Posted 4 months ago
By John Axtell
CHADRON – With an array of proven veterans available, there’s lots of optimism concerning the Chadron State College football team this fall.
The Eagles are coming off a 9-3 season that included a Division II playoff berth and a No. 18 final ranking by the American Football Coaches Association. Since 44 lettermen from that team are back, some observers feel this year’s team may be even better.
Second-year head coach Jay Long is optimistic. He’s been impressed by the leadership and intensity shown by the veterans and the team’s overall attitude and energy.
“We’re working hard to make this another really good season,” Long said. “We plan to go all out and play ‘Eagle football’ again. That means we’ll give it everything we’ve got every down. Our older guys know that’s what it takes and it’s been spilling over onto the younger players.”
The schedule is tough. Chadron State opens on the road against Missouri Science and Technology, which had a 10-1 record last year. The second game is in Dallas against West Texas A&M, which topped the Eagles 38-30 in the playoffs and won two more playoff games before finishing at 12-3.
Then comes the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference wars. The league could be tougher this fall. It has several teams that appear to be on the upswing.
A preview of this year’s team by position follows:
Quarterback: Offensive coordinator Chris Stein, who has been associated with CSC football as a player and coach for 17 years, says Jonn McLain “is as good a quarterback as we’ve ever had” and that the duo of McLain and Patrick O’Boyle, both juniors, form the best pair of quarterbacks in the RMAC.
McLain completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards and 30 touchdowns last fall. He was intercepted just six times, an amazing stat since he launched 362 passes. Stein said both quarterbacks are exceptional leaders who know the offense inside out.
Third on the depth chart is sophomore Chris Conroy, “who is still learning,” in Stein’s words, but is steady and athletic.
Tailback: Entering his senior season, Glen Clinton already ranks as one of the Eagles’ all-time great running backs. He’s carried the ball 587 times for 3,138 yards (5.3-yard average) and caught 64 passes for 502 yards.
“Glen’s special. He does everything so well,” Stein said. “That includes pass protection and playing so hard.”
The Eagles’ only other experienced ball carrier is Michael Madkins, who averaged 5.5 yards on 89 carries last fall and “seems more explosive this fall,” according to Stein.
The other CSC backs will learn on the fly. They include sophomore Robert Jackson, who weighs 225, and redshirt freshman Cody Paul. They are change-of-pace types, one a power runner, the other a scatback.
“We don’t want to play them this year, but we’re confident they’ll do well if we need them,” Stein said.
Receivers: With four seniors leading the way, the Eagles have a wealth of experience here. Nathan Ross and Travis Reeves have started on the outside since they were redshirt freshmen. Cody Roes is a two-year starter on the inside while Chapman Ham took over at H-back last fall. The quartet combined for 152 catches for 1,802 yards a year ago after grabbing 98 for 1,329 yards in 2011. They’re also excellent blockers who help open the way for one another as well as for Clinton and Madkins.
The good news is, the Eagles have other excellent receivers. Austen Stephens is the leader on the inside, but basketball standout Zac Bargen and Ethan Bauer also have been impressive this fall. On the outside, sophomores Danny O’Boyle and Kyle Vinich appear to be future all-stars.
“We’re actually six or seven deep at wide receiver,” Stein said.
Offensive Line: A team can’t lose Garrett Gilkey, who’s fighting for a starting nod with the Cleveland Browns, and Brandon Ratcliff, a two-year starter at guard, and not notice their absences. But head coach Jay Long believes the rebuilt line will get the job done.
The coach says the three returning starters are all-conference-caliber. Senior Jake McCrary, a preseason all-RMAC choice, has moved from right tackle to the left side where Gilkey played last year. Juniors Sam Parker at center and Mike Lorenzo at right guard are the other returnees.
Long has great things to say about senior Tony Hartman, who is slated to play right guard, but can handle any of the five line spots. Daniel Sotelo, an extra strong sophomore, and junior letterman Lance Pickett, who is 6-7, 295, are vying for the starting nod at right tackle.
Long’s biggest challenge may be developing depth up front. Redshirts Anthony Valdez and Palmer White are in the mix. So may be Matt Murdock, who has returned from a Mormon mission after being at CSC in 2010. Some top-notch freshmen make the long-range outlook in the line good, the coach said.
Defensive Line: This is where the Eagles have the most question marks. Four of the five players who saw nearly all the action in the D-line have graduated, including first-team all-conference choices Keifer Burke and Jan Karlos Medina.
Chadron native Zach Sandstrom started at end most of the time a year ago, but has moved to tackle on the Eagles’ 3-3 alignment. Letterman Dillon Breinig is seizing his chance to play and Kyle McCarthy, a linebacker last fall, are the probable starters at the ends. Rapidly improving sophomore Olufemi Aaron is next on the depth chart.
The coaches brought in several transfers in January. Defensive coordinator Jeff Larson said Jake Weber and Brandon Blinn show flashes of brilliance, but need more consistency. Nagging injuries have made it difficult to evaluate some of the others, he added, but he’s hopeful they’ll be able to help.
Linebacker: Although All-American Kevin Lindholm graduated, Larson is confident that seniors Shea Koch and Bryant Miller and sophomore Dylan Furrier will form an excellent trio. All saw lots of action last fall. Koch was the team’s second leading tackler with 97 stops.
While the backups lack experience, Larson says he’s comfortable with them.
The list includes Isaac Holscher, the leading pass receiver in the spring game who has been impressive at his new position. The others are sophomores Clay Cundall, Courtland Joshua and Taz Olson and transfer Hank Strauss. Redshirts Jordan King and Alex Sleep “are coming along,” Larson added.
Secondary: The suspension of All-American safety Trelan Taylor because of a two-year-old academic situation for the first six games was a shock, but there’s no panic because the Eagles have several seasoned players at the position.
A big plus is the return of senior Pierre Etchemendy, who missed much of last season because of a concussion, but started the previous two years. A former cornerback, Tyler Wright, is expected to fill in for Taylor while Clint Sasse, who has had some outstanding games, is also available.
At cornerback, juniors Conor Casey and Lane Haller give the Eagles a pair of tall, athletic, extra competitive players. Casey has a 43-inch vertical jump and Haller’s is 35. They give the Eagles an edge because both can cover man-to-man.
Special Teams: Alex Ferdinand led the Eagles in scoring with 96 points last fall, then connected on all six field goal attempts, including a 55-yarder, in the spring game to steal the show. Gering native Zach Smith has been impressive as the team’s new punter. Ross and Madkins are the most experience kick returners and Shea Koch is back to do the long snapping again. So is Patrick O’Boyle, the holder for field goals and extra points.