MACOMB, Ill. – Western Illinois head football coach Bob Nielson and his coaching staff welcomed 92 Leathernecks on Wednesday (July 31) as the team reported for fall camp. The first practice is scheduled for Thursday (Aug. 1) at 2 p.m.
In all, 37 letterwinners return this season, including 15 starters (7 offense/8 defense). The 2013 Leathernecks will rely on several younger players and transfers, with only 13 seniors and 24 upperclassmen with Division I playing experience returning.
2013 Season Outlook
The season opens on August 29th at Hanson Field against Hampton. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
‘A New Era for Leatherneck Football’ is the motto for the 2013 season. Bob Nielson became the 27th head coach in program history when he was introduced at a press conference in December 2012.
Western has made nine appearances all-time in the Division I FCS playoffs, but only one of those have come during the last nine seasons. The Leathernecks looked to Nielson’s track record of building programs and consistent winning when selecting him to take over.
"I enjoy building, and if you look at my track record you can see that there have been situations where I've taken over programs that needed a little push forward. That part of the situation here didn't scare me, as a matter of fact, it excited me about the potential here. There is a very strong commitment here administratively, and I understand how important that is because of the roles that I have held in my career," said Nielson during his introductory press conference.
A three-time National ‘Coach of the Year’ award winner, Nielson and Minnesota-Duluth won the 2008 and 2010 Division II national championship following a 15-0 season. He averaged 10 wins a year during his 10 years in charge of the Bulldogs, and owns 170 career victories in 20 years.
Western ended the last two years on a six-game losing streak, and as the squad prepares to take a major step forward it will do so relying on the strength of a defensive unit that returns eight starters. Four of the five All-Missouri Valley Football Conference performers were on the defensive side of the ball – including: cornerback Martinez Davis (2nd Team), safety Jonathon Rollins (Honorable Mention), linebacker J.J. Raffelson (HM/All-Newcomer team) and defensive lineman Ryan Demming (HM).
“Our concern areas will be depth at the defensive line and linebacker positions,” said Nielson. “Although we feel good about our front line people, we cannot afford injuries and hope we can stop the cycle of having to play first-year freshmen before they are ready.”
The Leathernecks ranked as one of the more opportunistic units in the MVFC and the nation, recording 24 takeaways (16 INT/8 fumbles). Western ranked 10th nationally in pass defense (165.7 ypg), 21st in turnover margin (0.55) and tied for 22nd in turnovers gained (24). However, during the last half of the season, Western’s defense was put in tough situations in protecting field position as the offense failed to gain 225 total yards of offense in each of the last five games while scoring just 17 points total.
“Our keys on defense this year will be three things. First, the ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks using a four-man rush. Second, generating turnovers and field position for the offense. Finally, limiting the big plays and forcing teams to drive the football,” said Nielson.
Demming (35 career GP/94 career tackles) made all 11 starts last year at nose tackle in the program’s revamped 4-3 alignment under defensive coordinator Brian Ward, the lone returning coach from last year’s team. The senior led Western with 6.0 tackles for a loss and shared the team lead with two sacks. Showing his versatility, Demming broke up two passes and blocked a kick.
Senior Jacoby Sessions played in all 11 games after transferring into the program, and started six of the final seven games at defensive tackle. He registered 26 stops and 1.5 TFL.
“Demming and Sessions will lead an experienced group of inside players. Both played significant roles last season and have the tools to be defensive leaders,” said Nielson.
Nielson also expects sophomores Gavin Ricketts (8 TT/11 GP) and Jean-Marc Charles (14 TT/11 GP) to play a key role inside. Both played as true-freshmen, and Charles spent most of the season at defensive end.
With the loss of two starters at defensive end, Western needs a healthy season from senior Ethan Bachinski (25 career GP/27 TT) and sophomore Eddy Holtschlag (8 GP).
“The healthy return of Ethan and Eddy will be a huge plus. Holtschlag missed part of 2012 due to a knee injury and Bachinski was bothered by an ankle injury that limited him all season,” said Nielson. “These two have the potential to be high level players in the league. Eddie’s twin brother, junior Chip Holtschlag (12 GP/11 TT), will give depth to the end position. Five talented freshmen were added to the defensive line group through recruiting and will push our returners.”
