From Monday, July 31 through Thursday, August 3, we will be previewing the 2017 Case Western Reserve University football season on athletics.case.edu, including PAC Media Day on Wednesday, August 2, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where Head Coach Greg Debeljak and senior quarterback Rob Cuda will be representing the Spartans. Fans can watch PAC Media Day live via coverage on the PAC Sports network at http://www.pacstream.net/.
2017 Football Preview Week Schedule on athletics.case.edu:
Monday: Coaching Staff Announced | Fall Sports Schedule Poster Revealed
Tuesday: Season Preview
Wednesday: PAC Media Day webcast (Head Coach Greg Debeljak & Senior QB Rob Cuda at approx.. 1:35 PM)
Thursday: Media Guide Available Online
The Case Western Reserve University football team finished the 2016 season with a 9-1 record, winning a share of the University Athletic Association title with a 2-1 conference ledger, and finishing second in the Presidents' Athletic Conference with a 7-1 mark. Now, with 60 players slated to return from last year's team, including 21 starters and a large senior class, the Spartans are primed for another strong season in 2017.
"Coming off the 9-1 year with the amount of players we have back, we have a chance to be very good," said Head Coach Greg Debeljak, who will be starting his 14th season at the team's helm. "You can't just assume it's going to happen – everyone needs to do their job, players and coaches alike. But, I would certainly rather be in this situation."
Among the team's returners are 16 players who earned an all-conference honor from either the UAA or the PAC. Included in that group are senior Rob Cuda, the 2016 UAA Most Valuable Player, and senior center Gage Blair, a D3football.com All-Region honoree. Behind last year's success and the high number of returning contributors, the Spartans are ranked in a pair of preseason polls, checking in at 22nd in the D3football.com rankings and 20th in the Street & Smith Preseason Top-25.
"The preseason rankings are a recognition of how good we were last year. As far as how the 2017 season is going to turn out, the rankings are meaningless. The only rankings that matter are the ones at the end of the 10th game," said Debeljak.
In addition to the large senior class, the Spartans roster will feature 46 newcomers to the roster, one of the largest incoming groups in the program's history.
"It's the largest senior class we've ever had, and the second-largest freshman class," said Debeljak. "We have depth and experience, and we're really happy with the 45 we have coming in. There are players in other years who might have helped us right away, and they certainly will have that opportunity, but they are not needed immediately."
The Case Western Reserve University offense has been one of the most dynamic in the PAC over the past two seasons. In 2015, the squad featured a high-powered passing game, with 29 touchdowns coming via the pass. Last season, the team shifted to a more run-focused game plan, setting a program-record with 2,579 rushing yards during the campaign.
"The philosophy has never been to run or pass a certain amount of times – we would like to do whatever is necessary to win a football game," said Debeljak. "If that means run the ball more, we feel we have the personnel to do that, and if it means pass the ball more, we feel we have the personnel to do that as well."
Over the past two seasons, CWRU has scored 39.0 points per game, including 10 games of 40 or more points during the stretch. The 2016 squad averaged 39.2 points per contest, the 26th-best in Division III during the season and second-highest in program history, while the team's 257.9 rushing yards per game were the 14th-highest in Division III during the year.
"We're not looking to reinvent the wheel. I think you will see a lot things you've seen over the last two years, but we willl also have to see what some players coming back from injuries can do," said Debeljak. "We're confident that we'll find a way to score points and move the ball, because we have an experienced and talented team, which is a great starting point. How we do it is still up in the air."
Cuda will enter his third season as the team's starting quarterback having already built a legacy as one of the top players in the program's history. Last season, en route to earning the UAA Most Valuable Player award, he set the CWRU record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 908 and 12 touchdowns, while throwing for another 2,328 yards and 19 touchdowns.
"He is one of the best football players I've ever coached," said Debeljak. "He's going to compete, he's going to be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators, and he's going to be the focal point of our offense, whatever direction it goes."
Returning depth behind Cuda includes sophomores Julian Kinard and Peter Hontas.
Junior Jacob Burke emerged as one of the top running backs in the conference during his junior campaign in 2016, becoming just the fourth player in program history to rush for over 1,000 yards in the season, finishing with 1,065 and 16 touchdowns. For his efforts, Burke was named to the All-UAA and All-PAC second teams.
"He was a devastating inside runner, and when he broke into open field, he was hard to catch," said Debeljak of Burke. "He is a very unique talent for our level with his size and speed."
