Division III Football Preview

Mount Union remains as strong as ever

Aug. 27, 2007

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By Pat Coleman

Special to CSTV.com

 



PAT COLEMAN

Pat runs D3hoops.com and D3football.com and offers regular analysis on CSTV.com. E-mail here!

In Division III, the question remains: Can anyone beat Mount Union?

 

The Purple Raiders showed their resilience best two seasons ago. The 2005 season opened with Mount Union having gone two years without a national championship, ending a span of nine years in which the Purple Raiders had hoisted Walnut and Bronze six times.

 

To add more fuel to the fire of the other 230 Division III programs, Mount Union lost a regular season game in 2005, falling at home to Ohio Northern and ending a regular-season winning streak of 110 games.


 

 

 

The purple powerhouse had a secret weapon in its 200-player bag of tricks, however. Nate Kmic came off the bench after an injury to the team's starting running back and ran for 157 yards in a first-round playoff win. Kmic ran for 361, 177, 160 and 185 yards in the final four playoff games to cement his place in the program's history.

 

And he was only a freshman. Math majors will know that makes Kmic a junior this season - and Mount Union hasn't lost with Kmic in the backfield. Here's a look at the Raiders and those who are chasing them this season:

 

1. Mount Union

Two-time defending national champion Mount Union isn't returning its starting quarterback, but it brought the Most Outstanding Player of the Stagg Bowl off the bench last season and will be putting him into the starting lineup in 2007.

 

That's quarterback Greg Micheli. He didn't start Stagg Bowl XXXIV but when Mike Jorris went 0-for-5 with an interception, Micheli sparked the Purple Raider offense. The then-sophomore proceeded to complete 18-of-22 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for 42 yards and another score himself.

 

Micheli completed 62-of-82 passes on the regular season. And while he played in every game, he was used mostly as a handoff and rushing specialist in the playoffs, throwing 13 passes but rushing 37 times in three games leading up to the national championship. The Stagg Bowl win showed a different side of Micheli's game, one that makes the Purple Raiders favorites once again.

 

Mount Union is looking for one for the other thumb as the Purple Raiders have won nine Division III football national championships already, including the past two.

 

Kmic, who rushed for 2,365 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, finished with an impressive load of 336 carries. It wouldn't be surprising to see coach Larry Kehres use Kmic sparingly in the first half of the season in hopes of keeping him fresh for the playoffs. In 2006, Kmic averaged 13.8 carries through the first six games but 28 per game thereafter. Mount Union returns five other starters on offense, including All-Americans Eric Safran (center), Derek Blanchard (guard) and Pierre Garcon (wide receiver).

 

On defense, the Purple Raiders return six starters as well, including strong safety Matt Kostelnik. Jonah Wilson also returns in the five-man secondary, as does Nick Barren. Tony DeRiggi recorded 62 tackles and intercepted three passes at linebacker. Nick Parr and Pat McCullough return on the line.

 

The Purple Raiders should be considered the favorite for the Division III national championship every year until they get knocked off more than two years in a row or Kehres retires, whichever comes first.

 

2. UW-Whitewater

UW-Whitewater had some offseason upheaval, including the retirement of longtime coach Bob Berezowitz and a change at offensive coordinator as well as losing the D3football.com Defensive Player of the Year, an NFL draftee at wide receiver and former All-Americans at left tackle, tight end and quarterback. New coach Lance Leipold came from Division II Nebraska-Omaha where he was associate head coach and offensive coordinator since 2004.

 

Danny Jones, who was the highest-profile transfer in Division III this offseason, comes from Cal Lutheran, where he was a first-team all-conference selection at quarterback. Brian Ryczkowski backed up Justin Jacobs last season but hasn't taken any snaps under pressure. However, four offensive linemen return, as does two-time first-team All-American running back Justin Beaver. Beaver missed time last year after breaking his collarbone and saw his effectiveness limited after he returned during the playoffs. Brady Pittz and Derek Underwood got experience while Beaver was out, but were not able to match his speed and elusiveness. Neil Mrkvicka and Jordan Wells will be key in receiving roles after Derek Stanley was selected by the St. Louis Rams.

