego.
““With the returning NAIA national champion opening our season, followed by two talented non-conference opponents, we should be more than prepared for the always challenging PFL schedule,” Fox said. “We will have to be ready to battle every Saturday. If we can do that, we’ll have a chance in every game.”