No other first-year player made an impact on the team as much as Raffelson. He became the first freshman to ever lead the Leathernecks in tackles, finishing with 105, and ranking as the third-highest rookie in the country in making stops. He ended the year 15th in the final balloting for the Jerry Rice Award, given to the nation’s top freshman. He made such an impact Raffelson was voted as the team’s Co-MVP last year, and according to Nielson “has the ability to be one of the league’s premier defensive players.”
With the emergence of senior Devon Butler (55 TT/11 GP) at middle linebacker during spring, Raffelson will now move to the Will linebacker.
Kevin Kintzel (20 career GP) made 43 tackles in his first year at linebacker after playing his freshman year at safety. Junior Jeremy Curry (9 TT/11 GP) moved from defensive end in the spring, and Luke Venegoni has not missed a game in his two years.
“Kintzel, Venegoni, and Curry bring more talent, size and experience to this position group. If this group stays healthy it could be as good as any in the league,” stated Nielson.
The most experienced group on the defensive side is the secondary as all four starters return.
Davis (17 GP, 5 INT/2TDs, 7 PBU) finished among the ‘Top 10’ nationally in interceptions, and senior Antoine Ford (33 career GP/5 PBU) started the final five games of the year. Rollins (22 career GP/101 TT) was second on the team last year with 87 tackles at strong safety. Fellow junior David McDaniel (22 GP, 77 TT, 1 TD) was third making 58 tackles. He ranked right behind Davis coming up with four interceptions at free safety.
“Led by Davis and Rollins, there is certainly experience here. The top cornerbacks looked good in the spring with Ford partnering with Davis. McDaniel also had a good spring at the free safety position paired with Rollins,” said Nielson.
Sophomore Dave Nicholson (10 GP/16 TT) adds depth at the safety position and three new junior college transfers - SS Dallas Nichols, CB Marquette Privott, and CB/FS Richard Chungong will add needed depth.
The offense will be counted on making huge strides from 2012 with a new system implemented by Nielson and his staff during the spring. Western scored just 107 points all year, a low during the program’s Division I era. In fact, the team went 16 quarters without scoring an offensive TD, and managed just one over the final six games.
“The staff worked hard this spring to implement our new system and concepts. The offense will be built around a strong running game complimented by the ability to throw downfield with play action and drop back pass,” said Nielson. “We improved with our basic fundamentals and are excited to get back to work in fall camp. Personnel-wise we will adapt our offense to fit what our current players do well and will keep adding to the system as we progress.”
Nielson mentioned three keys for the Leathernecks to be effective on offense. “We need to develop a consistent ground game. Secondly, we have to establish quarterback play that can create offense, and finally, be effective in the redzone.”
Once again, this unit will be led by two-time All-MVFC performer Jimmy Holtschlag (28 career starts). The senior started all 11 games at right tackle (13 consecutive), but battled injuries each of the last two years.
“This group made significant progress over the spring and is led by Jimmy Holtschlag,” said Nielson. “Jimmy will man the right tackle position and if he stays away from the injury bug should have an all-conference type year.”
Fellow senior Jeff Lindsey (17 career starts), like Holtschlag, started at both guard and tackle throughout his career. He will return at left tackle, where he started all 11 games last year.
“Although undersized Lindsey is a quick and aggressive player that can hold his own against bigger opponents,” noted Nielson.
According to Nielson, other tackles in the mix include: sophomore Jamal Keaton, junior Sam Kachanuk (missed most of 2012 due to injury), and redshirt-freshman Toby Williams, who Nielson said may be the most athletic of the three.
Sophomores Brandon De La Cruz (9 starts) and Mike Love (7 starts) return at left and right guard, respectively. Love was scheduled to redshirt, but due to an injury to starter Max Dancer in week three burned his redshirt and took over as starter.
“Both De La Cruz and Love started games and played a lot in 2012. Both have improved physically in the off-season becoming stronger and dropping weight to become more mobile,” said Nielson.
Sophomore Ryan Ricketts won the starting center role in the spring, and according to Nielson all three of the interior positions will be pushed by sophomores Sean Sullivan, who played O-line and D-line in 2012, and T.J. Palme who also burned his redshirt year in week three last season.
