Football Season Outlook for 2006 - Willamette Seeks Fifth Consecutive Winning Season

SALEM, OR - For the Willamette University football team, the 2006 season is an opportunity to achieve the Bearcats' fifth consecutive winning season. Willamette's efforts on the gridiron have led to a 25-15 overall record the past four years and the Bearcats have finished above .500 eight times during the past 10 seasons. The team highlighted the decade with a 13-1 record and a trip to the NCAA Division III Championship game in 1997. Willamette was 5-4 last season, including 3-1 (2nd place) in the Northwest Conference.

The Bearcats will be led by 16 returning starters, with seven starters back on offense and nine starters remaining in the defensive lineup. Willamette also returns its place-kicker, punter, deep snapper and the team's top punt return specialist.

Willamette suffered its most significant losses on offense, where the top two standouts completed their eligibility last fall. Quarterback Cameron Walton, a Second Team All-Northwest Conference selection, completed 71 of 134 passes (53.0%) for 847 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Quentin Brock carried the ball 185 times for 884 yards (4.8 avg.) and led the Bearcats with 10 touchdowns, while earning First Team All-NWC honors. He hauled in eight passes for 89 yards and returned 11 kickoffs for 211 yards (19.2 avg.). Willamette also lost two offensive linemen from the 2005 starting lineup.

The defense sustained only two losses among the starters, but both were key players. Medgy Khoury led the Willamette linebacking corps with a team-high 83 total tackles on 23 unassisted stops and 60 assists. He was named First Team All-Northwest Conference. Tim Alton registered 58 total tackles, including 24 solo tackles and 34 assists, as the team's free safety.

Without Walton at quarterback, the offense has to reset, with junior Kevin Whipps and sophomore Grant Leslie battling to take over as the offensive signal caller. Whipps played in four games last season, but did not start. He completed 11 of 25 passes (44.0%) for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Leslie is seeking his first action on the field for the Bearcats.

Although Willamette lacks significant experience at quarterback, the Bearcats still have some potent offensive threats returning for 2006. Ryan Hernandez (Sr., FL) is back after rushing for 356 yards on 65 carries (5.5 avg.) and catching 10 passes for 104 yards. He scored four touchdowns, including three on the ground. Michael Plank (Sr., SE) led the Bearcats with 36 catches for 490 yards and three touchdowns last fall. He also averaged 17.2 yards on four kickoff returns. Hernandez and Plank both earned Second Team All-Northwest Conference honors in 2005.

Likewise, even with Brock no longer in the lineup, the Bearcats should continue to field a commanding rushing attack. Kevin Dean (Sr.) returns at fullback, where he rushed 21 times for 92 yards (4.4 avg.) and two touchdowns, while providing solid blocking throughout the season. Skylar Swinford (Jr.), who rushed 10 times for 63 yards and returned six kickoffs for 128 yards (21.3 avg.) in four appearances a year ago, will battle C.J. Washington (Jr.) for the starting tailback spot. Washington played in nine game and carried the ball 10 times for 64 yards.

At tight end, Willamette returns the services of Tony Davis (Jr.). In 2005, Davis caught nine passes for 149 yards. He also contributed important blocks in Willamette's "fly" offense, which racked up 3,231 total yards (359.0 yards per game) and 2,148 yards on the ground (238.7 yards per game). Davis was selected Second Team All-NWC.

Junior offensive tackle Brandon Bennett leads three returning starters in the offensive line. Last year, Bennett was chosen First Team All-Northwest Conference, after receiving Honorable Mention All-NWC recognition as a freshman. Bennett also was named Honorable Mention All-America and Third Team All-West Region by last fall.

Other returning offensive linemen are Justin Cole (Jr., OG) and Jake Forshey (So., OT). The Bearcats will be looking for new starters at center and one offensive guard position. With a strong recruiting class of offensive linemen joining a solid group of returning lettermen, Head Coach Mark Speckman anticipates a
great year from the line.

"Since I've been here, this is the best group of linemen we've had. It was a very strong recruiting year for linemen," Speckman said.

