Additional Links: 2016 CWRU Football Media Guide
After coming just a game away from winning the 2015 Presidents' Athletic Conference Championship, the Case Western Reserve University football team will look to take another big step forward in 2016, as the squad aims for its first NCAA Division III playoff berth since the 2009 campaign.
The Spartans overall record of 7-3 in 2015 marked a four-game improvement from the previous season, as CWRU finished third in the PAC with a 6-2 conference record, rising four spots in the standings from 2014. Now in its third season as an affiliate member of the PAC, Case Western Reserve will enter the campaign receiving votes in the D3football.com preseason poll for the first time since prior to the start of the 2012 season.
With 13 starters returning from last year's team, including eight All-PAC honorees, the Spartans have their sights set on challenging for the conference championship and the bid to the NCAA Championships associated with it.
"Expectations are high," said Head Coach Greg Debeljak, who will enter his 13th season with the team with an overall record of 82-41. "The senior class last year really set a tone of getting back to national relevance. There was disappointment that we did not make the playoffs, but our eyes were opened to the potential to do that, especially with a team that is made of a great deal of returning players."
Last year's campaign was the Spartans eighth winning season in the last nine years, with the team going 69-24 (good for a .741 winning percentage) during the stretch.
"Every team is different, and we realize that success does not just happen by itself," continued Debeljak. "We need to come in and create a culture of winning and caring about each other. If we can do that, we have the talent to be relevant on the national level, as long as we stay healthy and live up to our potential."
The Case Western Reserve offense experienced a breakthrough season last year, behind the emergence of first-year starting quarterback Rob Cuda, who will be back to pilot the Spartans' attack as a junior in 2016. With Cuda at the helm, the Case Western Reserve offense ranked 29th among all NCAA Division III teams with 38.7 points per game, and 32nd with 468.4 yards per contest.
"We have a lot of pieces coming back, despite graduating a few big playmakers," said Debeljak. "We like our depth and we're still fairly young, but also very experienced. I think we'll find out what kind of depth we've established through recruiting this year."
Cuda will look to build upon his 2015 campaign, when he was named to the All-PAC and All-University Athletic Association first teams. Not only did he lead the team's air attack, throwing for 28 touchdowns (16th in Division III) and 2,631 yards (31st in Division III), but he was also the team's leading rusher during the campaign with 715 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. His 334.6 yards of offense per game was the ninth-best individual total during the year, and he ranked 11th in Division III by accounting for 21.6 points per game.
"Rob is one of the best football players in the country," said Debeljak. "He makes everyone around him better, and a big part of that is because everyone believes he will win games for us in some way – either running the football or throwing, everyone has confidence that he can make big plays to win a game. And, as good as he played last year, I think that he can play better, and he will play better."
With a large contingent of players handling the rushing load last season, Case Western Reserve finished the season ranked 72nd in Division III with 190.3 yards per game on the ground. This year, despite graduating a key piece in fullback Adam Hochman, the Spartans' backfield will be returning four players who saw action in at least seven games in 2015.
"We rotated a lot of players last year, so, even though we lost some running backs, we have a lot of people returning with experience at the position," said Debeljak.
Junior fullback Jacob Burke is expected to see his role in the running game expanded significantly, after rushing the ball nine times for 58 yards and a touchdown last year, while also adding the ability to catch passes out of the backfield. Juniors Myles Anthony (141 yards, one TD) and Jeffrie Brown Jr. (110 yards) are expected to be the featured tailbacks, with junior Aaron Aguilar and sophomore Kenny Warren Jr. each playing a role at the position during upcoming season. Sophomore JP Wassmann will add depth at the fullback position as well.
Receiver/ Tight End
Despite returning a good portion of the receiving corps from last season, the Spartans will need to account for the loss of two of Cuda's favorite targets in graduated players Bryan Erb (65 receptions, 856 yards, school-record 13 receiving TDs) and all-region tight end Ethan Albers (29 receptions, 576 yards, five TDs).
"It will be a different group, but a really effective group," commented Debeljak. "Last year, it was nice to be able to throw it up to two big bodies in Erb and Albers, who will not be here anymore. We will have to find ways to make big plays and put points on the board a little differently than last year. It does not mean that it won't happen, just that it will be different."
