2019 CWRU Football Season Preview

2019 CWRU Football Season Preview


The Case Western Reserve University football team finished the 2018 season with an 8-2 record, and tied for second in the Presidents' Athletic Conference with a 7-2 league record.  With 72 letter winners slated to return, including 18 starters, eight all-conference honorees, three all-region selections and an All-American, the Spartans are aiming for their second PAC Championship in the last three years during the 2019 campaign.

CWRU recorded its fourth-straight top-three finish in the PAC standings last season, and finished among the top-two teams in the league for the third-consecutive season.  Over the past four seasons, CWRU has a 35-7 record (.833 winning percentage), including a 28-5 mark (.848) in PAC contests.

The Spartans appeared primed for success once again, as the team will return three of its top players from last season in senior defensive end Cameron Brown, an AFCA All-America Second Team honoree, and D3football.com All-Region selections in junior wide receiver Colt Morgan and sophomore quarterback Drew Saxton.  The three will pace a group of seven starters returning on the offensive side of the ball, and nine returning defensive starters, giving CWRU a proven veteran core of players for the upcoming season.

"We're still a young, but experienced team," said Head Coach Greg Debeljak, who will begin his 16th season with a 110-45 overall record, the best in program history.  "We don't have a great deal of seniors who are seeing a lot of playing time.  Saying that, we are in a perfect position to compete nationally."

CWRU will enter the season ranked 24th in the Lindy's Sports NCAA Division III Top-25.

"Expectations are high, as opposed to last year when there was a lot of uncertainty with so many players from that great 2017 team graduating," said Debeljak.  "Last year's team proved that they could play with anyone in the country.  We have great leadership, and besides returning many players, we're returning a lot of leaders.  Our own expectations are high and we believe we could have a very good team."

The Spartans high-powered offense ranked as one of the best in Division III in 2018.  CWRU's 38.3 points per game led all PAC teams and ranked 31st in the country, while the team's 466.8 yards of offense per contest also paced the PAC and ranked 15th in Division III.  The team's strength was its passing game, led by Saxton, which amassed 328.9 yards per game, the sixth-most among NCAA Division III teams last season.

"Last year, we adapted to Drew's skill set, which was different from Rob Cuda's skill set in 2017," said Debeljak.  "We plan to continue to adapt this year to further play to our strengths."

CWRU also featured one of the most potent red zone offenses in Division III last season, converting over 90% of their red zone opportunities into points in 2018, the seventh-highest rate in the nation last year.  In addition to bringing back seven starters on offense, the Spartans will return all 11 players who were listed second on the offensive two deep at the end of the 2018 season.

Key returners: Drew Saxton (So.)
Starters lost: None

Saxton was one of the top quarterbacks in the country during his freshman season, earning a spot on the D3football.com All-South Region Third Team (the only freshman on the offensive side of the ball to earn an all-region honor from the organization last year), while securing PAC Newcomer of the Year and All-PAC First Team honors.  He led the conference in completion percentage (62.4%), passing touchdowns (34), and passing yards (3,033) during his rookie year.  Saxton's 34 touchdowns matched a program record, while passing for over 1,000 yards more than any other freshman in program history.

"We knew we had a very good quarterback coming in with Drew after the recruiting process, but we underestimated how good he was," said Debeljak.  "I can't compare what he did to any other quarterback I've coached that came in and played as a freshman, and that includes a list that has played professionally.  Expectations for him are high, and we are going to put more decision making on him, since he now has a year of experience."

Junior Matthew Boss and senior Peter Hontas have both seen time in games over their careers, and should provide depth behind Saxton at quarterback.

