Football team expects to break away from losing identity
Players, coaches aim to set new precedent
Published: Friday, August 30, 2013
Updated: Friday, August 30, 2013 01:08
It seems every year recently, the Bulls have repeated the same cycle.
They start with high expectations before opening the season with a game against a BCS opponent. They usually lose big, but people always point to the bright spots.
Then they return home to beat up on an FCS opponent and expectations soar. But the season never really starts until after that, when they play a comparable team, and since head coach Jeff Quinn has taken over, it’s been the same story: disappointment.
But at the end of last year, the Bulls did something unfamiliar: they won.
After winning a total of five games in 2010 and 2011 combined, the Bulls won three in the final four weeks of the 2012 season.
“That team last year saw a way to win some key games, but this year’s team needs to learn how to win a championship,” Quinn said. “And that’s the mindset of those players in there. And they have come closer and closer together.”
The end-of-the-year momentum has combined with arguably the best player in school history, senior linebacker Khalil Mack, and a total of four players being named to eight national award watch lists to raise expectations to unusual heights.
It is still a team, however, that has developed a losing identity. The Division I version of the Bulls have one winning season, and even with four players being recognized among the best in the country, they have still been picked to finish fourth in the Mid-American Conference East division.
Nonetheless, players and coaches alike insist that this team is different.
“I got great confidence in the team we have this year,” said senior running back Branden Oliver. “We have depth at every position in the backfield, quarterback, wide receiver and defensively, so it will be a real great season. I’m not boasting, but I feel like what we have, we can go all the way.”
Despite strong players at the top, the team does have some holes, which is why the fourth-place finish could be a fair prediction.
On the defensive side of the ball, the defensive line is the biggest question mark. After senior defensive end Colby Way (one of the defensive stars), senior defensive end Beau Bachtelle and junior nose guard Kristjan Sokoli are unproven.
At linebacker, Mack and junior Lee Skinner are solid defensive players, but the right side of the field is much less experienced. Of the three players listed as starters on the Bulls’ depth chart, only one of them has seen significant time at linebacker.
Junior Jake Stockman was fourth on the team with 59 tackles last season, though he is not the outright starter at right inside linebacker. He and junior Blake Bean are listed as starters at the position. Bean is a first-year transfer from Butler Community College.
Senior Adam Redden is the final starting linebacker. He is listed as the right outside linebacker, lining up opposite Mack because of his speed. Although he has looked impressive in preseason workouts, he is a safety playing linebacker, and there are questions that go along with that strategy.
This shuffling of personnel is particularly important, especially with what’s at stake in terms of blockers being forced to come off Mack. If the players who line up in the box with Mack don’t force opposing offenses to account for them, it will free up other offensive players to focus solely on Mack, which could go a long way in neutralizing the Bulls’ best player.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and I feel like we don’t have any of those,” Mack said.
The Bulls have shown a lot of different defensive looks in practice, especially taking advantage of Redden’s versatility. If defensive coordinator Lou Tepper, a legend in college football, can keep offenses honest by moving players around the field, it will go a long way toward making sure the defense is productive this season.
On offense, there is one major concern: the depth of the offensive line. Though the offense graduated two players last season, juniors Dillon Guy and Jake Silas will step in as suitable replacements. Both saw ample playing time last season and have meshed with the other linemen.
“We’re not a bunch of flashy guys,” said junior center Trevor Sales. “We just get down in our stances and say: ‘He’s mine, he’s yours, let’s do this.’”
But if any of the front five goes down, there is almost no experience to fill in. The five players featured second on the depth chart at the backup offensive line positions are three redshirt freshmen and two sophomores. Combined, they have played in one game. Additionally, two of those players are converted defensive linemen.
The good news is that only one player came out of preseason camp with an injury – redshirt freshman running back Jordan Johnson, who had elbow surgery and is most likely out for the season.
Despite a rough start to their schedule – back-to-back games on the road against No. 2 Ohio State and Baylor – the Bulls’ slate bodes well for their chances.
The most important test early in their schedule is UConn in Week Four. It will be a barometer of how good this team can be, after playing three teams that compete at different levels from them.
The start of MAC play is favorable, and it’s possible the Bulls could go undefeated through their first three conference games. The final five games will be critical. They face all the best teams in the East and will have to finish strong if they plan on being as successful as they think they can be.