AZUSA, Calif. -- Last year, Azusa Pacific wasn’t exactly sure what it was about to encounter. The Cougars ventured into the unknown landscape of NCAA Division II football, quickly learning the level of physical and mental focus it would require to compete in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Although Azusa Pacific dropped seven straight games to start the season, it was the closing statement of a GNAC-best four-game winning streak to end the year that has Azusa Pacific eager for the challenge of its second Division II campaign with a renewed enthusiasm.
It will be harder to fly under the radar and play the role of Division II rookies again in 2013, as GNAC coaches picked Azusa Pacific third in the annual preseason poll last week. Two of last year’s four victories knocked GNAC title contenders out of the top spot in the league at that point, and the Cougars hope to impact the league standings much earlier this season. They’ll do so with an opening-week roster of 109 players, which includes 14 returning starters and a league-leading 42 returning letter winners.
“Our team strength lies in the appreciation our players have for each other and their willingness to serve each other, which has historically been that special ingredient that distinguishes our program from every other program in the country,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz.
Offensively, Azusa Pacific has seven returning starters, including junior All-GNAC first-team tailback Terrell Watson, a 1,000-yard rusher last year, and senior quarterback Nick Owens, who started under center in all four games of the season-ending winning streak. Those two are protected by a potentially dominant offensive line spearheaded by senior center Lance Barker, a two-year starter at left guard who takes over at center this season.
“(Offensive Coordinator) Rudy Carlton is already discovering the great talent we have and how best to put us in the right spots offensively,” Santa Cruz said. “Talent dictates scheme, so even though we graduated a couple of tackles on the offensive line last year, we feel that our recruiting efforts and hard work in the offseason has made our offensive line a physical bunch that communicates well. Lance spearheads that effort with an outstanding job of leadership and an understanding of how to play fast.”
The defense also returns seven starters, including a trio of experienced senior linebackers who represent a significant chunk of last year’s defensive production. Sean Barber was the Cougars’ leader in tackles last year, while Jake Henderson was fourth on the team in tackles, and in just eight games Ethan Danielson still registered in the team’s top-ten in tackles while finishing second in tackles for loss with six. They’re flanked by three returning starters in the secondary, along with a beefed-up defensive line that returns an eight-game starter in senior defensive end Matt Moody along with sophomore tackle Talaiasi Taueli, whose 6.5 tackles for loss led all Azusa Pacific defenders.
There’s plenty of experience on special teams, as well. Sophomore kicker Jamie Cacciatore was instrumental to the Cougars’ success down the stretch last year, hitting four field goals in a road win over Western Oregon before drilling a game-winner in the closing seconds at Dixie State. Barber returns as the starting punter for the second straight year, and junior free safety Tyler Thornton is an all-conference first team defensive back who also earned second-team recognition as a kick returner after tallying 654 combined return yards last year, and he figures to play a prominent role again in the return game.
The 2013 schedule presents another challenging non-conference matchup ahead of the 10-game GNAC gauntlet. The Cougars visit NCAA Division II power Grand Valley State in the season opener, taking on winningest program in Division II history which enters 2013 ranked 14th in the AFCA Division II Coaches Poll. It’s the first installment of a two-year series between the programs, with Grand Valley slated to visit Azusa Pacific to open the 2014 season.
“Every week in the GNAC is a battle, and opening the season at Grand Valley State is just the icing on the cake of a very tough schedule,” Santa Cruz said. “We’re excited to play a top-tier Division II program. We’re not backing down from them, but we know we’ll have our hands full because we have a deep admiration for what they’ve accomplished over the years.”
The non-conference clash precedes a Sept. 14 GNAC kickoff at Dixie State, and a week later the Cougars host Humboldt State, which was picked to win the league in the preseason coaches poll, in the 2013 home opener. Humboldt State was the only GNAC program to win both meetings against Azusa Pacific in the Cougars’ inaugural GNAC campaign last year. Other home games are scheduled against defending conference champion Central Washington on Sept. 28, Simon Fraser for Homecoming on Oct. 12, Western Oregon on Nov. 2, and Dixie State on Nov. 9. All of the home games, which take place at Citrus Stadium, kick off at 6:30 p.m.