Receivers/ Tight Ends
Key returners: Colt Morgan (Jr.), Mario Robaina (Sr.), Adam Zybko (Sr.), Ryan Coolidge (Sr.)
Starters lost: Luke DiFrancesco, Justin Phan, Joey Spitalli

Saxton has numerous veteran options to throw to during his freshman season, helping ease his transition into the college game.  This year, CWRU will be looking to replace three of those options who graduated – Luke DiFrancesco, Justin Phan and Joey Spitalli – who combined for 101 catches and 1,639 yards.  However, with the team's leading receiver and a number of additional options returning, CWRU is hoping the passing game won't skip a beat.

"Last year, we had a very experienced group of receivers, and a number of those players are gone," said Debeljak.  "I think we have talent at the position, but it has not seen the field yet.  An exciting part of the preseason will be getting to see what those players can do, and how Drew can best utilize the talent around him."

The Spartans are slated to return their top receiving option from last season in Morgan, who is coming off a breakout campaign after earning a spot on the all-region second team and the All-PAC First Team.  Morgan set a program record with 18 touchdown receptions (second in DIII in 2018), while his 1,094 receiving yards (15th in DIII) and 7.9 receptions per game (14th in DIII) were each the second-highest single-season totals in program history.

"We're going to expand Colt's role by playing him at every spot we can," said Debeljak.  "His presence on the field will open up opportunities for other skill position players.  We're working on things to get him involved all over the field.  Colt is a unique talent with his size and speed and can catch the ball over people.  I'm not sure we've ever had someone with his skill set play for us.  He's a weapon and we're going to use him."

Senior wide receiver Mario Robaina will see his role expanded in 2019, as he looks to step into the starting lineup after catching eight passes for 131 yards during his junior campaign.

"Mario has played varsity for his first three years – he's very versatile, physically tough, and has made big plays in big games, but hasn't been an every-down player yet in his career.  We think that he can step in and fill one of the three spots that we lost to graduation," said Debeljak.

Senior Ryan Coolidge and junior Chase Witte will each add a veteran presence to the receiving corps.  Coolidge spent time at quarterback last season, but has knowledge of the offense and has seen time at receiver throughout his career, while Witte has split time between the offense and special teams.  Sophomore Mukund Mahesh is also expected to see his role on the team increase following a successful spring season, after appearing in just three games during his freshman year.

An additional element to CWRU's receiving game will be at tight end, where senior Adam Zybko has caught 23 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown over his career, and sophomore Alex Glatz will have a chance to make an impact after seeing limited playing time as a freshman.

Other returning veterans for the Spartans include juniors Trey Minnich, Jacob Berg and Joe Dinko and sophomore Jack Crouch, while senior Austin Navarette and sophomore Austin Keil will have an opportunity to play at tight end.

Running Backs
Key returners: Sam Jenkins (Sr.), Zach Hall (Jr.), Donald Day III (So.)
Starters lost: None

While the passing game was the focal point of the Spartans' offense in 2018, CWRU's ground game also had a successful showing during the campaign, contributing 137.9 yards per game.  In addition, CWRU's 4.0 yards per carry marked the fifth-best average in the conference during the season.

"The running back position will be handled by committee, and how that shakes out is a combination on what we want to emphasize and who is healthy," said Debeljak.  "We have a number of players who have proven to the coaching staff that they can perform at a high level."

The Spartans will be returning all of their impact backs from last season, including senior Sam Jenkins (399 yards, two TDs), junior Zach Hall (379 yards, three TDs), sophomore Donald Day III (159 yards, two TDs), junior Kyle Turcovsky (109 yards) and sophomore Nate Stefonsky (80 yards, one TD).

"Jenkins and Hall did a good job last year splitting time, and Day showed flashes of brilliance when he played," said Debeljak.  "Stefonsky might be the best-rounded of the group, and he was one of our best skill players in the spring."

In addition, junior Brett Carney will transition from linebacker to fullback, giving the Spartans a power option in their running game.

"For the most part, our running backs are smaller stature, but can do things in the open field.  We moved Carney to give us a fullback-type option at the position," said Debeljak.

Sophomore J.J. Henson will provide another veteran option for the Spartans in their running game.