Junior Nikko Watson (1,145 career yards/4 TDs) led the team in rushing with 660 yards, averaging 4.0 yards per carry. However, he scored just one time on the ground and Western reached the endzone just six times rushing last year. A change in the offensive system should energize Watson and the running game.
The Leathernecks were limited in spring ball in depth, with redshirt-freshman Devon Moore and wide receiver-turned-running back Trent Snyder backing him up. According to Nielson a couple of transfers, including JUCO transfer J.C. Baker, should provide immediate help.
Nielson will look to a pair of seniors Kyle Robiskie (28 GP/7 rec) and Fredson Salomon (2012 MVFC All-Newcomer team) to lead the receivers. Salomon accounted for both of the team’s TD receptions last year (both against South Dakota), and was second on the team with 30 catches totaling 373 yards.
“Robiskie is a quality possession-type receiver and Salomon has the speed to make the big play,” said Nielson.
Other returners in this group that will factor in include: sophomore Malik Johnson (10 GP, 4 rec, 50 yds) and junior Quenton Keating (10 GP/6 rec). Kareem Adewole redshirted last year and JUCO transfer Hi-C Scott should also challenge for playing time. Nielson also noted Chicago-area true-freshmen Lance Lenoir, Jr. and Joey Borsellino may also be ready to contribute early in this group.
Senior Mason Howington (26 career GP/3 rec) started five games last year. Sophomore Taylor Hill (9 GP/18 rec yards) and redshirt-freshman Scott Simpson will push Howington for playing time. A new feature that Nielson implemented in the spring is a F-back position.
“Our offense will also feature a F-back position that will play like a second tight end. You will see this position in multiple alignments and formations and it requires solid blocking and receiving skills,” said Nielson. “This F-back position group includes senior Nate Bowman (9 career GP) backed up by sophomore Larry Harris (11 GP) and redshirt-freshman Chris Lisenby. All three showed the skill-set needed to be successful this spring.”
One thing is guaranteed heading into the 2013 season, whoever earns the starting quarterback role will be an underclassman.
Sophomore Hayden Northern had his redshirt-year burned late in the 2012 season. He played the final four games, completing 34-of-70 passes for 321 yards but threw six interceptions. Northern did score a touchdown on the ground, a 1-yard plunge in a key 4th-and-goal situation against Youngstown State.
Redshirt-freshman J’Vaughn Williams will challenge for playing time. According to Nielson, “Northern’s strength is in the passing game while Williams is the more effective runner.”
The program brought in a transfer during the summer when Trenton Norvell joined the Leathernecks after redshirting last year at the University of Cincinnati. Nielson stated that Norvell should make a strong push for playing time as well.
Only two specialists return for the Leathernecks this year. Senior Mike Famiglietti enters his third year as the long snapper. He missed the final four games of the year after suffering a shoulder injury. Redshirt-freshman Nathan Knuffman returns for the punting and kicking duties.
“This will be another area of emphasis as only two specialists return. It proved costly last year when Famiglietti was injured,” said Nielson. “Nathan showed progress in the spring. A punting and kicking specialist were recruited and will be joining the team as freshmen.”
For the second straight year, Western will look to end a six-game losing streak while opening the campaign at Hanson Field. This time, the Leathernecks will play host to Hampton (Thursday, Aug. 29) then follow with another home game versus Division II Quincy University (Sept. 7).
This year and next, Western will take advantage of having an opportunity to play 12 games. The next two weeks are on the road against Football Bowl Subdivision programs Minnesota (Sept. 14) and UNLV (Sept. 21), respectively.
MVFC play begins against South Dakota (Sept. 28), followed by a road game at Illinois State (Oct. 5). The Leathernecks also alternate home and road games the following three weeks against: South Dakota State (home/Oct. 12), Youngstown State (road/Oct. 19), and Missouri State (home/Oct. 26). The home finale is November 2nd against Southern Illinois. Following a bye week, the Leathernecks end the regular season at Indiana State (Nov. 16) and Northern Iowa (Nov. 23).
For the second straight year, Western will not face the defending FCS national champion North Dakota State. The FCS playoffs, expanding to 24 teams this season, begin on November 30th.