Three other senior players with considerable experience at runningback are returning for the Spartans in Jeffrie Brown Jr. (201 yards, two TDs), Myles Anthony (185 yards, three TDs) and Aaron Aguilar (151 yards, one TD).
"We can go in a lot of different directions with our depth at the position," said Debeljak. "All of those players will be used, we will just have to see in what way."
Junior JP Wassmann and sophomore Brandon Rabah and Sam Jenkins could also factor into the running game during the 2017 year.
Receiver/ Tight End
The team's most noticeable loss on offense will be at receiver, where 2016 D3football.com All-Region selection Brendan Lynch led the team in receptions (67), receiving yards (1,049) and receiving touchdowns (12). However, the unit will be bolstered by the return of a pair of players who missed the 2016 season due to injury in senior tight end Zech Medved and senior receiver Luke DiFrancesco. In addition, a trio of junior receivers – All-UAA Second Team selection Justin Phan (46 receptions, 511 yards, three TDs), Joey Spitalli (18 receptions, 167 yards, two TDs), and Hunter Tulloch (16 receptions, one TD) - who all saw extensive time on the field last year will look to see their roles expanded with Lynch's departure.
"Medved and DiFrancesco have already proven to be big-play guys," said Debeljak. "And, the juniors played a ton and made a lot of plays for us during the year."
The unit, which is one of the deepest on the team, also features seniors Zak Hurd and Giuseppe Orsini, junior Matthew Peterson, and sophomores Adam Zybko, Ryan Coolidge, Conner Hall, Austin Navarrette, and Mario Robaina.
"It is a good group, and despite being young, there is a lot of experience there. We will have to see how we develop, but we have a lot of options," said Debeljak.
The most experienced group on either side of the ball for the Spartans is the offensive line, which will feature four returning starters. Along with Blair, seniors Ryan DeMarinis and Ryan Merlau and junior Steven Bachie each earned All-UAA or All-PAC honors last season, with the four having a combined 95 games of experience between them. Merlau is slated to slide from tackle to guard this year, opening up a spot for sophomore Derek Clontz at tackle.
"They are pretty adept at both run and pass protection," said Debeljak. "That is where the experience comes in. They've done both well, they know our system, and whatever direction we go we have a line to get us there."
Adding to the team's depth at offensive line will be senior Alex Nesvisky, junior Chaz Brown and sophomores Spiros Romell, Josh Schlichting and Thomas Strayer.
Despite suffering a number of key injuries throughout the season last year, the Spartans' defense remained one of the best in the PAC, allowing just 18.7 points per game, the second-lowest mark in the conference and 37th-best in all of Division III. With nine returning starters, a number of key players coming back from injuries, and a large group of players who saw time on the field last year, the defense will once again look to stay at the top of the PAC.
"[Defensive Coordinator] Warren Miller and his staff did an outstanding job last year of getting the next man ready. I've seen teams fold when injuries happen, but they didn't. We have a lot of people who played a lot of football for us, and their experience will be a factor for us," said Debeljak.
The Spartans' defense led the PAC in third down defense and red zone defense during the year, while ranking third in the conference with 320.7 yards allowed per game and fourth with 23 turnovers forced. Thr group's play helped CWRU lead the PAC in time of possession, averaging 32:48 per game, the 26th-best mark in Division III.
"As exciting as we are to watch on offense that is the way we are on defense too. We create a lot of turnovers, there's a lot of pressure and they play with a great enthusiasm. I'm looking forward to seeing them play," said Debeljak.
After entering the 2016 season as the biggest question mark on the defensive side of the ball, the defensive line proved to be one of the team's strengths. Emerging as one of the top players at the defensive end position in the conference was Cameron Brown, who was named to the All-PAC Second Team after leading all CWRU players with 4.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss during his sophomore season. Senior Dan Techman will be back as well, after recording 4.0 sacks last season at defensive end. Other returners who could see time at defensive end include junior Tyler Bushman and sophomore Adam Poltrack.
In the middle of the line, junior Ian Henderson is slated to return after being named to the All-UAA Second Team last year, while sophomore Andrew Lease will see his role expanded after starting four games as a freshman. Other options at nose guard include junior William Graziani and sophomore Reed Gershenson.
"We're going to rotate players and play five or six on the defensive line. I think it is a strength, where last year it was a real question mark."