Offensive Line
Key returners: Derek Clontz (Sr.), Dee Gose (Jr.), Anthony Polizzi (Jr.), Thomas Strayer (Sr.)
Starters lost: Steven Bachie

Another area of the Spartans' offense with returning veteran talent is the offensive line, which will bring back four of the five starting players from last year's unit.  The group, which allowed just 1.8 sacks per game last season, is scheduled to return All-PAC Honorable Mention center and senior Thomas Strayer, in addition to senior left tackle Derek Clontz, and junior guards Dee Gose and Anthony Polizzi.

"[2018 starting right tackle] Steven Bachie leaves, and he was a great leader who knew our offense well, but we have four starters back who all performed well," said Debeljak.  "Strayer has been a three-year starter, and we can play him at any of the three positions on the line, so it gives us some great flexibility.  Gose was an Academic All-American last year, and we think he could be an athletic All-American this year if he performs well.  We also have some players who haven't started, but have played quite a bit, and will have an opportunity."

Junior John Feczko and senior Josh Schlichting will look to fill in the spot vacated by Bachie at right tackle.  In the interior of the line, juniors Brennan Ryan, Ryan Jones and Michael Babbit, along with sophomore Thomas Hankey, could all be a factor.  Sophomores Joshua Blamer and Thomas Koss will add depth behind the starting tackles.

While the Spartans' offense grabbed the headlines in 2018, the defense ranked among the best in the conference as well.  CWRU's 18.1 points allowed per game were the second fewest in the PAC last season (and 47th among all Division III teams), while the squad's 297.0 yards allowed per contest ranked third in the PAC and 46th in Division III.  The Spartans featured a particularly stout rushing defense, allowing just 106.7 yards per game, the 45th-lowest mark in Division III and second-lowest in the league.

"Coach Miller and his staff have done a good job of putting people into games in a rotation," said Debeljak.  "We've played three outside backers, three inside backers, five defensive lineman in a three-man front that rotated in, so even when you lose people to graduation, you still have players with experience who develop further with more reps.  Depth always helps, and we think we have it at all the positions on defense."

Nine of the team's 11 starters on last year's defense will be returning, along with an additional 10 players who were listed on the two-deep at the end of last season.

Defensive Line
Key returners: Cameron Brown (Sr.), Andrew Lease (Sr.)
Starters lost: Tyler Bushman, Ian Henderson

The defensive line will be the area of the defense where the Spartans will need to replace the most starters from last year's team.  However, the team will be returning its key piece of the line at defensive end in Cameron Brown, who will look to provide a follow-up to his All-America campaign last season.  The reigning PAC Defensive Player of the Year set a program single-season record in 2018 with 15 sacks, while his 1.5 sacks per game were the second-most among all Division III players.

"The number one thing about Cameron is his worth ethic, and not just physically, but also how much time he puts into the mental part," said Debeljak.  "He has some fine physical ability, but his mental makeup and how he goes about preparing sets him apart from other players at this level.  He definitely is our best player – I'm sure teams will concentrate on him, but they concentrated on him last year too."

Looking to fill in the gap at defensive tackle will be senior Andrew Lease, who will likely step into the starting lineup after playing in 25 games over the first three years of his career, recording 26 tackles and four sacks.  Senior Reed Gershenson is another experienced option at the position, having played well in limited time on the field over his first three years.  At the other defensive end spot, senior Adam Poltrack will see his role expanded after appearing in nine games last year and recording half a sack, as will junior Dylan Zegers, who notched 2.5 tackles for a loss and 14 total tackles (11 solo) over seven games in 2018.

Other returning options at defensive end include junior Austin Subler and sophomores Dante Grecco, Jack Baker and Luis Rivera II, while junior Phillip Wyatt and sophomore Charles Webb will provide additional depth in the middle of the line.

