Bearcats Open Spring Practice on April 3

By Ryan Borde, Assistant Athletics Communications Director, (503) 370-6110, rborde@willamette.edu

SALEM, ORE. -- The Willamette University football team opens spring practice on Tuesday, April 3 at 7:15 p.m. (PDT) at McCulloch Stadium. The Bearcats have 11 practices scheduled over the next month, with their final practice set for Friday, May 4. That practice will be held during the Willamette Football Coaches Clinic, which will give other college and high school coaches a chance to see the Bearcats in action.

The Bearcats graduated 12 seniors from last season’s squad that went 2-7, and have some big holes to fill. Gone are First Team All-Northwest Conference flanker Ryan Hernandez, Second Team All-NWC cornerback Wes Randall, and Honorable Mention All-NWC receiver Mike Plank. Hernandez led the ‘Cats in rushing, while Plank was the team’s leading receiver in each of the past two seasons. Randall was a three-year starter at cornerback, and also blocked 11 kicks during his career.

One player that Willamette will be counting on for big things is senior offensive tackle Brandon Bennett (6’2”, 300 lbs., Wildomar, CA/La Costa Canyon HS). Bennett earned his second straight First Team All-NWC honor this past year, and was an American Football Coaches Association First Team All-America selection. In addition, he was named to the Associated Press Little All-America Third Team, earned Honorable Mention All-America status from D3football.com, and was Willamette’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Willamette also returns their other four starting offensive lineman, and one reserve who played significant minutes. Returning at center is sophomore Scott Hirschberger (5’11”, 261 lbs., Beaverton, OR/Southridge HS), who played every snap a year ago. At the guard spots are senior Justin Cole (6’2”, 270 lbs., Hillsboro, OR/Glencoe HS) and junior Robert Garcia (6’2”, 309 lbs., Salinas, CA/North Salinas HS/Hartnell College). Opposite Bennett at the other tackle is sophomore Joe Penkala (6’5”, 262 lbs., Niles, IL/Loyola Academy). Also back at tackle is junior Jake Forshey (6’6”, 283 lbs., Paso Robles, CA/Santa Ynez Valley Union HS), who battled various injuries last season after starting as a freshman.

A year ago the ‘Cats were hoping for a big season from running back Skylar Swinford (Sr., 5’10”, 196 lbs., McCall, ID/McCall Donnelly HS), but the powerful runner was sidelined for six weeks with a facial injury sustained against Gustavus Adolphus in week two. Swinford enters his final season as one of the leading candidates to start at running back.

Defensively the Bearcats will rely heavily on senior linebackers Phil Sweet (6’2”, 223 lbs., Albany, OR/West Albany HS) and Taylor Hermes (6’1”, 241 lbs., Keizer, OR/McNary HS/Southern Oregon Univ.). Last year Sweet earned Second Team All-NWC honors for the second straight season, while Hermes was named an Honorable Mention pick.

Sweet was the Bearcats’ top tackler with 59 total tackles, including 27 solo stops. His numbers were good for 11th best in the NWC. Hermes, who transferred from Southern Oregon University where he was a starter, finished second on the team in tackles with 57, including four tackles for loss and three sacks. What makes his numbers even more impressive is that he didn’t become a starter until the team’s fourth game of the year.

Also back on defense for WU are senior defensive tackle Mitch MacCready (6’4”, 250 lbs., Manteca, CA/Manteca HS), senior rover Tyler Gill (5’9”, 171 lbs., Fresno, CA/Herbert Hoover HS) and senior free safety Ben Fennimore (6’2”, 196 lbs., Salem, OR/McKay HS), who wont participate in spring practice as he is studying abroad in Ireland this semester. MacCready was a Second Team All-NWC pick last year, while Gill and Fennimore were Honorable Mention selections.

First Team All-NWC kicker Matt Bicocca (6'2", 169 lbs., San Andreas, CA/Calaveras HS) returns for his senior season, as does three-year starter Stephen Shamus (Sr., 6'1", 210 lbs., Stockton, CA/Lincoln HS) at long-snapper. Back to handle the punting duties for the third straight year is senior Clint Moran (6'0", 225 lbs., Mission Viejo, CA/Capistrano Valley HS).

Head Coach Mark Speckman is excited to get his team on the field again. Last year was the Bearcats first losing season since 2001, and only the team’s third losing record in Speckman’s nine years at the helm of the WU program.

“Its always fun to get out there and get going again,” said Speckman. “If the guys work as hard out on the field as they have been in the weight room, then we are going to have an outstanding spring.”

WILLAMETTE FOOTBALL SPRING SCHEDULE*:

Apr. 3, 5, 10, 12, 17, 24 and May 1 at 7:15 p.m.
Apr. 15, 22, 29 at 3:30 p.m.
May 4 TBA

*All practices are tentatively scheduled at McCulloch Stadium

Brandon Bennett was named First Team All-America by the American Football Coaches Association in 2006.

Brandon Bennett was named First Team All-America by the American Football Coaches Association in 2006.