The Spartan linebacker group features five seniors and seven total players who have all seen significant playing time over their careers. On the inside, senior Justin McMahon (All-PAC Honorable Mention and All-UAA First Team) led the team with 76 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss, while senior Andrew Banathy added 40 tackles with 5.5 for a loss before missing the final four games of the year due to an injury. Junior David Traganza (20 tackles) and sophomore Isaac Withrow (14 tackles) each appeared in eight games last season at inside linebacker.
The Spartans will be returning a pair of all-conference honorees at outside linebacker in seniors Chanan Demery (All-UAA First Team, All-PAC Honorable Mention) and Alex Habeeb (All-UAA Second Team). Demery led all CWRU players with four interceptions and three forced fumbles last year. In addition, senior Zach Lyon is expected back after collecting 12 tackles and 2.5 sacks in just over a game, before suffering a season-ending injury. Sophomore Brett Marcus could also factor into the rotation at outside linebacker.
"It's a senior-laden group for sure," said Debeljak. "We feel confident that we have athletes at the position that have proven themselves as quality players."
The Spartans' biggest loss on defense from last year's squad will likely be at cornerback, following the graduation of All-PAC selection Nick Kwon. Senior Adrian Cannon started nine games at cornerback last year, notching 38 tackles, three interceptions, and seven pass breakups. Sophomore Kevin Chrissis played in four games as a freshman and will likely see his role increased, with sophomores Munyaradzi Mangwende and Luke Bedell, and graduate student (and former CWRU baseball player) Andrew Rossman potentially competing for spots in the rotation as well.
"Nick is going to be hard to replace – we were able to focus on other areas of the field because his was secure," said Debeljak." Adrian Cannon is a good player who plays very physical at the corner position. The other corner position is where we will be looking for somebody."
Safety should be one of the team's strengths, between the return of senior Cody Calhoun (a two-time All-UAA selection) from injury, in addition to All-UAA First Team sophomore Patrick Crossey and All-UAA Honorable Mention Daniel Fabiniak. Crossey started nine games and was third on the team with 64 tackles during his freshman year, while Fabiniak recorded career-highs with 31 tackles and two interceptions. Sophomore Jeremy Hill should add further depth to an already strong unit.
"We feel that we are as deep as anybody at safety with Calhoun coming back, along with Crossey and Fabiniak."
Senior Ben Carniol will likely assume the team's placekicking abilities for the third-straight season. Over the past two years, he has converted 14-of-18 field goal attempts (78%) and 92-of-99 extra point tries (93%), and he will enter his senior season third in school history in points among kickers (134).
"Ben has been our reliable placekicker. We haven't given him enough opportunities because we go for it so much on fouth down, but it's not because of lack of confidence in Ben. He's an excellent placekicker."
Senior Weston Salerno and sophomore Jackson Kolderup will be among those competing for kickoff duties this year, while Jacob Burke will have the opportunity to pull double-duty again at running back and punter, after averaging 39.7 yards per punt last season.
Justin Phan is likely to see time as the team's punt returner again after averaging 11.2 yards per return last year, including an 85-yard return for a touchdown during the team's season-opener against Chicago. Cody Calhoun will look to return to his role in the kick return game, while Mario Robaina also had experience on returns last season.
"For both return teams, depth will play a role. This is the largest roster we have ever had, and we'll have a lot of young kids who will be fighting to get onto the field. Special teams are a great way to do that," said Debeljak.
SCHEDULE/ PAC OUTLOOK
The Spartans' 2017 schedule features an eight-game PAC schedule, along with non-conference games against two long-time UAA rivals.
Case Western Reserve will open the season at the University of Chicago for a UAA matchup on September 2. After a bye week, the Spartans will begin their fourth season of PAC play, hosting Grove City College at DiSanto Field on September 16. CWRU will continue its PAC schedule at home against Waynesburg on on September 23, before traveling to Saint Vincent on September 30.
The Spartans will open October with their annual Homecoming Game against Bethany on the seventh, followed by road games at Thiel on October 14 and Geneva on October 21. CWRU will return home for their final two home games of the year, each against a team that received votes in the D3football.com preseason poll, facing UAA-rival Washington (Mo.) on October 28 and Westminster for 'Senior Day' on November 4.
CWRU will wrap-up its regular season with the 32nd-Annual Academic Bowl against Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on November 11, a game that will count towards both the PAC and UAA standings.
"The PAC is in great shape. There shouldn't be a dropoff in the top five teams, and there are a lot of teams on our schedule that can beat us. We need to be prepared every week, but I have every bit of confidence our team will prepare accordingly."