After fielding a young defense in 2005, the Bearcats have gained experience and will benefit from the play of nine returning starters this season. Leading the defensive charge will be three players who earned Second Team All-NWC honors as sophomores last year. They are linebacker Phillip Sweet, strong safety Tyler Gill and defensive tackle Mitch MacCready.

Sweet ranked second on the team with 81 total tackles, including 28 solo stops. He also intercepted a pass, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.

Gill achieved 44 total tackles, evenly split between solo tackles and assists. He intercepted four passes for 47 yards in returns and broke up another six passes to go with two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

MacCready registered 22 total tackles, with 12 unassisted tackles and 10 assists. He earned five tackles for losses and recorded one sack. MacCready will lead a defensive line with all four starters returning.

Other starters in the defensive line are Chris Mulitalo (Jr., DT), Mike Reeves (So., DE) and Joshua Lee (So., DE). Mulitalo accumulated 29 tackles in 2005, with 2.5 tackles for losses and two pass break-ups. Reeves achieved 41 tackles, with 19 unassisted tackles and 22 assists. He recorded four tackles for losses and one quarterback sack. Lee earned seven tackles in six games, including 1.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

At linebacker, Sweet is joined by returner Devin O'Roarke. Last season, O'Roarke ranked third on the team with 76 total tackles. He provided the Bearcats with 24 unassisted tackles and 52 assists. Coach Speckman anticipates an intense battle from several players for the remaining linebacker spot.

"Our linebackers ... a lot of guys played last year and are back," Speckman said. "We're pretty fired up about our linebackers."

With Gill back at strong safety, plus two returning cornerbacks, the defensive secondary also should be strong this season. Wesley Randall (Sr., CB) produced 39 tackles (23 solo) a year ago, while breaking up six passes. At the other cornerback position, Josh Barker (Sr.) was involved in 19 tackles, including 16 unassisted tackles. He intercepted two passes and broke up four pass attempts.

The final position in the secondary, free safety, will likely be won by either Ben Fennimore (Jr.) or Jim Whiteley (Sr.). Fennimore earned 15 tackles and played in all nine games in 2005. Whiteley also played in every game and achieved four tackles.

Place-kicker Matt Bicocca (Jr.) and punter Clinton Moran (Jr.) each enters his third season as a Willamette starter on special teams. Bicocca ranked second on the team in scoring last year (43 points), while converting 6 of 8 field goals and 25 of 26 extra points. Moran averaged 37.1 yards on 50 punts, including 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. Bicocca and Moran will benefit from the deep snapping of Stephen Shamus (Jr.), who also returns.

Plank will be the team's top punt returner. He gained 24 yards on 8 punt returns in 2005. Several players are being considered to take the lead role on kickoff returns.

Willamette's schedule features six games against challenging Northwest Conference opponents, plus three strong non-conference games against NCAA Division II rival Western Oregon University and NCAA Division III West Region foes Gustavus Adolphus University and California Lutheran University. As usual, the match-ups with Linfield College from the NWC and Western Oregon are of particular interest to Willamette's hometown fans in Salem, Oregon.

"The local rivalries are intact," Speckman said. "Those are fun to play. Anytime we play them, it's going to be a big game."

Overall, the Bearcats will play just four of nine regular season games at home. The five road games include four of the six NWC contests.

"The big key for us is playing well on the road," Speckman noted. "For us to achieve our goals, we're going to have to be a good road team. It's just imperative."

Even with the extra challenges Willamette will face on the road, the Bearcats are looking forward to the 2006 season. The Bearcats have won seven or more games four times during Speckman's eight seasons. Willamette has claimed a total of 21 Northwest Conference titles, including its most recent championships in 1996, 1997 and 1999.

"I'm really looking forward to getting these guys out on the field," Speckman said. "This may be one of the more balanced teams that we've had. Last year, we were just so young on both sides of the ball.

"We think we're going to field a pretty good squad ... where both sides of the line will contribute equally," Speckman continued. "And we're excited about our special teams. Their experienced, too."