OUTLOOK BY POSITION – DEFENSE & SPECIAL TEAMS
Returning Starters (1): Matt Moody (DE, Sr., 6-1, 225)
Although Matt Moody is the lone returning starter from 2012, he leads a veteran group that includes fellow seniors Api Foumai and Jimmy Young. Foumai started twice last year, recording 20 tackles in the eight games he appeared, and the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Young was a three-year starter at nose tackle (2009-11) before using a medical redshirt last year.
“The defensive line is a veteran group, and they really led by example throughout the offseason and fall camp,” Santa Cruz said. “They put in a lot of hard work, and they’re a technically sound group.”
Junior Luke Siwek has emerged as another experienced leader who can be a disruptive force from the nose tackle position, and he is joined by a pair of talented sophomores, Matthew Hackett and Talaiasi Taueli, who both provided an immediate impact as true freshmen a year ago. Hackett played in all 11 games, starting three times, while Taueli appeared in all 10 GNAC contests. Both finished among the team’s top-five in tackles for loss, and they should continue to blossom with another year of experience in the defensive system.
Newcomers Pasi Fahina and Kalvin Davis are junior transfers who bolster the considerable athleticism and valuable depth of the Cougars’ defensive line. Fahina is a 5-foot-11, 270-pound tackle returning from a year off after playing one year at NCAA Division I FCS program Northern Colorado and one year at Mesa Community College in Arizona. Davis is an athletic 6-foot-3, 242-pound defensive end who played two seasons at San Bernardino Valley College.
“We have the depth and athleticism that will help our defensive line to be the tip of the spear that our defense needs,” Santa Cruz said.
Returning Starters (3): Sean Barber (MLB, Sr., 6-1, 220), Ethan Danielson (OLB, Sr., 6-2, 225), Jake Henderson (OLB, Sr., 6-1, 220)
For the second consecutive year, the defense’s most experienced position is linebacker, where all three starters return to form the nucleus of a smart, athletic defense. Senior Sean Barber, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound middle linebacker, is back for his third year as the starter in the middle after leading the Cougars in tackles each of the past two years and earning All-GNAC second team honors last season. Flanking Barber on the outsides are fellow seniors Jake Henderson, a four-year starter, and Ethan Danielson, who ranked third on the team in tackles for loss (six) while starting in seven of the eight games he played. All three are similar in size, each standing either 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2 and weighing between 220 and 225 pounds, and together they represent the heart of the team’s veteran leadership.
Backing up Barber is one more four-year senior, Marcus Mendillo, and junior Cameron Villalobos moves into a starting role at the rover position. Mendillo has 20 games of experience under his belt, while Villalobos has appeared in 21 games over the past two years as he becomes a full-time starter in 2013. Also returning after a redshirt freshman season is 5-foot-11, 227-pound Sam Flemming, whose size and athleticism provides quality depth to the linebacker position.
“Our three starting linebackers came up together through the ranks of the program, and along with Marcus, those seniors represent everything we’re about as a program,” Santa Cruz said. “They demonstrate the essence of what we want our linebackers to be, and with them we have a band of brothers who will help the team any way they can.”
Returning Starters (3): Silas Goma (CB, Sr., 6-1, 200), Nick Grunsky (SS, Sr., 5-11, 192), Tyler Thornton (FS, Jr., 5-8, 182)
The secondary provides another veteran group for the defense with three returning starters, including All-GNAC first team defensive back Tyler Thornton, who finished the year with 85 tackles (one behind leading tackler Barber) and a team-high four interceptions. Senior cornerback Silas Goma is a third-year starter whose experience and leadership will be valuable to the quick development of an athletic young group of cornerbacks. Starting opposite the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Goma is another 6-foot cornerback in senior David Smith, who appeared in 11 games last season. Senior strong safety Nick Grunsky rounds out the secondary in his second season as a starter after putting together a solid all-around junior campaign in which he ranked fifth on the team in tackles (58) while finishing second in both interceptions (two) and pass breakups (six).
“The way we play defense tends to put a lot of pressure on our back end, but this group seems to thrive in those situations,” Santa Cruz said.
Junior safety Mark Neely played in six games last year and backs up Thornton at the free safety position, while eight true freshmen plus four returning redshirt freshmen, are joined by 6-foot, 181-pound junior Andre Myles, a transfer from Riverside Community College, to provide depth to the secondary.
