AZUSA, Calif. -- Calloused and thick-skinned, this set of Cougars, more than 105 in all, is ready to turn the tables in 2010. They are experienced, smart and mature; virtues all gained by living through the hard knocks of the past 2 seasons.
In fact, these Cougars perhaps gave a glimpse of what this season may look like by closing last year with 2 convincing victories, one that featured a high-octane, explosive offense and the other that was the result of a suffocating and dominating defense. Indeed, the Cougars had come of season.
Of Azusa Pacific’s 22 games played the past 2 seasons, 9 have been against NCAA Division II teams (including 3 that were nationally-ranked), 3 more were against NAIA Top 15-ranked teams, 2 against NCAA Division I FCS and 2 more that were against NCAA Division III Top 25. While that left very little margin for error in their play and oftentimes had the Cougars licking their wounds, they learned lessons on how to play the game faster and more physical; how to react better and trust one-another. They’ve grown. They’ve matured. They’re better.
Azusa Pacific returns 57 players from last year’s 3-8 team, including 13 starters, and there is an air of optimism whirling around camp because of these returnees, the ones who are battle-tested, who have war wounds but are all the better for having gone through the rigors of the past the 2 seasons.
“We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and a different level of football because of the type of opponent we have played,” said fifth-year Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “We had a lot of young players go through some adverse times but they are better for it, and now as experienced players they form the foundation of what I think will be a good team this year.”
Heading the list of these returnees is a dynamic quarterback, John van den Raadt, who as true freshman 2 years ago was inserted into the starting line-up less than a month into his college career and at times looked very much like the rookie that he was. However, that was 18 collegiate starts ago and van den Raadt is a veteran pin-pointing passer who can run like few quarterbacks in Azusa Pacific history. As he enters his junior campaign, he is the only QB in program history to throw for over 3,000 yards and run for another 500.
On defense, the Cougars return 3-year starter and All-American candidate Jay York at linebacker, who is one of just 4 players in school history to tally 120 or more tackles in a season. York is a smart, hard-hitting backer whose savvy for the game and on-the-field leadership are unparallel amongst his mates.
“We have 2 very good foundational pieces on which to build our offensive and defense schemes this year,” said Santa Cruz. “John and Jay are great men who have developed into great leaders and command the respect of their teammates.”
The Cougars will showcase a variety of formations on offense, ranging from 4-wideouts, to H-backs, 2 tight ends, and single-back. On defense, they’ll maintain their “odd front” attack that has proven to be more than bothersome for opponents over the past 5 years.
“We’ve got the pieces to be pretty good this year,” added Santa Cruz, “and now it’s a matter of putting them together. I like what we have on offense, and I think we can be rather explosive, moving the ball in a multitude of ways. On defense, we have a veteran group in our secondary and our linebackers are strong.
“From coaches to players, we’re excited about this season,” said Santa Cruz. “Given the talent and experience of this team, we’re all excited to begin the 2010 journey.”
After playing back-to-back 11-game schedules the past 2 years, Azusa Pacific, which is an NAIA independent, is playing just 9 games this season with the return of 3 longtime rivals from years past back on the slate and the addition of one first-time foe. Just 3 home games dot the schedule, and for the first time ever, all home games will be played at nearby Citrus Stadium, adjacent to the Azusa Pacific campus.
For the 11th time in 14 years the Cougars open a new season against San Diego, visiting the Toreros for a Sept. 4 lid-lifter. The next 3 weeks follow with NCAA Division III opponents – La Verne (Sept. 11), Whittier (Sept. 18) and at Chapman (Sept 25) – all Southern California schools which the Cougars have not played since at least 2004. The Cougars return to Florida for the first time since 2007 to take its first NAIA opponents of the season, visiting Webber International (Oct. 2). They come home to host Humboldt State (Oct. 9) before returning to the road to close out the season with visits to Western Oregon (Oct. 23), Southern Oregon (Oct. 30) and Lincoln (Nov. 6), an NCAA Division II school in Jefferson City, Mo., whom the Cougars have never played before.
In 2002 when the Cougars went 9-1 and didn’t qualify for the NAIA playoffs, school officials were told that Azusa Pacific was dinged in its playoff chances for playing so few NAIA schools. However, since 2005, just 5 NAIA schools have been willing to schedule Azusa Pacific, presenting significant challenges to fashioning a playoff-accepting slate. In its stead, the Cougars have had to fill holes with the likes of Nicholls State, West Texas A&M, Central Washington and Wisconsin-Whitewater. The Cougars took their lumps, but the scars of those games may prove to be worthwhile this season.
Six quarterbacks arrived in fall camp but there is no question who is the starter – John van den Raadt (6-3, 210, Jr.). With 10 pounds added to his frame and a wealth of experience under his belt, van den Raadt is the central figure of the Cougar offense and will shoulder the success like never before. The multi-faceted van den Raadt is the best running QB in the program since the late 1960s and his ability to throw the deep ball will make it difficult to stop his attack. He has started the past 18 games (second only to Luke Winslow’s 28-straght from 2000-02 in the past 25 years) which gives him a command of the Cougar offensive playbook. Evidence of his growth and understanding came in the final 2 games last year when he threw for over 520 yards and accounted for 7 TDs.