 

The entire secondary returns including Matt Blaziewske who intercepted four passes and broke up seven others. The defensive line has to deal with the loss of Ryan Kleppe and his 14 and a half sacks at tackle, as well as Alex Thompson. Ryan Ogrizovich is the only one who returns on the line. A.J. Raebel and Tristan Borzick, the team's top two tacklers, return at linebacker.

 

UW-Whitewater has a challenging schedule, including the strongest conference top to bottom in Division III, a game against Division II St. Cloud State and a non-conference game against Mary Hardin-Baylor.

 

3. St. John's

Since the preseason polls were released, St. John's running back Craig Luberts, who was expected to start this season after running for 374 yards and eight touchdowns on 101 carries in 2006, was charged with felony criminal sexual conduct. Mike Patnode, who ran for 422 yards and seven touchdowns is expected to start, although the team moved transfer Nate Anderson over from linebacker.

 

John Gagliardi enters his 59th season as a collegiate head coach with a record of 443-120-11. He has Alex Kofoed back at quarterback after he completed 61 percent of his passes as a junior, throwing 24 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Three other starters return on the line, including preseason All-American Andrew Salvato. Brian Weber is the leading receiver returning, with 32 catches in 12 games.

 

Junior defensive tackle and preseason All-American Nick Gunderson leads the line, especially on special teams, where he blocked five kicks. Mike Schumacher joins him on the end, where he recorded nine tackles for loss. Josh Rose and Ryan Wimmer gained experience at linebacker as freshmen and will start as sophomores, while a pair of seniors play safety: John Cloeter and Kevin Boegel. Both cornerbacks will be new, with competition among three players who averaged fewer than 10 tackles last season.

 

Gagliardi should have no problem reaching 450 career wins, but his Johnnies might have trouble running the table in the regular season, with Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foes Bethel and St. Olaf in the running for the conference crown as well.

 

4. Mary Hardin-Baylor

If it seems like Mary Hardin-Baylor quarterback Josh Welch has been around forever, well, you'd be just about right. Welch helped take the Crusaders to the Stagg Bowl as a freshman in 2004, part of a playoff run that included three road wins against Top 5 teams, one of them a stunning rally to defeat Mount Union.

 

Welch has excelled at running the option for the Crusaders over the years and will benefit from another strong offensive line. UMHB returns its entire first-string and second-string front five, including preseason All-American tackle Caleb Woodall. Jarvis Thrasher returns after running for 1,137 yards last season, having taken over the No. 1 role in the backfield from Freddie Rollins. Cole Smith (28 catches, 337 yards) returns as the leading receiver in Mary Hardin-Baylor's limited receiving game. The Crusaders threw just 15 passes per game last season. However, the offense is strong, as the entire line returns, along with every starter except receiver Anthony Carter.

 

Elliott Barcak and Clayton Burris return at cornerback, but the Crusaders lose the services of All-American safety Josh Kubiak, who also starred for the U.S. national team in the recent World Championship of American Football. Calvin Fleming, who supplanted Burris in the starting lineup in the playoffs, was a junior last season. Derrick Williams returns at safety and will probably step into Kubiak's role.

 

With Kubiak gone, middle linebacker Jerrell Freeman is the star of the defense, after 96 tackles and four interceptions in 2006. Eric Henri returns at linebacker as well, but the line will have some holes to fill, with William DeWease the sole returning starter. Mark Balderas and Cecil Johnson, who each saw time as reserves in 2006, are expected to start at the tackle spots.

 

Special teams have been key for the Crusaders, with Zach Newcomb a standout in the kicking game and Hunter Hamrick at punter, but both were seniors last season. Joel Munoz, who handled kickoffs in 2006 and had 21 touchbacks, has the leg to put the ball in the end zone from the new distance as well and will handle placekicking as well.

 

5. St. John Fisher

St. John Fisher burst onto the scene last season, reaching the national semifinals before losing at Mount Union 26-14. It was the Cardinals' second trip to the playoffs in their relatively short history as a varsity program (20 years) and their first time getting past the second round.

