Sunday, Aug. 26, PART 1 OF 3 (overall outlook): Season Of Change
Monday, Aug. 27, PART 2 OF 3 (defense by position): The Fast And The Furious
Tuesday, Aug. 28, PART 3 OF 3 (offense by position): Blocking Goes Big-Time
The 2012 Azusa Pacific football season outlook is presented in a three-part series, with the Cougar offense broken down by position in Part Three.
Azusa Pacific will certainly miss the steady leadership and production of John van den Raadt at quarterback, but the good news for his successor is that the Cougar offensive line that paved the way for school-records last year in scoring (45.6 points per game) and rushing offense (326.2 yards per game) now brings back six players with starting experience.
“There’s no way you can just replace a guy like John van den Raadt, so we’re looking to see what type of identity this team is going to have offensively with the skill set of our next quarterback,” head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “Every year, every head coach across the nation is trying to discover what their offense is about, because you need to play to your strengths. That’s what we’re going to do, and we have some guys who really have a handle on the system. We also have what I think is one of the best offensive lines we’ve ever had, and we’ve had some good ones, so that’s going to be the strength of our offense this year.”OUTLOOK BY POSITION – OFFENSE & SPECIAL TEAMS
Returning Starters: none
For the first time since 2008, there hasn’t been a clear-cut starter at quarterback entering fall camp, and Azusa Pacific’s competition for the starting position came down to three junior signal-callers. Transfer Nick Owens was named the starter over Justin McPherson and Tyler Tuiasosopo towards the end of fall camp, and the left-hander inherits the keys to the offense in the shadow of the record-setting career of four-year starter John van den Raadt. Owens is expected to continue to provide the rushing threat that the Cougar offense has grown accustomed to getting from the quarterback position, and his brief fall camp performance provided a glimpse into his ability to be a threat through the air, as well.
The Cougars have the luxury of quality depth at the position with McPherson and Tuiasosopo showing throughout camp that they could capably provide the skill, knowledge and leadership required of the quarterback position. The tall, athletic McPherson (6-5, 200) is in his fourth year with the program, and he is the only quarterback on the roster with live game experience with the program. He played in 12 games as van den Raadt’s backup over the past two seasons, completing six-of-eight passes for 116 yards and one touchdown. Tuiasosopo (5-10, 212) spent the 2011 season learning the offense as a redshirt, and his firm grasp of the system along with his poise and leadership characterize him as the prototypical field general.
Other notable newcomers at quarterback include the highly-touted true freshman Travis Santiago (5-10, 165) and fellow true freshman Dimitri Morales (6-1, 185). Santiago wasted no time displaying the tools he possesses to develop into an impact player, and his competitive spirit makes him a candidate to see the field early on. Morales is also a terrific athlete who could also see early playing time at a number of positions on either side of the ball.
Returning Starters: none
Gone are a pair of 1,000-yard rushers from last season’s record-setting rushing offense that plowed through opposing defenses for a school-record 3,915 rushing yards (326.2 per game), although the Cougars only lose one from the backfield in Johnell Murphy as QB John van den Raadt . However, the offensive line that paved the way returns six players with starting experience, and Azusa Pacific’s next five rushers after van den Raadt and Murphy will reap the benefits of that experienced blocking.
Sophomore Terrell Watson returns along with senior David Trifeletti, a duo that combined for 1,136 yards rushing as well as 148 receiving yards and 20 total TDs. The pair forms a thunder-and-lightning tandem, with the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Watson providing an explosive, physical running style that makes him difficult to bring down, while Trifeletti is a dynamic 5-foot-8, 188-pound back who exploded for 157 yards and two scores in Azusa Pacific’s first-round playoff win.
Sophomore Ronald Douglas (5-11, 190) was also an impact runner as a true freshman last year, rushing for 144 yards on 37 carries and two TDs, and senior Oliver Petty (5-9, 200) brings valuable experience to the position after carrying 18 times for 212 yards (11.8 avg.) in 2011. Their presence makes the running back position one of the most quality positions in terms of overall depth.