Junior Aaron Strazicich is considered one of Azusa Pacific’s best back-up QBs of the past decade. An injury forced him to give up the starting position 1 game into the 2008 season, and further injuries have slowed his progress back. However, there is no questioning his athletic ability and leadership within the Cougars’ spread attack. Like van den Raadt, he runs very well with the ball and can throw on the run.
Redshirts Justin McPherson and Kramer Hagan, both second-year men in the program, are battling for third string duties, while true-freshman Cody Fields and Paul Flores are likely to redshirt the season as they learn the Cougar system and adjust to the college game.
Azusa Pacific will run the ball by committee in 2010. A series of backs, and not a senior among them, will share the load giving Santa Cruz the option to have a fresh rusher well into the fourth quarter.
Returnees Oliver Petty (5-9, 200, So.) and Jake Steedman (5-6, 175, So.) have the advantage of experience in the Cougar system with Petty having logged the most time as last year’s primary reserve when he rushed for 107 yards on 35 carries in 10 games.
Among the newcomers transfer Johnell Murphy (5-7, 195, Jr., Sterling College) is a gifted runner who will compete for the call.
Redshirt sophomore David Trifeletti (5-8, 180, So.) return to live action after missing all of last year with a back injury. The hard-running Trifeletti, who played as a true-freshman in 2008, is quite adept at hammering the ball between the tackles.
Rookie Chris Kilmer (5-10, 210, Serrano HS) just might push himself into live action in their first year of college football.
Five of the Cougars’ top 7 receivers from last year are back, including one of the best tandems in recent memory. Junior Matt Davis senior Aaron Wall combined for 76 receptions and 7 TDs in 2009. Davis had a team-leading 39 grabs and was second in the NAIA averaging 19.8 yards per grab. The 6-foot-3 Wall is terrific over the middle and in the air and with high throws that only he can get to. Davis led the squad last year with 39 catches, and wall closely followed with 37. Opposing safeties will have to pick their poison when it comes to coverage of Davis or Wall and cornerbacks with outstanding one-on-one coverage will be a must for opposing defenses.
The only fifth-year senior on the team, Ryan Chamberlin is the perfect complement for the Davis/Wall combo. Chamberlin is a sure-handed possession receiver who if left unattended will wreak havoc on opposing defenses. He is good with the ball after catches and brings a physical presence to the aerial attack.
All 3 receivers have worked extensively with van den Raadt in the past and quartet of players combine to give Azusa Pacific the potential of one of the finest aerial games in program history.
Competing for time in the playing mix are seasoned back-ups Jeremiah Andujo, an outstanding return specialist, and Cory Besch. Andujo, who was fourth on the team last year with 15 receptions, is very good in the open field and is adept at getting extra yards. Besch came on in the second half of the 2009 season and brings a burst of speed and smarts to his play.
Senior Josh Anderson and junior Tyson Hetzer are coming off terrific play in the spring and have displayed great improvement. While they will battle each other for playing time, they will also be showcased in an often-used 2 tight end formation. Anderson is rated a good receiver off the line, and Hetzer uses his size to be a quality run blocker. Their experience will be key early in the season to help a revamped offensive line.
Just one experienced player returns to the offensive line, but potentially this set of linemen could evolve into a physically imposing and effective unit. Given van den Raadt’s propensity to run and plethora of running backs in the Cougar fold, this group will have to execute its run-blocking at a high standard while also establishing a pocket in which van den Raadt can work the passing game.
A slimmer, quicker John Burrows (6-5, 300, Sr.), with 40 less pounds to hold him back at left guard anchors and leads the unit. After a year at guard as a true-freshman where he appeared in 6 games (starting 3), Graham Paterson (6-0, 260, So.) moves to center where he is expected to shine both physically and as a leader. The largest player in Azusa Pacific history, Luke Marquardt (6-10, 300, So.) returns to left tackle where he started the final 2 games last year. He’ll team with Burrows to give Azusa Pacific a left side that averages 6-foot-8, 300 pounds in stature. Like Paterson, Justin Mathews (6-3, 310, So.) saw time on the line at tackle as a true-freshman last year and while still quite young to the college game, he does offer some much-needed experience to the line.
Among the top newcomers, transfer guards Tim Taylor (6-2, 250, Jr., Fullerton CC), andJoe Bolognesi (6-2, 270, Jr., Mesa State) already have college experience, and with their size and strength they are expected to be immediate contributors along the Cougar front.
Incoming freshmen Craig Masaniai (6-1, 330) andJake Thomas (6-2, 245) have enough size and skill that they could possibly see playing time as collegiate rookies this year.
The numbers are not great but the talent is a plenty. The Cougar defensive line is short on depth with just 7 returnees for 3 positions, but with the likes of sophomore Jimmy Young (6-2, 280) anchoring the front at nose guard, this group has the potential to be good. Junior Jake Jones (6-2, 235), who had a hand in a team-leading 4 quarterback sacks last year, is also back at one end and teams with Young, with whom he started side-by-side last year in 10 consecutive games, to offer a wealth of experience at the line of scrimmage.
