2018 CWRU Football Season Preview

2018 CWRU Football Season Preview


Following one of the most successful seasons in the program's history last year, the Case Western Reserve University football team will enter the 2018 season looking to defend its Presidents' Athletic Conference and University Athletic Association Championships, and make a second-straight appearance in the NCAA Division III playoffs.

The Spartans recorded the fifth undefeated regular season in program history in 2017, going 11-1 overall and reaching the second round of the NCAA Playoffs.  The Spartans claimed a share of the PAC Championship with an 8-0 conference record, the first in the program's history, while also claiming their second-straight and seventh UAA Championship overall during the campaign.  Case Western Reserve finished the season ranked 13th in the D3football.com Top-25, its highest ranking ever in the organization's final poll of the year.

However, after graduating seven offensive and seven defensive starters from last year's team, including UAA & PAC Most Valuable Offensive Player in quarterback Rob Cuda, All-American center Gage Blair and All-Region running back Jacob Burke, a number of new faces will take centerstage for the Spartans in 2018.

"We not only lost a lot of seniors, but a lot of seniors with three and four years of playing experience.  It's a lot to replace," said Head Coach Greg Debeljak, who will be starting his 15th season at the program's helm, and will enter the year with a 102-43 record (good for a .703 winning percentage).  "However, we had a great freshman class last year, and even though they couldn't get on the field, the extended spring ball with our international trip made the coaches feel more confident in the players we have coming back.  It will be a matter of getting them experience and how quickly they can learn from their mistakes."

The Spartans, ranked 23rd in the D3football.com Preseason Top-25 and picked to finish second in the PAC in 2018, are slated to return 72 letterwinners from last year's team, including four offensive and four defensive starters, with a 24-person freshman class helping to bolster an already talented roster.  Among the returners are senior and All-PAC First Team defensive end Cameron Brown, All-PAC Second Team selections in senior wide receiver Justin Phan and defensive tackle Ian Henderson, All-PAC Honorable Mention junior safety Patrick Crossey and All-UAA First Team senior offensive tackle Steven Bachie.

With a different look to the squad than last year, Debeljak hopes the Spartans' talent will become evident as the group gains experience on the field.

"Especially with a young team, you have to improve every week.  This group has their eyes wide open and are very enthusiastic.  The key will be if they learn quickly from their mistakes, because they just don't have a lot of experience.  I think we have physical ability, but we haven't seen it on the field in pressure situations.  Getting better every week will be the number-one goal."

The Spartans featured one of the most dynamic offenses in Division III last season, leading the PAC and ranking 16th in the nation with 39.9 points per game, while ranking third in the conference and 45th in Division III with 437.7 yards per contest.

"We will certainly change the way we do things based on the quarterback," said Debeljak.  "That being said, we will still be a fast team paced that can change speeds as needed, and we will still execute the main components of the offense we have always done.  We will be an offense that strives for balance, and tries to get the ball outside quickly to our receivers, where our experience and depth lies, to try to take the pressure off an inexperienced quarterback, whoever that will be."

The biggest hole the team will need to fill will be at the quarterback, following the loss of Cuda, a three-year starter and one of the best players at the position in the program's history.  Absent the dual-threat ability of Cuda, Debeljak will have a number of possibilities to attempt to fill the role.

"It is going to be a competition in camp.  We answered some questions in the spring, but nobody has a grasp on the job.  It could be one of the juniors on the roster now, who has been around the offense for a few years, or it could be an incoming freshman."

Juniors Ryan Coolidge (10 games, six-for-eight, 47 yards) and Julian Kinard (seven games, seven-for-eight, 88 yards) are among the team's returning options at quarterback, along with junior Peter Hontas and sophomores Mason Gee-Montgomery and Matthew Boss.

Running Back
The Spartans will also need to replace a major pieces at running back.  In addition to the loss of Jacob Burke, who ran for 1,110 yards and 17 touchdowns, the team will also lose its next two leading rushers in Aaron Aguilar and Myles Anthony.

"We have different kind of backs this season," said Debeljak.  "They are smaller and quicker, with maybe more speed and ability to run the ball outside.  We will factor that into what we do this year."

CWRU's leading returning running back is junior Sam Jenkins, who carried the ball 20 times for 133 yards and a pair of scores, while sophomore Zach Hall registered 18 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown.  Additional returning options for the Spartans include senior JP Wassmann, junior Brandon Rabah and sophomore Kyle Turcovsky.