Returning Starters (1): Sean Barber (P, Sr., 6-1, 220), Jamie Cacciatore (K, So., 5-8, 175), Tyler Thornton (KR/PR, Jr., 5-8, 182)
Azusa Pacific returns some of the GNAC’s top special teams performers from last season, bringing back last year’s conference field goals leader, sophomore Jamie Cacciatore, as well as the All-GNAC second team kick returner in Thornton, who also starts at free safety. Punting duties were held down by Barber, who also starts at middle linebacker. Cacciatore was 15-for-21 on field goals as a true freshman last year, and Barber’s punting average was 36.2 yards. Thornton had 24 of the Cougars’ 31 punt returns last year, and he averaged 9.0 yards per return, and he brought back 17 kickoff returns for an average of 25.7 yards.
Junior Kyle Dravis also served as a return specialist in addition to his wide receiver duties last year, and added to the mix of potential return men is speedy freshman Tarik Myles. At kicker, junior Micky DeFiebre backs up Cacciatore and may also serve on the kickoff team, while Cacciatore is currently slated as Barber’s backup at punter.
“Jamie has the skill set to be a very good placekicker, and between Tyler, Tarik, Kyle, and Ronald Douglas, we have several people who can change the game in a single play,” Santa Cruz said.
OUTLOOK BY POSITION – OFFENSE
Returning Starters (2): Lance Barker (LG/C, Sr., 6-2, 275), Jacob Olsson (RG, Jr., 6-1, 320)
Although it lost three experienced starters from last year’s productive unit, Azusa Pacific has added even more size and athleticism to an offensive line that serves as the catalyst for the entire offense. The Cougars had to overcome two key injuries early in the year, both at the left tackle position, as projected starter Luke Marquardt was injured in training camp and missed the whole year before signing as a free agent last April with the San Francisco 49ers, and his backup Jacob Thomas was injured on the opening series of the season opener and also missed the entire year. As a result, the reshuffled lineup took extra time to develop continuity and chemistry that took the offense to a 239-yard per-game rushing average over the final four games after averaging 130 yards on the ground in the first seven games.
Thomas enters the year as a projected starter at guard, and the 6-foot-2, 272-pound sophomore who started seven games as a true freshman in 2010, is joined by another returning starter in junior 6-foot-1, 320-pound guard Jacob Olsson. Lance Barker has moved from guard to center, where the 6-foot-2, 275-pound senior will anchor a line that will feature two new starters at the tackles. Junior Paul Flores is a 6-foot-5, 316-pound converted tight end who has thrived under offensive line coach Jackie Slater as a left tackle, and highly-touted 6-foot-6, 330-pound junior college transfer Cody Clay is projected to start at right tackle.
Freshman Jordan Wernet used a redshirt year last year to develop into a potential starter, and he is joined by three other redshirt freshmen, four true freshmen, and a pair of converted defensive linemen to round out the depth of a group that has nine players weighing 285 pounds or more.
“We have been able to develop our talent on the offensive line very well over the past few years under Coach Slater, and we’re excited about the long-term potential of this group’s development,” Santa Cruz said.
Returning Starters (1): Nick Owens (QB, Sr., 6-0, 190)
Senior quarterback Nick Owens led Azusa Pacific to all four of its wins last season, as the 6-foot, 190-pound southpaw threw for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed for 262 yards in eight starts for the Cougars’ spread offense. However, the opening-week starter at quarterback is senior Dasmen Stewart, a dual-threat spring transfer from Division I San Jose State, where he spent four years and appeared in six games for the Spartans.
“Dasmen is a true dual-threat at the quarterback position, and he can make all the throws our offense calls for,” Santa Cruz said. “At the same time, it turned out to be a great quarterback battle, and it’s great to have a backup who everybody respects and knows is capable of winning games for you.”
A third senior, Justin McPherson, is a veteran who was injured in the only game he started last season but has four years (including a redshirt freshman season) and 15 games of experience to bring to the Cougars’ quarterback depth.
