Willamette Ready for Exciting Football Season

By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director, (503) 370-6110

SALEM, ORE. -- The Willamette University football team looks to seven returning starters on offense and five returning starters on defense to set the pace for the 2008 season. Willamette opens its schedule on Saturday, Sept. 6, when the Bearcats host Concordia College-Moorhead at McCulloch Stadium, starting at 1:30 p.m. (PDT).

Last year, Willamette went 4-6 overall, including 3-3 (4th place) in the Northwest Conference. Willamette defeated arch rival Linfield College, 33-32, on a field goal in the closing seconds when the Wildcats were ranked #12 in NCAA Division III. Later in the season, Willamette set school records for scoring and rushing as the 'Cats rushed for 599 yards and 11 touchdowns in a 77-17 rout of Lewis & Clark College.

The Bearcats lost five games by nine points or less in 2007, including a 20-17 overtime defeat against eventual NWC champion Whitworth University. Four of the defeats were by seven points or less, including a 13-7 loss at the University of Puget Sound and a 17-10 loss to Pacific Lutheran University.

Willamette averaged 343.0 total yards per game, with 250.0 rushing yards per contest and 5.0 yards per carry. Woo’s defense was stingy against the run, as the Bearcats held opponents to 97.8 yards per game and 2.8 yards per rush.

“I’m pleased with the conditioning our players did before coming back,” Head Coach Mark Speckman said. “We’ve had a good camp. There is a lot of experience on offense and at certain positions on defense. I’m pretty pleased with where we’re at right now.”

With less than three weeks between the start of preseason practices and the season opener, Speck man and his assistant coaches have had to accomplish quite a bit in a short time.

“The hardest part is getting the right people in the right spots,” Speck man noted. “I think we’re ahead of where we were last year.”

When the Bearcats and Concordia College battle on Saturday, it will be a key regional match-up for both teams. Willamette was competitive with the strongest teams in the NWC last year, while Concordia went 7-3 overall, 5-3 in the MIAC.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Speck man said about the season opener. “They’ve certainly got our attention.”

The next sections look at what to expect from the Willamette offense, followed by the defense and the special teams. The final section examines WU’s overall schedule for 2008.

OFFENSE

Quarterback Ryan Whitcomb (Jr., Oak View, CA/Nor Hoff HS/College of the Canyons) led the Bearcats with 677 rushing yards on 128 carries, an average of 5.3 yards per rush. He rushed for more than 100 yards in four games, including a season high of 128 yards against Pacific Lutheran. He scored three rushing touchdowns during the year and threw for three touchdowns. He was 44 of 85 (51.8%) for 480 yards passing.

Whitcomb started the last five games of the season after previous starter Grant Leslie (Sr., Bainbridge Island, WA/Bainbridge HS) suffered a knee injury in the win over Linfield. Leslie also returns, giving WU two quality quarterbacks at the top of the depth chart. Prior to his injury, Leslie completed 33 of 83 passes for 432 yards and three touchdowns.

“I anticipate both of them playing,” Speck man said regarding his top two quarterbacks.

Also returning at quarterback is Brandt Nevin (So., Eagle Point, OR). Nevin previously played at Eagle Point High School.

Three other offensive starters return in the backfield. Cody Anthony (Sr., RB, Vale, OR/Vale HS) provided solid blocking throughout the season and rushed for 137 yards on 22 carries (6.2 yards per carry). Merben Woo (Sr., FL, Salinas, CA/North Salinas HS/Hartnell College) led the team in pass receptions, as he hauled down 19 catches for 215 yards. James Yamashita (Sr., WR, Walnut Creek, CA/Diablo Valley College) caught 16 passes and topped the offensive chart with 232 receiving yards.

Anthony will lead the way at fullback. He will be joined by returning players Jon Feld (Sr., Vacaville, CA/Vacaville HS) and Aaron Cavette (So., Port Townsend, WA/Port Townsend HS). Newcomer Solomon Frank (Fr., Salem, OR), who played at nearby McKay High School also will challenge for playing time.

