Azusa Pacific opens the 2011 season coming off its seventh NAIA playoff appearance since 1998, and the Cougars are ranked No. 15 in the preseason coaches poll.
OUTLOOK BY POSITION
There is no questioning senior John van den Raadt’s ability as a running QB after he led all NAIA signal-callers in rushing yardage and came up just 28 yards short of becoming Azusa Pacific’s first 1,000-yard rusher in over a decade. However, the ceiling for Azusa Pacific’s offense rests on van den Raadt’s passing ability, and if his junior campaign was any indication, the potent Cougar offense could be downright explosive in 2011. Through his first two seasons, van den Raadt went through the growing pains any young quarterback experiences, completing 53 percent of his passes with 15 TDs and 20 interceptions in 2008 and 2009, but his development took a big step forward in 2010 when his completion percentage jumped five points to 58 percent (135-for-232). He threw for 1,638 yards and tossed 14 TD passes against 10 interceptions, and another step forward as a passer could result in the 1,847 yards van den Raadt needs to break Azusa Pacific’s career passing yardage record (6,610) held by Luke Winslow.
Backing up the dynamic van den Raadt is 6-foot-5 Justin McPherson, a redshirt sophomore who gained his first taste of collegiate experience when he appeared in five games last year. Now in his third year in the program, the strong-armed McPherson has gained a solid understanding of the offense and has also added strength to his tall, lanky frame.
Three other quarterbacks, all from the state of Washington, joined the program in the offseason. Tyler Tuiasosopo is a junior transfer from Long Beach City College, and true freshmen Erin Barber and Tyler Jamison are likely redshirt candidates as they learn the Cougar offense and adjust to the collegiate level of play.
Each of Azusa Pacific’s top six rushers from last year’s offense, which rolled up over 250 yards per game on the ground, are back for the 2011 season, including returning starting TB Johnell Murphy. The shifty 5-foot-8, 185-pound junior averaged almost six yards per carry last year, rushing for 820 yards and nine TDs on 138 carries, and he is backed up by fellow juniors David Trifeletti (81 carries, 387 yards) and Oliver Petty (37 carries, 170 yards). That trio, combined with van den Raadt’s team-high 972 yards, represents over 93 percent of the Cougars’ 2010 rushing offense, and another year of experience gives the Cougar ground game a great launching point for what could be an historic 2011 season.
What might be Azusa Pacific’s deepest class of backs includes eight players who have yet to take a handoff in the Cougar backfield. Among them are redshirt freshman Ronald Douglas and highly-touted true freshman Terrel Watson, who scored 38 TDs and rushed for 2,905 yards on 369 carries as a high school senior at Oxnard High in 2010. The Cougars also added senior transfer Joshua Morgan from NCAA Division II power Abilene (Texas) Christian.
Four of last year’s top seven receivers return, led by senior Matt Davis, who ranks tenth in career receiving. Davis’ season was shortened by four games due to injury in 2010, limiting him to 17 catches for 273 yards, but his return in time for the Cougars’ first-round playoff game at Carroll resulted in a team-high four catches for 70 yards. An injury-free campaign for the 6-foot-1 senior should yield production more similar to his 2009 sophomore campaign when he registered team receiving highs in catches (39), yards (773) and TDs (6). He and van den Raadt have also developed a chemistry not unlike the bond that developed between Davis’ older brother Jon, the Cougars’ career receiving TD record-holder, and current offensive coordinator Rudy Carlton, who is Azusa Pacific’s No. 3 all-time passer.
Other returnees in the receiving corps include speedy seniors Jeremiah Andujo and Justin Jones, who have both been featured in the return game in previous seasons, as well as junior Wade Struiksma and sophomore Nathan Hinke, who both figure to give van den Raadt some familiar targets.