Receiver/ Tight End
The Spartans deepest and most experienced unit on offense is their receiving corps, which will return five players with over 100 receiving yards last season.  

"They are an experienced group and a productive group," said Debeljak.  "You certainly have to have the guy behind center who can get them the ball, but I think there is a way to get them the ball quickly and let them make plays."

The team's top returning receiver is senior Justin Phan, who led the squad with 62 receptions, 778 yards and seven touchdowns last year, including a school-record tying 15 receptions in the season-opener against Chicago and a 12-reception, 169-yard game against Mount Union in the second round of the playoffs.  Three of the team's offensive captains are receivers, including graduate students Luke DiFrancesco (17 receptions, 259 yards, three TDs) and Giuseppe Orsini (nine receptions, 193 yards, 3 TDs) and senior Joey Spitalli (18 receptions, 212 yards, 1 TD).  Junior tight end Adam Zybko added 11 receptions for 181 yards and a score, while sophomores Chase Witte and Colt Morgan each will look to follow up on to successful freshman campaigns.  And, despite missing most of the 2017 season, senior Hunter Tulloch registered a 16-reception, 299-yard season in 2016.

Juniors Austin Navarrette, Mario Robaina, and Conner Hall and sophomores Trey Minnich, Joe Dinko, Jacob Berg and David Dolansky (tight end) could all factor into the receiving game in 2018 as well.

Offensive Line
The offensive line was another strength for the Spartans in 2017, allowing just 2.08 sacks per game.  And while the team will be losing the three starters on the interior of the line, CWRU will feature returning players at both tackle positions, and have a number of experienced options capable of filling the gaps.

"We have players to replace, but we will be doing so with others who have seen some time on the field," said Debeljak.  "We have younger options that we really like, and really stood out when given an opportunity in the spring.  We are going to be different - smaller and more athletic up front - which fits in with some of our running backs.  We'll be looking for a way to take advantage of that athleticism."

Junior left tackle Derek Clontz and senior co-captain and right tackle Steven Bachie each started all 12 games last season and will aim to anchor the line.  Junior Thomas Strayer made seven starts between guard and center and played in eight total games, and will look to make a smooth transition to a full-time starter in 2018.  Senior Chaz Brown (11 games) and sophomore John Feczko (nine games) each saw significant playing time last season as well.  Looking to expand their roles in the upcoming season will be junior Josh Schlichting, and sophomores Michael Babbit, Brennan Ryan, Phillip Wyatt, Anthony Polizzi, Dee Gose, Weston Roberts, and Ryan Jones.

CWRU's defense also ranked at the top of the PAC in a number of areas last year, leading all league teams with 289.6 yards allowed per game (32nd in DIII) and 17.8 points allowed per contest (44th in DIII).  The Spartans featured the top rushing defense in the league as well, allowing just 121.8 yards on the ground (64th in DIII), while the team's 167.8 passing yards allowed per game were 34th in Division III and third in the PAC.  CWRU was second in conference with 14 interceptions and forced 27 total turnovers in 2017, the 23rd-most in Division III.

Despite graduating a number of key players from last year's defense, the Spartans will be returning a group of experienced players, including four starters from the 2017 squad.

"We have almost the entire defensive line back, which will make the jobs of the linebackers and defensive backs easier.  We'll be a 3-4 team, but with the line being our strength, we have the ability to get into different fronts.  We are young, so we will need some good leadership, but we have two good captains in place in Cameron Brown and Patrick Crossey.

Defensive Line
The defensive line looks to be the strength of the Spartans' defense in 2018, with Brown returning at defensive end and senior Ian Henderson returning to anchor the middle of the line.  Brown led the team with 4.5 sacks and tallied 10.0 total tackles for a loss, while Henderson registered 40 total tackles and forced three fumbles.

"We have some players up front that are difficult to block in Brown and Henderson," said Debeljak.  "Brown in particular is a physically dominating player, and you can tell he is the son of a coach.  His work ethic and preparation are next level, and he is a role model for our young players to follow."

Senior Tyler Bushman and juniors Andrew Lease and Adam Poltrack were also featured in the Spartans' rotation at defensive line last year, and will provide experience to the unit, while senior defensive end Jason Lockamy is slated to rejoin the team after missing all of 2017.  Junior Reed Gershenson and sophomores Houruiyang Zong, Grant Cook, Justin Stanko, Austin Subler and Dylan Zegers will all aim to breakthrough into the lineup in 2018 as well.