At tailback, Deone Horne (Jr., Issaquah, WA/Liberty HS) saw limited action in 2007, but carried the ball 10 times for 109 yards (10.9 avg.). Battling Horne for the starting position will be transfer student Kyle Johnson (So., Tualatin, OR/Tualatin HS). Johnson rushed 25 times for 115 yards (4.6 avg.) at Assumption College last season. Other top tailbacks are Jose Green (So., Downey, CA/Warren HS) and Sean Donahue (So., Palm Desert, CA/Palm Desert HS).

Woo and Yamashita will anchor the passing corps. They will be joined by returning players Drew Shepherd (Sr., WR, Park City, UT/Park City HS), Tony Krikorian (Jr., FL, Costa Mesa, CA/Costa Mesa HS), Marcus Woo (So., FL, Cupertino, CA/Monta Vista HS), Scott Schoettgen (So., WR, Columbia, CA/Sonora HS) and Toby Moore (So., WR, Caldwell, ID/Greenleaf HS/Boise State University).

Shepherd caught 11 passes for 135 yards in 2007. Schoettgen showed great promise before a late season injury as a freshman in 2006. He rejoined the squad this fall after missing last year with another injury.

Two freshmen will add to Willamette’s strengths at wide receiver. The freshmen are Andrew Patton (Tualatin, OR/Tualatin HS/Assumption College) and Raymond White (Corona, CA/Centennial HS).

A total of three starters return in the offensive line. They are center Josh Hirschberger (Jr., Beaverton, OR/Southridge HS), offensive guard Robert Garcia (Sr., Salinas, CA/North Salinas HS/Hartnell College) and offensive tackle Joe Penkala (Jr., Niles, IL/Loyola Academy). Also returning is part-time starter Jake Forshey (Sr., OT, Santa Ynez, CA/Santa Ynez Valley Union HS).

Hirschberger, Garcia, Penkala and Forshey contributed to WU’s exceptional rushing attack and solid passing game. WU picked up 174 first downs, including an impressive 121 first downs on the ground (12.1 per game).

Depth in the offensive line will be provided by a talented group of players. Returning athletes include Adrian Lewis (Jr., OT, Turlock, CA/Pitman HS), Dennis Plzak (So., OL, Gilbert, AZ/Highland HS) and Luis Guerra (So., OG, El Cajon, CA/Steele Canyon HS). Key newcomers are Kenneth Miller (Fr., OL, Woodland, WA/Woodland HS) and Edward Salceda (So., OL, San Pedro, CA/San Pedro HS).

Starting at tight end will be senior Josh Lee (Eugene, OR/Sheldon HS/Air Force Academy). Lee played in all 10 games in 2007 and provided solid blocking for WU's running attack. He also caught seven passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns. William Pohl (So., Boise, ID/Boise HS) will back-up Lee in addition to contributing when the Bearcats need two tight ends.

The team must replace All-America offensive tackle Brandon Bennett (Sr. in 2007, San Marcos, CA/La Costa Canyon HS) and Second Team All-NWC running back C.J. Washington (Sr. in 2007, Spokane, WA/Shadle Park HS). Bennett was named First Team All-America by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) for the second season in a row. Washington rushed for 576 yards on 114 carries (5.1 avg.) and led the team with eight rushing touchdowns.

DEFENSE

The Bearcats were dominant against the run in 2007. Not only did the team hold opponents under 100 yards per game for the season, but the 'Cats were even stingier in conference play. Willamette allowed just 73.0 rushing yards per game in the NWC, while holding teams to a meager 2.2 yards per carry. Pacific Lutheran rushed for just 22 yards on 33 carries and Puget Sound earned only 32 yards on 40 carries.

Two of Willamette's five returning starters on defense play in the line. They are defensive end Marcus Ford (Sr., Marina, CA/Monterey Junior College) and defensive end Cory Lowe (Jr., Beaverton, OR/Beaverton HS).

