ADA – It was one heck of a ride.
The Polar Bears finished 10-2 last year and reached the second round of the Division III NCAA playoffs.
The Polar Bears return 13 starters, but questions hover over quarterback and tailback. Graduation took quarterback Kyle Simmons and running back Brent Donley, who both finished high on the school’s all-time lists.
ONU’s 10 wins were the most since the 1999 team went 11-2. It was ONU’s first trip to the playoffs since 2000.
“I believe it’s harder to go back,” ONU linebacker Zack Click said. “You go there the first time and you have to build off that. It’s almost like you have a target on your chest sometimes because you made it. You have to work harder and take those experiences and apply it.”
ONU is ranked No. 14 in the nation in the D3football.com preseason poll. The Polar Bears open the season against North Carolina Wesleyan at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at ONU’s Dial-Roberson Stadium.
ONU coach Dean Paul begins his eighth season with a record of 52-20. His 52 wins is tied for second best all-time at ONU with Stretch Roberson (52-39, 10 years).
“We like high expectations. That’s how we want it,” Paul said. “When our staff came here that’s what we expected. We’re pleased that we made progress, but at the same time, we know we have to keep working.”
Simmons finished his career as No. 4 on ONU’s all-time passing list with 5,479 yards. Last year he threw for 2,029 yards with 19 TDs and six interceptions. He also ran for 546 yards and 10 TDs.
In his place is 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior college transfer Chad Mason, who played at American River College, in Sacramento, Calif. The backup is sophomore Tyler Rue (Davie, Fla.)
“He was 10-1 as a starter,” Paul said of Mason. “He’s played in college football games against good competition with the bolts flying and he was successful. He has good size with a very strong arm and he’s continuing to grasp our offense. And he’s very mobile.”
Donley ended up the school’s No. 2 all-time leading rusher with 3,305 yards. Last year he ran for 1,515 yards with 15 TDs.
Seadrick Marshall, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound senior, will be one of the backs who take over for Donley. Marshall ran for 266 yards and two touchdowns last year.
“With Brent gone, we don’t have that downhill runner,” Marshall said. “That also opens up our offense more so we can spread it out more.”
Other backs in the mix are junior DeMarqus Payne (166 yards), Patrick Henry grad sophomore Justin Buenger (60 yards) and junior Carter Paul.
“These guys may not be able to carry the ball 35 times a game (like Donley), but they are very versatile,” Paul said. “They can catch the ball very well.”
Four starters return on the offensive line with tackle Colin Bishop, center Kyle Smith, guard Tyler Joseph and tackle Pat Dochenetz. Also back is tight end Jared Oehler.
Wide receiver Jay Priest (41 receptions, 404 yards, 3 TDs), who led the team in receptions, is expected to miss a few games with an undisclosed injury.
One who will start at receiver is Ada grad junior Kyle Baker.
The 4-3 defense returns everyone on the line, including first-team all-Ohio Athletic Conference tackle Cody Kelly (54 tackles, 3.5 sacks). Also back are Trygve Henrickson, Mike Prokopovich and Jeff Butler.
Click (72 tackles, 3 sacks) returns to anchor the linebacking unit. The secondary loses standouts Eric Wenzler and Jesse Richards, but returns first team all-OAC safety Chad Coward (81 tackles, 6 interceptions) and cornerback Vince Calloway.
“We set the bar kind of high, but it’s definitely not our peak,” Marshall said.
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