"Cameron is the player that sticks out, but we have a pretty nice group, and all have various levels of experience," said Debeljak.

Key returners: Travis Johnston (Jr.), Brian Victor (Jr.), Skyler Wadas (Jr.), Isaac Withrow (Sr.), Joshua Smith (Jr.)
Starters lost: None

All four starters at linebacker from last year's team will be back for CWRU, led on the inside by All-PAC Second Team senior Isaac Withrow and junior Travis Johnston.  Withrow led the Spartans with 87 tackles last season, including 3.5 for a loss, while Johnston recorded 54 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles, finishing fourth on the team in total tackles despite missing a pair of games.  Juniors Michael Amadio and Dominic Barandica and sophomore Alec Peltekian should all see time on the field during the season as well.

"Travis and Isaac are very good football players," said Debeljak.  "Travis is as fine an athlete as I've ever coached.  He has the ability to go sideline-to-sideline, guard people in the passing game, and bring physicality on the blitz – he's the complete package.  Isaac's strength is his reaction time, and how quickly he reads and reacts to plays.  He's a perfect example of how you want to play that position.  Amadio is also someone at the inside position who has played quite a bit, and we feel confident in him when he is on the field."

Juniors Brian Victor and Skyler Wadas are the two returning starters at outside linebacker, while junior Joshua Smith will be moving up from safety this season to strengthen the rotation at the position.  Victor was second on the team with four sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss, while ranking fifth on the squad with 51 tackles.  Wadas added 35 tackles and recovered a pair of fumbles, and Smith ranked third on the team with 77 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss.

"To go along with Skyler, who is a great physical presence, and Brian, who does a fantastic job in open space, Smith coming down from safety gives us another player to bring off the edge.  He's better the closer he gets to the line of scrimmage.  We're excited because we have some really good players at that position, and a number of them are still only juniors."

Senior Brett Marcus, who has 17 tackles and a pair of sacks in 15 career games, and junior Joshua Clopp could also see time in the outside linebacker rotation in 2019.

Defensive Backs
Key returners: Patrick Crossey (Sr.), Kevin Chrissis (Sr.), Colin Schuster (So.)
Starters lost: None

CWRU will be returning experienced players throughout its secondary.  Even with Smith making the move from safety to linebacker, the Spartans will have three returners in their defensive secondary, including senior safety, co-captain and two-time All-PAC selection Patrick Crossey, who was second on last year's team with 82 tackles and added a pair of interceptions.  Junior Nick Kadlecik, who has played in 14 career games and has a pair of interceptions, will have a chance to step into a starting role, while juniors Mason Gee-Montgomery (who will move from quarterback to the defensive side of the ball) and Cooper Tulloch could also factor into the equation as safety, as will senior Jeremy Hill and sophomore Jackson Mitchell.

"Our defensive backfield is deep.  We have five seniors who have all played, and then we have players who have played and have had success, but have received limited playing time and will play bigger roles this year," said Debeljak.  "Someone like Kadlecik falls into that group, and we have moved Gee-Montgomery from quarterback to safety to take advantage of his athleticism.  Meanwhile, Crossey, will be a four-year starter, and brings great play on the field and leadership.  We think safety will be a position of strength for us."

At cornerback, senior All-PAC Honorable Mention Kevin Chrissis will be back after starting 18 of the team's 22 games over the last two seasons, as will sophomore Colin Schuster, who made an immediate impact after starting eight games during his freshman campaign.  The duo tied for the team lead with three interceptions apiece, with Chrissis adding 12 tackles and two pass breakups, and Schuster leading the squad with six breakups to go along with 41 tackles.

"Kevin is very reliable and understands the game, and can make plays with his mind by putting himself in good positions.  Colin is physically as good as anyone we've had at the position, and has a great mentality for the corner position," said Debeljak.

Seniors Luke Bedell and Munyadradzi Mangwende each have seen considerable time on the field over their careers, and are capable of starting this year as well, while juniors Steven Clark and Corey King will add further veteran depth to the group.