Ford was third on the 2007 team in total tackles with 52 (25 solo, 27 assists), while Lowe finished fourth with 46 tackles (25 solo, 21 assists). Lowe was chosen Second Team All-NWC and Ford was named Honorable Mention All-NWC. Both provided exceptional pressure in the backfield and always seemed to be around the ball. Lowe registered team highs with 12.0 tackles for losses and 7.5 quarterback sacks. Ford ranked second in both categories (8.0 TFL, 3.0 QBS).

Other returning defensive ends include Mike Reeves (Sr., Corvallis, OR/Corvallis HS/University of Montana) and Neil Bergquist (Jr., Edmonds, WA/Edmonds-Woodway HS). Reeves and Bergquist are knowledgeable regarding WU’s defensive set-up and should make quality contributions throughout the season. Last year, Reeves achieved 12 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for losses. A key newcomer at defensive end is Ryan Bourke (Fr., Bothell, WA/Archbishop Murphy HS).

Willamette graduated several defensive tackles following last season, but the team has a group of players ready to step in and make big plays. Returning Bearcats are Craig Sather (Jr., Junction City, OR/Junction City HS) and Aaron McKinney (Jr., Corvallis, OR/Corvallis HS/Southern Oregon University). Ricky Najarro (So., Arleta, CA/Cathedral HS) played in the defensive line for the ‘Cats in 2006 and is back for the 2008 season.

Scott Reil (So., Petaluma, CA/Casa Grande HS) was an offensive lineman at WU last season. He moved to defensive tackle this fall, where he will provide depth, along with Juan Alvarado (Fr., Stockton, CA/Franklin HS), Ronald Carter (Fr., Atwater, CA/Buhach Colony HS) and William Zimmerman (Fr., Rainier, OR/Rainier HS/Eastern Oregon University).

At outside linebacker, starter Matt Banta (Jr., OLB, Baker City, OR/Baker HS) played in all 10 games a year ago and recorded 31 tackles. Banta will receive assistance from sophomore Cole Douglas (Tacoma, WA/Bellarmine Prep) and from freshman Harmon Bruno (Danville, CA/San Ramon Valley HS).

Several returning players will lead the way in the battle for starting positions at inside linebacker. Jack Bevins (Sr., Park City, UT/Park City HS) registered 21 tackles last year and Tommy Grove (Sr., Moccasin, Ca/Sonora HS/Butte JC) provided nine tackles. Andrew Ross (Jr., Petaluma, CA/Petaluma HS), Walter Robinson, II (So., Pasadena, CA/Cathedral HS) and Trevor Leaf (So., Hayden, ID/Coeur d’Alene HS) also return. A newcomer with solid skills at inside linebacker is Steven Donohue (Fr., Honolulu, HI/Saint Louis School).

In the secondary, starting cornerback Ryan Bettencourt (Sr., Danville, CA/San Ramon Valley HS) and strong safety Arlin Taylor (So., Spring Valley, CA/Steele Canyon HS) return. Bettencourt topped the squad with 11 pass break-ups and made 23 tackles. Taylor, who started at cornerback a year ago, registered 32 tackles, including 22 unassisted tackles.

Joining Bettencourt as experienced cornerbacks are Artie Atencio (Sr., Scotts Valley, CA/Scotts Valley HS) and James Perez (Jr., Petaluma, CA/Petaluma HS). Blaze Rogers (Fr., Lahaina, HI/Lahainaluna HS) showed great potential during the 2007 preseason, but missed all 10 games due to injury. Transfer player Jeff Kahler (So., Honolulu, HI/Saint Louis School/Whitworth University) will challenge for playing time.

Taylor is the likely starter at strong safety. At free safety, Grant Piros (Sr., FS, Newberg, OR/Newberg HS) has the most experience. He earned 15 tackles last fall, including 11 solo stops. Piros also intercepted two passes in WU’s Northwest Conference game against Whitworth.