The Spartans will, in part, look to two rising seniors in wide receiver Brendan Lynch and tight end Zech Medved to fill the void. Lynch was second on the team last year with 42 receptions, tallying 330 yards and a touchdown, while Medved, now a second-year captain, had 18 receptions for 303 yards and three TDs in 2015. Junior Luke DiFrancesco caught 16 passes for a career-best 325 yards last season, and has 47 receptions for 584 yards and three TDs over the first two years of his career. Justin Phan will see his responsibilities expanded during his second year on the team as well, after catching 16 passes for 161 yards in 2015.
The Spartans' offensive line was one of the keys to the team's breakout offensive campaign in 2015, yielding just 2.2 sacks per game during the season. This year, with the majority of the unit returning, including three players who received All-PAC recognition, the CWRU offensive line will aim for a carryover of its success from last season.
"We have six players on our offensive line that have started and are coming back, and we will start with 20 offensive lineman on the roster, including the freshmen coming in," said Debeljak. "We have numbers and we have depth, but hopefully we can stay injury free and keep the upperclassmen on the field. I definitely think the offensive line is a strength of our team."
Leading the line will be three juniors, each of which has started since their freshman year, in center Gage Blair, guard Ryan DeMarinis, and tackle Ryan Merlau. Blair was an All-PAC First Team selection as a sophomore, while DeMarinis claimed an honorable mention to the team last season. A pair of seniors in All-PAC honorable mention guard Dante Capicchioni and tackle Nate Lewis will round out the starters on the line, while senior center Robbie Sabatelle, junior guard Alex Nesvisky, and sophomore tackle Steven Bachie are expected to see significant time on the field during the year.
While the Spartans' offense was standout group in 2015, the defense quietly turned into one of the top performing groups in Division III during the year. Case Western Reserve allowed just 100.2 rushing yards per game last season, 15th best among DIII squads and second among PAC teams, while the team's 3.00 sacks per game ranked 23rd in the nation. The Spartans allowed just 22.4 points and 343.6 total yards per game in 2015.
Although Case Western Reserve will be graduating seven starting players from last year's defense, the Spartans have a number of players on this year's roster who saw extensive time on the field last season, and will be aiming to fill the voids in the 3-4 defense.
"We are losing a lot of players, but we have a lot of people who rotated last year and played a third of the snaps during games, which is invaluable, because they have been put in game situations, and they were productive when they had their opportunities," said Debeljak. "It might take a little time to develop, but we certainly have some talent."
The most experience and talent on the field for the Spartans will come from the secondary, which includes senior All-PAC second team cornerback Nick Kwon and All-UAA first team honoree Cody Calhoun. Kwon led the team with four interceptions, 14 pass breakups and 42 solo tackles last season, while Calhoun had 48 total tackles and a pair of interceptions last year.
"We have players in the secondary that could be considered for All-American status," said Debeljak. "At cornerback, Kwon, who is in his fourth year as a starter, makes everybody else look better because of his coverage skills. Calhoun, who is one of the better players in the region, has terrific cover skills and tackling ability."
Junior Adrian Cannon is slated to start at the other cornerback position, after starting the last five games of the 2015 season, including a school-record tying performance with three interceptions against Washington University (Mo.) on October 31st. Senior Owen Williams and sophomore Andre Orantes will be both be factors at cornerback as well, with returning juniors in Mike Devereaux, Daniel Fabiniak and Alek LaVeck all expected to see time at safety.
"It is a very talented group, and I think we have at least six players that could play at a very high level. It will be interesting to see what Coach [Warren] Miller and his staff do with them and how creative we can be," said Debeljak.
Despite losing three starters at the position, the Spartans should not suffer from a lack of experience at linebacker in 2016, thanks to a large rotation last year that heavily featured all four of the likely starters for the upcoming season.
"We have six players who have all played quite a bit, and with our philosophy of rotating players, this is where it should all pay off," said Debeljak.