Returning Starters (1): Tanner Henry (WR, So., 6-2, 175)
The receiver position may be the greatest unknown of the 2012 squad, introducing the most new players into the two-deep of any position on either side of the ball. After Henry, a 10-game starter as a true freshman, the only one other receiver with any kind of starting experience is senior Wade Struiksma (6-1, 185), who started one game last year.
Henry’s participation in track & field last spring helped him develop his speed to become the deep threat of the receiving corps after he posted totals of 19 catches for 277 yards with four TDs as a true freshman last year. Struiksma slides into a starting spot opposite Henry, and senior Nathan Hinke (6-1, 190) is projected as the opening-week starter at the slot receiver position. Hinke entered camp at full strength after battling injuries over the past couple of seasons, and he fits the same mold as Henry in terms of size and athleticism.
The speedy senior Taylor Schablaske (5-10, 180) gives the Cougars the ability to stretch the field, and after averaging 11 yards per punt return as the backup a year ago, he’s likely to take over full-time duties in 2012. Sophomore Erik Johnson (5-11, 195) is a strong, physical receiver who is joined in providing quality depth to the group by newcomers Ed Dillihunt (5-10, 205) and Mike Martens (6-2, 200). Dillihunt is a sophomore transfer from Fresno State, where he played primarily on the defensive side of the ball, but his raw athleticism should allow him to make a smooth transition to offense.
At tight end, junior-college transfer Kevin Schick (6-2, 250) will add to a physically-imposing veteran group that includes senior Eric Meniefield (6-4, 245) and sophomore Paul Flores (6-5, 265). At the H-back position, junior Nick Perez (6-1, 225) has moved over from the defense and seized an opportunity to see significant playing time, and freshman Grant Widmer (6-3, 204) has quickly adapted to the Cougars’ style of play.
Returning Starters (4): Luke Marquardt (LT, Sr., 6-9, 322), Lance Barker (LG, Jr., 6-1, 275), Graham Paterson (C, Sr., 6-0, 295), Robby Palacios (RT, Sr., 6-5, 320)
The massive Azusa Pacific offensive line is the dominant force of the Cougars’ power rushing game, and while the official number of returning starters is four, another two were full-time starters two years ago before having to sit out most of last year to injuries. That gives Azusa Pacific’s offensive line coach, NFL Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, six players with at least a full year of starting experience under their belt heading into the new season.
Marquardt leads the way with an imposing 6-foot-9, 322-pound frame, and his combination of lateral quickness and raw strength have earned him a mention as the only Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) representative on the 2013 Senior Bowl Watch List. At the other tackle, the Cougars offer another quality performer in Palacios, who started all 12 games last season. Together, they form one of the best tackle tandems in the conference, if not the entire nation.
At center, Paterson is a three-year starter who combines raw physical strength with the mental side of the game to help drive the pass-protection and run-blocking schemes. Barker took over at left guard for the final two-thirds of the year last season after Tim Taylor (6-2, 275) was lost for the season after four games a year ago. Taylor, a senior, started all but one game in 2010 before starting the first four in 2011, and sophomore Jacob Thomas (6-2, 270) was a seven-game starter as a true freshman in 2010 who also had to sit out the 2011 campaign to injury. The healthy return of both allows the new skill players on offense to ease into their roles behind a veteran line, which also includes a quality backup in senior Justin Mathews (6-3, 320).
With the returning starting placekicker Eric DeLira back on the roster but likely redshirting the year, the Cougars placekicking duties were back up for grabs again this season. Freshman Jamie Cacciatore emerges from the competition as the likely starter, although senior walk-on Jared Gutowski is not far behind and may see several opportunities in game situations during his final season of collegiate eligibility. Jacob Osborne and Micky DeFiebre both saw action as true freshmen last year and have given the kicking duties a spirited competition throughout the fall.
In the return game, Schablaske and Thornton will likely return kicks. Thornton is the team’s fastest player, and Schablaske tallied 99 punt return yards on nine attempts in part-time duties last season.
The punting duties initially go to Barber, who also serves as the team’s starting middle linebacker.