Returning players Lukkes Gilgan (Jr., DB, Sherwood, OR/Sherwood HS) and Carson Chihara (Jr., SS, Lahaina, HI/Lahainaluna HS) will contribute at safety. Gilgan achieved 12 tackles and broke up two passes in 2007, while Chihara played in six games for the Bearcats. Freshman defensive back Arnaud Vidaller (Fr., DB, Amiens, France/Louis Thuillier HS) is the top newcomer at safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Last year, Matt Bicocca (Sr., PK, San Andreas, CA/Calaveras HS) and Clinton Moran (P, Mission Viejo, CA/Capistrano Valley HS) earned First Team All-Northwest Conference honors for their efforts in the kicking game. Bicocca converted 28 of 28 extra points and made 7 of 12 field goals. He kicked a 42-yard field goal with four second remaining in the win over Linfield. Moran averaged 39.8 yards per punt on 52 attempts, including a school record 67-yarder against Linfield.

In 2008, a group of talented freshmen will battle for the starting place-kicker and punter positions. The Bearcats also will have several players competing for duties as the team’s long snapper.

At place-kicker and punter, Mitchell Rowan (Fr., Cotati, CA/Rancho Cotate HS) has gained the early edge for the starting position. Jorden Nielsen (Fr., Williams, OR/Hidden Valley HS) is a solid challenger, especially in the punting game. Brandt Nevin will supply depth at punter in addition to providing depth at quarterback.

The Bearcats return their starting punt returner and kick returner. Artie Atencio (Sr., CB, Scotts Valley, CA/Scott Valley HS) led the team with 17 punts a year ago, while Jose Green (So., TB, Downey, CA/Warren HS) averaged 11.2 yards on 10 punt returns. Green also brought back 20 kickoffs for 454 yards, an average of 23.2 yards per return. Also capable of making lengthy returns on punts and kicks are Merben Woo and James Yamashita.

“I think they’re all pretty interchangeable,” Speck man said regarding Atencio, Green, Woo and Yamashita. Last year, Yamashita scored on an 89-yard kickoff return and Green had an 85-yard kick return.

The holder position on place kicks will be manned by quarterbacks Ryan Whitcomb and Grant Leslie. Long snapping duties will go to returning athletes Andrew Ross or Cole Douglas, or to newcomer Douglas Gilmore (Fr., Portland, OR/Beaverton HS). All three will look to take over for graduating four-year starter Stephen Shamus.

SCHEDULE

The Bearcats will play a challenging 10-game schedule, with five home games and five road games. After hosting Concordia College-Moorhead in the season opener, the remaining home schedule includes a non-conference game against Southern Oregon University on Sept. 20 (Reunion Weekend), plus NWC match-ups with Lewis & Clark College on Oct. 11, the University of Puget Sound on Nov. 8 and Menlo College on Nov. 15.

Willamette will play two non-conference road games in California, as the Bearcats are slated to take on California Lutheran University on Sept. 13 and the University of La Verne on Sept. 27. The 'Cats will play NWC road games at Whitworth University on Oct. 4, Pacific Lutheran University on Oct. 18 and Linfield College on Oct. 25.

Head Coach Mark Speckman is in his 11th season as the leader of Willamette's football team. He also served three years as WU’s offensive coordinator, including 1997, when the Bearcats went 13-1 and reached the NAIA National Championship game. As a head coach, Speckman has guided Willamette to the NCAA Division III Playoffs in 1999 and 2004, and to an undefeated NWC championship (5-0) in 1999.

Ryan Whitcomb rushed for 677 yards on 128 carries (5.3 avg.) for the Bearcats last season.

Ryan Whitcomb rushed for 677 yards on 128 carries (5.3 avg.) for the Bearcats last season.

Merben Woo caught 19 passes for 215 yards last season.

Merben Woo caught 19 passes for 215 yards last season.

The crowd at McCulloch Stadium cheers on the Bearcats in last season's win over Linfield.

The crowd at McCulloch Stadium cheers on the Bearcats in last season's win over Linfield.

Marcus Ford recorded 52 tackles for the Bearcats in 2007.

Marcus Ford recorded 52 tackles for the Bearcats in 2007.