On the inside, juniors Andrew Banathy (29 tackles, 3.0 TFL) and Justin McMahon (21 tackles, 3.5 TFL) will see their roles increase as they likely move into starting positions on the depth chart, and senior Tim Briercheck will look to make an impact after missing all last season due to injury. Three sophomores - David Traganza, Mitchell Willis and Matt Gallagher – are also likely see time at inside linebacker.
Senior Zach Lyon is the team's lone returning starting linebacker, and will look to pick up where he left off last season, when he led the team in quarterback hurries and sacked the quarterback three times. Junior Alex Habeeb also saw considerable time on the field last year, notching 10 tackles and a sack, and will have a chance to start this season. Other returning outside linebackers this year include senior Jeep Madison, junior Chanan Demery and sophomore Jered Butler.
The Spartans defensive line will have a new look for the 2016 season, after graduating each of the three starters from the position last season. However, Debeljak is hoping that with extensive depth on the line, Case Western Reserve will quickly find a combination of players that can be successful.
"The defensive line is our biggest question mark, if only for the lack of experience at the position," commented Debeljak. "We are going to have to see how everyone fits together, how we develop in camp, and who shows that he can play at our level. We have a lot of different ways to go, and a lot of it is going to be determined on how we play up front early. If we are not finding answers, we can move people around and play different sets."
Senior end Tyler Doty has the most experience at the position, including four tackles for a loss and two sacks last year, while junior Jason Lockamy added a sack and 12 tackles in 2015. Sophomores Brian McNamara, Chris Zhang, and Tyler Bushman and juniors Dan Techman and Pete LeMaster will each aim to increase their impact at defensive end in 2016. In the middle of the line, sophomore Ian Henderson, who saw extensive time on special teams last season, and sophomore William Graziani should each see an increase of playing time at nose guard.
With the majority of the key players from the unit returning this season, the Spartans should once again be strong across the board on special teams. Three experienced kickers are returning to the roster, including All-PAC second team junior Ben Carniol, who led all PAC players and was sixth in Division III with a .818 field goal percentage last season. Junior Weston Salerno also kicked for the team last year, while junior Won Kun Park served as a kickoff specialist. In addition to his duties in the running game, Jacob Burke earned an honorable mention to the All-PAC team as a punter last season.
"We have some solid, experienced kickers and punters, and it is always good when you know what you have going into the season at those positions," said Debeljak.
The Spartans' roster also boasts two of the top returners in the conference. Last year, Cody Calhoun led the PAC and was 24th in Division III with 26.3 yards per kickoff return, while Justin Phan was fifth in the PAC and 48th in Division III with 8.3 yards per punt return as a freshman.
"I don't think you are going to find too many better return men than we have with Calhoun and Phan," said Debeljak. "We are pretty confident that our special teams can be a difference in games."
PAC OUTLOOK/ SCHEDULE
For the third year, the Spartans are slated to play an eight-game PAC slate, in addition to a pair of games against traditional UAA opponents in the University of Chicago and Washington University (Mo.). Two of the opponents on the Spartans schedule – Westminster College (Pa.) and Carnegie Mellon University – received votes in the D3football.com Preseason Top-25 Poll, while two other PAC schools that are not on CWRU's schedule this season – 11th-ranked Thomas More College and Washington & Jefferson College (received votes) – were also recognized in the rankings.
"The strength of the top level of the conference can match up with many of the top leagues in the country," said Debeljak. "The fact that five teams were in the [D3football.com] preseason poll tells you a lot about the respect the conference has around the country. The PAC is a talented, deep conference."
The Spartans will open their schedule at home on September 5th against the University of Chicago in a UAA matchup. After a bye week, CWRU will hit the road for PAC games at Grove City College on September 17th and Waynesburg University on September 24th. Three of the Spartans' five games in October will be at home, with matchups at DiSanto Field against Saint Vincent College on October 1st (Fireworks Night), Thiel College on October 17th (Homecoming) and Geneva College on October 22nd, and road games at Bethany College on October 8th and at UAA opponent Washington (Mo.) on October 29th.
Case Western Reserve will wrap-up its season with a tough two-game stretch that could very likely have an impact on the top of the conference standings. On November 7th, the Spartans will head to Westminster for their first-ever meeting with the Titans, before returning home on November 14th to face Carnegie Mellon in the 31st-Annual Academic Bowl.