Key returners: Robertson Albrecht (So.), Chase Witte (Jr.), Nate Stefonsky (So.), Mario Robaina (Sr.)
Starters lost: Justin Phan

Sophomore kicker Robertson Albrecht will be returning for the Spartans after earning the University Athletic Association Special Teams Player of the Year award and claiming a spot on the All-PAC First Team as a freshman.  He converted all nine of his field goal tries and 48-of-49 extra point attempts in 2018, totaling 75 points for the Spartans, the fifth-highest scoring season by a kicker in program history.

"Robbie was a very pleasant surprise to put up the numbers he did.  He's very reliable and a solid kickoff guy.  As a coach, it makes you feel a lot better going into a season when you have a reliable kicker like he is."

Witte, a jack-of-all-trades for CWRU last year, served as the team's primary punter, averaging 33.2 yards per punt, including a long of 49 yards, and placed three inside the 20-yard line.

"Witte did a good job last year, but he's a position player and not a full time punter," said Debeljak.  "We have a freshman coming in who will challenge him at the position, which will afford us to the ability to get a little creative.  You may see some different things from our punt team."

CWRU also returns a pair of experienced long snappers in juniors Kanyon Combs and Jack Williams.

Witte and Stefonsky were the team's primary kick returners last year, with Witte averaging 20.6 yards per return, and Stefonsky adding 23.2 yards per return.  The Spartans will look to replace Justin Phan on punt returns, but Robaina should be more than capable after returning 32 punts over the first three years of his career, averaging 6.7 yards per return.  Minnich could also factor in on punt returns in 2019.

"We have some reliable returners, but we haven't been able to create big plays with our return game," said Debeljak.  "We're going to be putting more emphasis on special teams this year.  Out of all the phases of the game last year, we felt that special teams needed to improve the most, and we've done some things in the offseason that we think will make us better."

Although there will no longer be a UAA Champion crowned at the end of the year, for the second-straight season the Spartans will open their campaign against a former UAA rival in the University of Rochester.  The season-opener is scheduled for September 7th at 7:00 p.m. in Rochester, New York.

After a week two bye, the Spartans will begin their PAC schedule, facing Grove City College under the lights at DiSanto Field on September 21st in the team's home opener.  Following a road contest at Thiel, CWRU will begin a two-game home stand that could help shape their season, hosting Westminster on October 5th and Washington and Jefferson on October 12th, which will also mark Homecoming at CWRU.  The Presidents, who are the reigning PAC Champions, are ranked 20th in the Lindy's Preseason Top-25 and 22nd in the Street & Smith's Magazine preseason rankings.

"Washington and Jefferson is always the team to beat, but Westminster has proven that they are a top contender year-in and year-out, and Grove City has made enormous strides," said Debeljak. 

The second half of the Spartans' season will begin at Saint Vincent College, followed by home contests against Geneva and Bethany.  CWRU will wrap-up its regular season with a pair of road games, playing at Waynesburg on November 9th, before heading to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the 34th-Annual Academic Bowl against rival Carnegie Mellon on November 16th.  The last two editions of the Academic Bowl have each gone into overtime, with the Spartans winning on the road in 2017, and the Tartans claiming a victory in Cleveland in 2018.

"As a staff, we've put renewed emphasis on the Carnegie Mellon game as a rivalry game, and whatever our record is going into that game, it will be our biggest of the year," said Debeljak.  "Our number one goal is to beat Carnegie Mellon, and we feel that if we can do that, we have a good shot at being league champs."

Should the Spartans claim the 2019 PAC Championship, they would earn their fifth postseason berth in the program's history, and their second in the last three years.

"The first thing you need to do is win the league, and then after that, the national rewards will come," said Debeljak.  "I think that we can play at a national level.  Now we just have to show up week-in and week-out and prove that."