With all five primary rotation players at linebacker graduating at the end of the 2017 season, the unit will have a new look to it this season.

"We have a lot of youth, and we are really excited about the athleticism and physicality they bring," said Debeljak.  "We have some good, young players that just didn't see the field last year because of the five seniors who played at the position.  They will need experience, and will have to get used to seeing things and reacting at game-speed."

Senior David Traganza and junior Isaac Withrow each saw time as a reserve role as inside linebackers, and will look to see their responsibilities expand as they emerge as potential starters this coming season.  Sophomores Michael Amadio, Travis Johnston and Dominic Barandica could all see time on the field at inside linebacker as well in 2018.

Outside linebacker options among returners include junior Brett Marcus and sophomores Brett Carney, Skyler Wadas, Brian Victor, Joshua Smith, Steven Clark, and Joshua Clopp.

Defensive Backs
Led by returning all-conference selection and junior strong safety Patrick Crossey, the Spartans' defensive backfield will likely feature a mix of experienced returners and first-year players in 2018.

"We have some players coming back that have some experience, including a number of cornerbacks who saw time on the field due to injuries and rotation," said Debeljak.  "Crossey is a really good player who has started since his freshman year, and holds the unit together.  We have more than meets the eye, and maybe the best crop of freshman at the position that we have ever had.  I wouldn't be surprised if maybe one or two freshmen are playing in our defensive backfield from the beginning of the season."

Crossey led all Spartans with four interceptions last season and was fourth on the team with 68 tackles, en route to earning an All-PAC honorable mention.  Also slated to return at safety, are sophomore Nick Kadlecik, who registered a pair of interceptions during his freshman campaign, sophomore Cooper Tulloch and junior Jeremy Hill.  At cornerback, junior Munyaradzi Mangwende played in five games and made one start, before missing the remainder of the season due to injury, while junior Kevin Chrissis started 11 games and played in all 12 last year, recording an interception and breaking up a team-leading five passes.  Junior Luke Bedell, who appeared in 11 games off the bench and notched four pass breakups and an interception, and sophomore Corey King, could also factor into the rotation at cornerback this year.

CWRU will have a new look in the kicking game, following the departure of its kicker and punter from last year.  The roster will feature one returning kicker, sophomore Alexander Sfakianos, along with a freshman aiming to challenge for the spot.  Meanwhile, Debeljak discovered a punter for 2018 in a versatile player who was featured in a number of positions last year.

"We found our punter in the spring in Chase Witte - he is an elusive athlete, so the opposing punt return teams will have to respect that, which will usually help in coverage and protection as well."

Despite having new faces kicking and punting, sophomores Kanyon Combs and Jack Williams will add an experienced hand as the team's long snappers.

Witte will also be a factor in the kick return game, after averaging 15.0 yards per return last year in limited opportunities.  Both Justin Phan (11.8 yards per punt return) and Mario Robaina (8.0 yards per return) will once again be featured on punt returns in 2018.

The Spartans are slated to open the 2018 campaign on September 1st with a home night contest against the University of Rochester, which will count as a University Athletic Association game.  The contest, which will be the first between the two teams since 2011, will mark the rekindling of a rivalry, after the two teams met 18 times between 1990 and 2011.

"We are glad to be starting against Rochester, a UAA school, and are looking forward to the two-year relationship. with them," said Debeljak.

From there, the Spartans will turn their attention to the PAC and the league's new nine-game schedule.  The extra conference game, along with the departure of Thomas More from the league, will allow each of the ten PAC programs to face each other during the year, and prevent a situation like last season, where two undefeated teams tied for the conference championship.

"We are certainly happy that everyone is playing everyone this year in the PAC," said Debeljak.  "The conference lost a lot, when you take a look across the board.  The league was very strong last year, but very senior laden, and it will be interesting to see, which teams have depth and what teams have recruited, because a lot of the faces you see in the PAC will be very different."

The Spartans will begin their conference slate at Grove City on September 15 at Grove City, before returning home to host Thiel at DiSanto Field.  From there, the Spartans will have one of their toughest stretches of the campaign with back-to-back road games against Westminster and Washington & Jefferson.

CWRU will celebrate Homecoming Weekend on October 13 against Saint Vincent, and will then travel for its final two road games of the season against Geneva and Bethany.  Case Western Reserve will conclude the regular season at home against Waynesburg and Carnegie Mellon, with the latter game marking the 33rd edition of the Academic Bowl between the Spartans and the Tartans.