 

The Cardinals lose a big name on both offense and defense. Mark Robinson, an All-American selection at running back, finished 17th in Division III history with 4,840 rushing yards, with more than 1,500 of them coming last year as a senior. However, the Cardinals have an experienced back to plug into his place. Robinson missed half of the 2005 season because of injury and James Reile, then a sophomore, stepped in and didn't miss a beat behind the Cardinals' excellent offensive line, rushing for 1,235 yards and 17 touchdowns in 11 games. Reile will step back into the starting lineup this season. On defense, the biggest loss is inside linebacker Gene Lang, who racked up 290 tackles between his junior and senior seasons. Josh Gottlieb will be expected to take the primary role on the inside for St. John Fisher after recording 52 tackles in 2006.

 

Rob Kramer (64.8 percent completions, 22 touchdowns, one interception in 2006) will again direct the offense, after taking over the starting position in the second half of the Cardinals' second game of the 2006 season. Brennan Fortune, a three-year starter at left tackle, will anchor an offensive line that returns three starters plus tight end Chris Harmon. Harmon caught 23 passes for 341 yards and seven touchdowns and is among five returning receivers from last year's top six.

 

Steven Stepnick led the secondary last season with four interceptions and scored two touchdowns, giving him 14 career picks. Scott Miranto and Matt Driscoll did some ballhawking in the secondary as well, combining to force eight turnovers. The biggest concern is defensive line, where tackle Matt Mahoney is the only starter returning.

 

The Empire 8 conference has four of the Top 30 teams in Division III, and teams such as Springfield, Ithaca and Alfred could derail the Cardinals' hopes of returning to the postseason.

 

6. Wesley

Behind quarterback Chris Warrick, Wesley made consecutive trips to the national semifinals, trips which ended with nearly identical beatings at the hands of UW-Whitewater. Losses by the combined total of 102-13 threatened to outweigh the 25-1 mark the Wolverines posted in the rest of their 2005-06 schedule, but losing Warrick is far more likely to derail the team's chances. Warrick threw for 10,542 career yards.

 

Jason Schatz takes over the signal-calling duties after spending last year pressed into service as a starting wide receiver. He'll have the top receiver from each of the past two seasons to help him out, however. Larry Beavers returns from academic ineligibility after catching 15 touchdown passes and compiling 1,076 receiving yards in 2005. Michael Clarke stepped in last season and caught 60 passes for 1,304 yards and 16 TDs. Schatz will also have four players with starting experience on the offensive line in front of him. Aaron Jackson ran for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman and returns in the backfield.

 

Wesley also returns eight starters on defense, leading off with end Bryan Robinson, the two-time regional defensive player of the year. Justin Strickland and Jamal Williams return as well, though the Wolverines will rotate players across their five-man front. Brandon Huntbach recorded 114 tackles last season at linebacker, while Sean Matthews is back as well. Mario Harris (81 tackles, 13 passes broken up) is gone at free safety, with Trae Swann expected to fill his position alongside Jeremiah Santiago.

 

The Wolverines open with five games against playoff hopefuls or recent playoff teams, hosting North Carolina Wesleyan, Delaware Valley, Montclair State and Huntingdon sandwiched around a road trip to Widener. Without an automatic bid, Wesley may have to go 9-1 to make the NCAA playoffs.

 

7. UW-La Crosse

UW-La Crosse brought 10 quarterbacks into camp in hopes of replacing John Schumann, with junior Griffin Moe, sophomore Gus Almonroeder and freshmen Alex Seguin and Nick Anker in competition. The losses may be even more significant on defense, where Ken Halvorson and Steve Teeples depart the secondary. The pair combined for four interceptions in a September win against Division I South Dakota State while Teeples, an All-American finished with seven picks.

 

Sophomore Matt Winney gets first crack at stepping into Teeples' spot. Eric Filter is getting a look at Halvorson's strong safety spot.

 

In all, six starters return on defense and five on offense. One starter returns on the defensive line, where Mike Lenzendorf, a transfer from Wisconsin, is expected to bolster the position. Two juniors (Drew Kiefer and Jon Vitkus) and a senior (Adam Neitzel) return at linebacker.

 

On offense, Dan Hall returns at tailback after rushing for 639 yards in what was technically a reserve role in 2006. Brian Edmiston was named the starting tight end in camp -- after catching 10 balls in 2006, he's expected to produce more. Jason Wagner is the leading returning receiver with 18 catches, 299 yards and four touchdowns.