Senior Darin McGinnis and junior Jake Steedman bring added experience to the position, and they will be joined by a talented group of newcomers that includes 6-foot-2 junior Garrick McCray, a transfer from Texas Tech, and junior Taylor Schablaske, a 5-foot-10 junior-college transfer from Sierra College. Six true freshman wideouts also join the Cougars for the 2011 campaign.
Senior Tyson Hetzer is a returning starter at a key position in Azusa Pacific’s spread attack, a role that plays a vital blocking role for the ground game but also requires the athleticism to serve as a throwing option in the passing game. Hetzer fits the bill, hauling in a pair of receiving TDs a year ago with his strong 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame, and he now has a full season of experience in the Cougars’ offensive system. He is joined by another physical presence in 6-foot-3, 245-pound junior Eric Meniefield, a transfer from El Camino College.
Even with all the talent at the skill positions, the unheralded star of the Cougar offense is the line. It is a unit that brings back four of five starters from a group that allowed the Azusa Pacific rushing attack to gash opposing defenses for over 250 yards rushing per game while giving up only nine sacks all year. The projected starting unit cuts an imposing presence, with an average size of 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, and their new position coach, NFL Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, has helped rekindle the enthusiasm and attitude of a tough, nasty, hard-working group. The pressure rests squarely on the broad shoulders of the line to carry the Cougars towards their goal of a deep playoff run, and if Azusa Pacific ends up turning that goal into reality it will be in large part due to the performance of the men up front.
Leading the way at right guard is senior Joe Bolognesi (6-2, 270), a Consensus Draft Services (CDS) and Victory Sports Network (VSN) preseason NAIA All-American who utilizes every bit of his frame with superb technique and athleticism. Junior Luke Marquardt (6-10, 320), the largest player in program history, returns at left tackle, while right tackle will be manned by junior Robby Palacios (6-5, 290), who finally gets to see the field after injury woes derailed his past two seasons. Junior Graham Paterson (6-0, 285) returns at center after earning NAIA All-Independent second-team honors there last year, and junior Tim Taylor (6-2, 260) rounds out the group of returning starters. Taylor, who played primarily at tackle last year and was also named All-Independent second team, will likely slide over to start at left guard to start the year.
Junior Justin Mathews (6-3, 310) saw action in all 10 games last season and should continue to play a big role in the line rotation, and redshirt sophomore Lance Barker (6-1, 265) should provide an immediate impact after transferring from two-time defending Pac-10 champion Oregon.
Sophomore Michael Hopson (6-2, 245) is joined by a five-member freshman class that averages 6-foot-3, 268 pounds and is led by backup center Jacob Olsson (6-1, 275), who was an all-state lineman last year for state Div. I runner-up Corona (Calif.) Centennial High.
Although one of its three returning starters switches positions in 2011, a defensive line that features the return of a pair of two-year starters in junior NT Jimmy Young and senior DE Jake Jones ensures it will continue to be a unit to be reckoned with. A year ago, Jones ranked third in the NAIA with 10.5 sacks, while the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Young, Azusa Pacific’s biggest defensive lineman, has added an extra 10 pounds and should continue to be a disruptive force inside.
While junior Kory Johnson returns after finishing as the team’s No. 4 tackler, he moves over to the bandit linebacker position, and a trio of sophomores are all in the mix for significant playing time, and perhaps even the other starting end spot opposite Jones. Among the candidates are Matthew Moody (6-1, 215), Api Foumai (6-1, 260), and Erik Bonn (6-1, 240). Moody is a tough, versatile athlete who has also spent some of his time in the program as a linebacker, while Foumai shifts from nose tackle to a more natural outside position. Another returner who should figure heavily into the mix is senior Mike Willis (6-2, 245), who now has 10 games of experience and a year in the system under his belt.
Joining the mix at nose tackle is Manako Tuifua (5-11, 290), a junior-college transfer from Pasadena City College who, like Young, is a physical, hard-to-move force inside, along with junior Bill Wills (6-0, 230), who appeared in seven games in 2010 and begins his fourth season with the program including a redshirt year. Redshirt sophomore Omar Williams (5-6, 240) is another option at nose tackle.
