AZUSA, Calif. -- A program-record 126 players reported to the start of Azusa Pacific’s fall football camp as the Cougars prepare for their first-ever season of competition in NCAA Division II and the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Head Coach Victor Santa Cruz welcomed 62 newcomers to the program along with 64 returnees, a group which includes 13 returning starters, as the Cougars hit the practice field for the first time on Wednesday, Aug. 8. After three weeks of practice, Azusa Pacific opens the 2012 campaign with an Aug. 30 visit to a UC Davis program which competes in NCAA Division I’s Football Championship Subdivision. The season-opener is the only non-conference game on the docket or the Cougars, who play each of the other five GNAC programs home and away for a 10-game conference schedule.
“I couldn’t be more excited to be in this place,” Santa Cruz said. “We have great competition in our league, and every week we know the teams that we’re playing are going to be talented. They not only look the part, but they put together a good game plan. What we get excited about, as a team that likes to compete, is that every game means something. We’re looking forward to playing games in this new arena, and we love the fact that our school is now spotlighted in the national arena, as well.”
Prior to this year’s 126-player contingent, the highest number of players ever to report for Azusa Pacific’s fall camp was 121 student-athletes four years ago. In 2009, the Cougars opened fall camp with 120 student-athletes, followed by 112 in 2010 and 110 last year.
Leading the list of returnees is a veteran offensive line that last year paved the way for Azusa Pacific’s offense to set program single-season records for rushing (3,915 yards), scoring (45.6 points per game), and total offense (496.4 yards per game). Senior left tackle Luke Marquardt checked in at 6-foot-9, 322 pounds, and 6-foot-5, 320-pound senior right tackle Robby Palacios anchors the opposite end of the line. In all, six returning offensive linemen have past starting experience, and they’ll have to protect a new starter at quarterback following the graduation of four-year starter John van den Raadt.
“Everyone on that line right now has seen time, so we have what I think is one of the best offensive lines we’ve ever had, and we’ve had some good ones,” Santa Cruz said. “It’s early in practice, but you can already tell with the calls they make, the sharpness they look, that they’ve worked hard together all offseason. Coach Slater does an amazing job with them, and that’s going to be the strength of our offense this year.”
Defensively, the Cougars have five starters back, including last year’s top three tacklers. Junior middle linebacker Sean Barber recorded a team-high 106 tackles last year, and he anchors the defense in the middle along with senior rover Spencer Danielson (82 tackles), and junior cornerback Silas Goma (59 tackles).
“We’re a very fast defense,” Santa Cruz said. “We’re going to be young on defense, but we’re fast and athletic. I’m also pleased with the hunger and awareness of the importance of special teams. The attention span there is on a whole different level. A lot of these young men just want to help any way they can. They just want to compete, and that says a lot about this group.”
After opening the season at UC Davis, the Cougars open up GNAC play with one of the league’s toughest road trips, a visit to defending conference champion Humboldt State. Azusa Pacific’s home opener is Saturday, Sept. 15, against Dixie State.