 

The Eagles reached the second round of the playoffs last season before running into UW-Whitewater. The Warhawks face the Eagles in conference action, and a non-conference game against preseason Top 25 team Hardin-Simmons will be a Week 1 test as well.

 

8. Central

Central lost in the first round each of the past two years, but in the deep West Region, first-round foes include higher ranked teams UW-Whitewater and St. John's. Merely running the table in the regular season was an accomplishment for the Dutch, who needed overtime in three of their Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference games.

 

Vance Schuring, who transferred to Central in 2005 and ran for 1,199 yards last season, returns for his senior year but will have three new offensive linemen in front of him. Quarterback Tim Connell took more control of the offense last season, completing 141-of-236 passes for 12 touchdowns and accounting for 1,984 yards of total offense. Leading receiver Cody Huisman returns as well.

 

The defense is in better shape, with eight starters returning. The Dutch lose one lineman, one linebacker and one defensive back, while returning standouts such as defensive back Brett Doud (24 tackles, four interceptions), safety Dustyn Baethke (44 tackles, two interceptions) and linebacker Andrew Lehn (74 tackles, two interceptions).

 

9. Springfield

Springfield quarterback Chris Sharpe might be able to reprise his 2006 at the helm of the triple option, but even if the senior can somehow approach his 1,941 yards rushing and 35 touchdowns (as well as four passing scores), the defense will have to undergo some addition by subtraction.

 

Last year's Pride defense allowed 30 points to Union, 34 to Alfred and 38 to St. John Fisher before a 27-21 loss in the second round of the playoffs in a rematch against Empire 8 foe St. John Fisher. And that's despite the Springfield ball control offense holding the ball for nearly 33 and a half minutes per game.

 

However, just four starters return from that defense. One of them is senior cornerback Joe Harasymiak, who intercepted 10 passes in 2006. Joe Hess will anchor the linebacking corps, with Jeff Creeden stepping into the starting lineup. The defensive line will change over except for junior Pat Shortnell, who recorded 37 tackles, five for loss and two sacks as a sophomore.

 

The already-potent offense should be boosted by Andrew Jackson, who missed all or part of four games in 2006 with a high ankle sprain. Despite being limited, he still ran for 92.8 yards per game from his fullback position. Linemen Jon Mercer, Dan Conners and Nate Germain return up front to pave the way for an offense that returns 4,341 of its 4,496 rushing yards.

 

When the Pride takes the field, it will be on FieldTurf, as Springfield has finally replaced the Astroturf at Benedum Field. The fast track has played into Springfield's favor at home in the past, though the Pride have seemed to struggle in big games on grass. Perhaps switching to a somewhat slower home surface will help the Pride adjust more quickly on the road.

 

10. Rowan

Rowan may need another trip to the national semifinals. Otherwise, the Profs risk losing their "Beast of the East" moniker for the immediate future. The Profs suffered a very un-Rowan-like 31-0 loss in the quarterfinals after eking out wins in the first two rounds by one score or less.

 

The receiving corps was a major downfall for the Profs, and that unit will remain young in 2007. Dustin Katcher is the top returning receiver, though his 36 receptions averaged just 7.7 yards apiece. Davon Edwards, Rowan's leading rusher in 2006, moves to receiver, while several newcomers could unseat other starters in the spread offense. Edwards' backfield spot will be filled by Ulysses Encarnacion, who missed the entire 2006 season because of an injury suffered in the 2005 playoffs. Emory Lester and Will Barnes, who combined for 48 catches last season, will miss the season because of academic issues.

 

Mike Orihel's graduation leaves Joe Rankin back in the quarterback position. Rankin was pressed into service in 2005 down the stretch and threw 14 touchdowns against 12 interceptions after an Orihel injury. Rankin won't have as veteran a receiving corps to throw to in 2007, however.

 

Two transfers are expected to bolster the cornerback position, with Elijah Bynum coming from Division II Cheyney and Kenny Quinones from Lackawanna Junior College. Frank Giannetti will take over at nose tackle, while Justin Hinds and Josh Bonzella will battle for a defensive end spot.

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