The Cougars also brought in a talented class of freshmen for the line, led by a local product in DE Chris Auxier (6-3, 215), who prepped at Northview High in Covina. He is joined by NT Luke Siwek (6-0, 300) and a pair of linemen from the island of Oahu in Hawai’i, Jordan Tanioka (5-10, 255) and Brandon Tacadena (5-11, 225).
Replacing four-year starter Jay York at middle linebacker is a tall order, but the Cougars have talent and experience surrounding York’s replacement, sophomore Sean Barber (6-1, 218), to help him ease into the role. Barber redshirted the 2009 season before seeing action in all 10 games last year as York’s backup. He collected 20 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and he also forced a fumble and registered a pass breakup, and despite his relative lack of experience compared to York, he is anything but green and should develop quickly into a quality middle linebacker.
Senior Kory Johnson (6-0, 235) was the team’s No. 4 tackler as a defensive end last year, and he moves into a starting role at an outside linebacker position, while sophomore Jacob Henderson (6-0, 220), a seven-game starter as a true freshman, should continue to hold down the other outside linebacker starting role.
Senior Spencer Danielson (6-0, 205) broke his leg in practice following last year’s season-opening win over San Diego, and he returns from a medical redshirt as the starter at rover. Junior Noah Peterman (6-1, 200) and sophomores Ethan Danielson (6-2, 220) and Marcus Mendillo (5-10, 205) are also in line for a spot in the linebacker rotation, and they could be joined by junior John Thompson (5-9, 205), who appeared in five games in 2010, and junior-college transfer Troy Mouton (5-11, 200).
One of Azusa Pacific’s most experienced position groups is the secondary, featuring three returning starters plus a number of veteran backups who will push for significant playing time. Leading the way are a pair of two-year starters, beginning with senior safety Shea Struiksma (6-3, 210), who has started 27 consecutive games entering the 2011 season, and senior CB Paul Royster (5-11, 185), a talented cover corner who brings a 21-game starting streak of his own into the campaign.
The other returning starter is senior Hayden Shaw (5-8, 190), who started seven games last year and finished as the team’s No. 5 tackler (34 tackles). Shaw has experience as a safety but could also be used as a cornerback. Junior Anthony Bryant (5-11, 185) moves into the starting cornerback spot opposite Royster, giving the Cougars good size at the corners, and transfer Brandon Owens (6-2, 225) provides an imposing physical presence and could step in to make an immediate impact at safety.
Junior Jake Mittel (6-0, 185) and sophomore Nick Grunsky (5-10, 190) are a pair of safeties with playing experience, and sophomore CB Silas Goma (6-1, 200) has been added to the mix as a first-year Cougar transferring in from Moorpark College. The Cougars list 13 more defensive backs, including eight who have yet to play a collegiate snap. Collectively, they comprise a deep, athletic secondary that should provide equal strength in run support as well as through the air.
The Cougar special teams are loaded with depth in terms of experienced kick and punt returners, and a healthy competition is brewing in fall camp to replace the production at placekicker of Chris Duke, who did not return to the team after his 2010 freshman season.
Seniors Jeremiah Andujo and Justin Jones each were both prominent in the return game a year ago, combining for an average return of over 25 yards per kick and 16 yards per punt. Senior Matt Davis also fielded a handful of kicks in 2010, and he and junior Oliver Petty are initially slated to handle kickoff returns to start the year.
Junior Paul Vanderwulp returns to handle punting duties after averaging a healthy 38.8 yards per punt with a long punt of 63 yards. He is backed up by redshirt freshman Bryce Chamberlain, who may also figure into the battle for place kicking and kickoff duties. Senior Chapin Fowler has a strong leg that makes him the front-runner for kickoff duties, but junior transfer Eric DeLira had a strong fall camp in which he flashed an accurate leg from beyond 50 yards.