Returning Starters (1): Terrell Watson (TB, Jr., 6-2, 230)
Returning to the backfield is All-GNAC first team running back Terrell Watson, a fast and physical 6-foot-2, 230-pound workhorse who finished second in the league in rushing (99.5 yards per game) as a sophomore last year. Watson posted the 11th 1,000-yard rushing season in program history last year, finishing with 1,094 yards on 200 carries, and he rushed for touchdowns in nine of 11 games overall, including rushing scores in each of the final six games of the season.
The Cougars’ second-leading rusher in 2012 was Owens, the quarterback, and he was followed by junior Ronald Douglas, who averaged 7.6 yards on 25 carries last year. In the spring, Douglas was the No. 2 sprinter for Azusa Pacific’s Christian-college national championship track and field program, clocking a season-best 10.74 seconds in the 100-meter dash while collecting NCCAA (National Christian College Athletic Association) All-American honors in three events at the outdoor national championships in May.
“Terrell is the marquee guy, and deservedly so, as he came back in even better shape than the spring. He’s the type of runner who could carry the ball 40 times a game and continue to get stronger,” Santa Cruz said. “He’s even stronger than last year, and he’s helped provide the type of leadership our team needed throughout the offseason and fall camp.”
One of the pleasant surprises in fall camp was the emergence of Tarik Myles, a 5-foot-6, 152-pound true freshman who serves as another speedy slasher who will have the opportunity to contribute right away.
“The surprise of fall camp was Tarik Myles. We knew he had the ability to contribute right away, but he’s truly risen to the occasion to add his slashing style to our stable of runners,” Santa Cruz said.
Returning Starters (3): Erik Johnson (WR, Jr., 5-11, 206), Mike Martens (WR, So., 6-2, 208), Kevin Schick (TE, Sr., 6-2, 250)
One of the most improved positions for Azusa Pacific is at receiver, even though three of the Cougars’ top-four receivers (Mike Martens, Erik Johnson, and Kyle Dravis) from last year are back to start the 2013 season. Martens was the team’s receiving leader as a true freshman, recording 26 catches for 363 yards and a pair of TDs, while Johnson hauled in 20 passes for 231 yards. Dravis had 17 catches for 207 yards, and his 131-yard receiving effort including a game-winning 53-yard TD reception jump-started the Cougars’ season-ending four-game win streak.
Sophomore Tanner Henry and junior Andre Hill were the primary passing targets throughout fall camp a year ago, but Hill’s season ended before it started when he was injured in fall camp, and Henry was only able to start the season opener before he too had to shut down the season and take a medical redshirt. Henry recovered in time to compete in track and field during the spring, finishing as the NCCAA national runner-up in the 400-meter hurdles, and Hill will also open the season at full strength. Junior Ed Dillihunt is also a candidate for a starting spot after catching seven passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in limited action at receiver last season.
“Tanner and Andre do a great job at creating tension on the outside, and Mike has a physical presence and versatility that allows him to line up inside or out,” Santa Cruz said. “Ed and Kyle had a great spring, showing they can not only stretch the field but also provide good run blocking, and Erik came back bigger, faster, and he provides more veteran leadership to this group.”
Deji Olajide is a 5-foot-6, 162-pound sophomore transfer from Riverside Community College, and he could also contribute as a slot receiver who’s capable of stretching the field in the vertical passing game.
At tight end, senior Kevin Schick (6-2, 250) returns as the leader of a solid group that includes the emergence of sophomore H-back Grant Widmer, a 6-foot-3, 207-pound receiving threat who appeared in seven games as a freshman last year. Schick finished the year with six catches for 80 yards and a TD and earned All-GNAC second team recognition.
“Kevin is poised for another all-conference type of year, as he came back to us faster and stronger to go with his understanding of our system,” Santa Cruz said. “We can align him at H-back or tight end, and he’s exactly what we want for that position in our offense. We’re younger behind him, but we have some athletic depth there that starts with Grant, whose size and athleticism makes him a great target to throw to.”
The addition of 6-foot-3, 243-pound true freshman Mitch Lomax through the Cougars’ Pacific Northwest recruiting efforts has bolstered the depth at the position.
“Mitch has already demonstrated the physical ability to block, and he can cover ground quickly. He has great hands, making a number of one-handed grabs in camp, and we consider him to be a viable tight end for us,” Santa Cruz said.