At the other end, it’s open season on competition for 4 players. Junior college transfers Kory Johnson (6-0, 235, Jr., Saddleback CC) and Kenneth Parker (6-2, 230, Jr., L.A. Southwest CC) are battling redshirt Josh Coburn (6-4, 230, Fr.) to start alongside Young and Jones. Johnson brings an inordinate amount of speed that is necessary for the Cougars’ odd-front defense to work effectively. Uresti is strong and relentless in his attack. Parker and Coburn have the advantage of having gone through spring drills with the Cougars.
Newcomers Mike Willis (6-2, 240, Jr., Mt. SAC), Api Foumai (6-1, 260, Fr., Aiea HS) and Stefon Jackson (5-11, 225, Jr., U. of St. Mary) will compete with returnee Bill Wills (6-0, 225, So.) for key back-up roles in the Cougars’ 3-man front.
With All-American candidate Jay York (6-0, 220, Sr.) and starter Spencer Danielson (6-0, 205, Jr.) returning, the Cougars would appear to have talent enough already to be strong at the backer. Yet, they have even more skill behind York and Danielson in what is arguably the Cougars’ strongest and deepest position on the team. York is one of the smartest linebackers in program history, and Danielson is a speed-burner and a strong blitzer who consistently disrupts opposing passing games.
Redshirt sophomore Jeremy Turner (6-1, 225) and senior Gary Mundy (5-11, 215) have a deep understanding of the Cougars’ complicated defensive scheme. Turner played in all 11 games last year, starting 7 in mid-season, and Mundy was a key reserve while appearing in 9 games.
Sophomores Tim Wilborn (6-0, 220), Adam Hollick (5-10, 225) and John Thompson (5-9, 205) will press for key reserve assignments and are poised to have breakthrough seasons. Redshirt freshman Sean Barber (6-1, 210, Fr.) is penciled to back-up York but it may be hard to keep his skill on the sideline and thus he could be moved to other positions.
Among the newcomers, freshmen Jacob Henderson (6-0, 200, Aquinas HS) and Kawika Karratti (5-11, 200, Konawa HS) will be given long looks for significant playing time in their rookie season.
The Cougars return 2 starters and plenty of experience to the defensive secondary. Junior Paul Royster (5-11, 180), an 11-game starter in 2009 when he was fourth on the team in tackles (55), is the general of the corps and typically will be assigned the opponent’s top receiver. Sophomore free safety Shea Struiksma (6-3, 205), also an 11-game starter last year, is back to defend against deep balls. The year of experience will aid both players in improving the Cougars’ aerial coverage.
Junior Hayden Shaw (5-8, 180) has played in 14 games the past 2 seasons as a key reserve and is now competing for his starting assignment at strong safety. He is smart and an overachiever who may prove to be one of the Cougars’ shining players on defense this season.
Junior Justin Jones (5-10, 170) takes his speed and athleticism to the defensive side of the ball after playing wide receiver for the Cougars last year where he had 19 grabs for 125 yards. This is Jones’ first defensive assignment in his football career but he is coming off a terrific spring and has displayed a high proficiency to play cornerback. Senior Nick Armesto (6-2, 200) was granted a medical hardship for last season after going down with a season-ending injury early in just the second game. The tallest Cougar among the defensive backs, Armesto was a starter at cornerback before the injury and comes back at full strength ready to push Jones for a starting berth.
Noah Peterman (6-0, 190, So.) saw time as a true-freshman last year and made great strides during the season and into spring drills at comprehending the Cougar system. He’ll push Shaw for playing time at strong safety.
Transfers Darrell Wilson (6-0, 215, Jr., Mt. SAC) and Derrin Ford (5-10, 180, So., Upper Iowa) bring athleticism and experience, and bolster an already strong unit. All 3 will push for starting positions as the season unfolds and they become more comfortable with the system.
Gone from last year’s special teams unit is Ben Hansen, the program’s all-time top place kicker who made a school-record 41-of-51 field goals in his 4-year Cougar career including a pair of 52-yarders, and Austin Kehmeier who has taken his near 41-yard punt average of last year to the Pac-10 Conference.
Hansen’s shoes will be hard to fill but returnee Chapin Fowler (Santa Barbara CC), who redshirted last year while Hansen completed his career, will have first shot to take over the primary duties. Fowler has a very strong leg but consistency will determine his opportunities. At the very least, he is likely to serve on all kickoffs. Freshmen Chris Duke (Branham HS) and Sam Hauck (King’s HS) are accurate from 35 yards and will be given chances to compete with Fowler.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Sean Barber opens fall camp as the Cougars’ top punter, but freshman Paul Vanderwulp (Skyline HS), who is returning to football after a 2-year layoff, is capable as well after averaging 38 yards a boot during his 2007 senior year in high school.
Junior Jeremiah Andujo came on strong over the last third of the last season as the Cougars’ best returner and will open the 2010 campaign as the primary returner for both punts and kicks. He was one of just 6 players last year to finish among the NAIA’s Top 30 in both punt (11.9 avg.) and kick (24.3 avg.) returns. Running back Johnell Murphy will lend a hand on kickoff returns.