BLUFFTON – Bluffton has seen a revival of its program after three consecutive winning season, something that has not been done since the late 1980s. Now the Beavers want to take it to a whole new level this year.
Loaded with talent and experience on both sides of the ball, head coach Denny Dorrel is optimistic the Beavers can win the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) title and possibly a berth in the Division III postseason.
“We have prepared for in the off season and recruiting in trying to develop that mindset of being pretty good is not good enough and breaking through some comfort barriers and making sure our guys are not satisfied,” Dorrel said. “That is the plan and that is the hope. I didn’t take this job to be a 7-3, 6-4 football coach. I came here to win championships and we have the ability to do it.”
In 2016, Dorrel watched his club mature but still fall to the top tier teams in the HCAC, Franklin and Rose Hulman, and he hopes the returners have learned from last year.
“In two of our losses we melted down in taking care of the football,” Dorrel said. “We were able to play in a championship game type atmosphere with Rose Hulman. Being a part of something like that where our guys know what it feels like and understand that their concentration level has to be amped up from the opening snap. Hopefully that was a learning experience for our guys.”
On the offense it all begins with Ada product Micah Roberson. The record-breaking wide receiver is coming off another highly successful season where he caught 98 passes for 1,030 yards. In his career, the first-team, all-HCAC selection is 10 yards away from breaking the school record set by Eric Metz (1996-99) of 2,677.
“He is the real deal,” Dorrel said. “I told him this team will go as far he wants to take us and just like we have done the last two years we are going to hitch our offense to him and allow him to make plays on the perimeter.”
Roberson will have to adjust to a new quarterback this year. Senior Colby Speice (Paulding/Wayne Trace) will take over the field general chores for Bluffton and he is replacing Connor Sheehan who was a second-team All-HCAC pick in 2016.
Dorrel said Speice has been anxiously awaiting his opportunity the last two years. In the past he has split time and the Beaver head coach added that he has a rifle for an arm yet is smart enough to make smart decisions and not force the issue.
Speice will look to build up some chemistry with Roberson and the rest of the Bluffton receivers.
“It is one of those things where you can kind of rep as much as you can and I think until everything starts flying you can really see it,” Dorrel said.
Pushing Speice will be backup Brandon Koch (West Harrison, Indiana/East Central).
Speice is not the only new face in the Beavers’ backfield. Gone is first-team, HCAC selection Dante Carroll and Dustin Fisher.
“We have a stable of tailbacks,” Dorrel said. “This probably is the deepest position on our team. There are four or five of them that we honestly could flip a coin and they are all going to do really well.”
Junior Drake Campbell (Trenton/Edgewood) will be the starter when the Beavers open the season. Junior Tim Booth (Toledo/Bowsher), senior Caiden Dicke (Lima/Perry) and two freshmen Darian Greeley (Mt. Clemens, Mich/Chippewa Valley) and Dominick Johnson (Hamilton/Hamilton) are all expected to see playing time.
Up front, the line will be anchored by returners junior Ethan Williams (Van Wert/Van Wert) and junior Ian O’Donnell (Tiffin/Columbian). As a sophomore, O’Donnell made the first-team, All-HCAC squad and Williams garnered a spot on the second team.
“We think they are as good as anybody around as far as what we are trying to do up front,” Dorrel said.
With three inexperienced players joining the linemen, Williams and O’Donnell will be looked to help guide and lead the way.
While the offense gets a lot of the ink, the Beavers defense has also produced and is headed up by HCAC defensive player of the year Issac Zickafoose (Middlebury, Ind., Northridge). The Beaver defensive tackle recorded 11.5 sacks last year and 20 tackles for loss. For the season, Zickafoose finished with 46 tackles.
“He (Zickafoose) has put on 30 pounds in the off season and in my 15 years of coaching at this level is the best that I have been around,” Dorrel said. “He is big. He is explosive and he is fast.”
Dorrel added that he will be moving Zickafoose around on the defensive line to make it harder for teams to key on him.
Back at middle linebacker will be four-year starter Giovanni Spadaro (Macedonia/Nordonia) who Dorrel describes as “one of the smartest ball players” he has coached.
Dorrel said the linebacking corps is deep with eight players vying for time on the field.
“When I first got here we played three and we have been two-deep,” Dorrel said. “It is a tribute to how far we have come.”
Like the offense some new faces will get a chance to shine on the defense after the Beavers lost four seniors who were first-team, All-HCAC.
Returning in the defensive backfield will be senior Tyler Showalter (Haviland/Wayne Trace) and sophomore Kobe Russell (Wooster). Showalter had 31 tackles and one interception last year.
“We are going to be pretty young and inexperienced back there but we are going to be as fast as we have ever been,” Dorrel said. “I would rather be inexperienced and fast than inexperienced and slow.”
With speed in the defensive backfield, Dorrel said expect the Beavers to blitz a little more this year.
With a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball the goal is to win the HCAC, but Dorrel said the early part of the schedule does them no favors and the Beavers will be tested early with games at Mount St. Joseph (Sept. 16), which was predicted to finish fourth in the HCAC, followed by a visit from Franklin (Sept. 23) that has won the HCAC eight straight years. Bluffton was picked to finish third in the HCAC.
“We are going to find out pretty quickly if we are in the mix or if we are not,” Dorrel said.
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468 or on twitter @JoseNogueras1