Football Focus: Willamette Leads NCAA Division III in Passing Yards

Dean has Completed 69.4% of his Passes for 1,483 Yards and 18 TDs

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

SALEM, ORE. -- The Willamette University football team, known for more than a decade as having one of the top rushing attacks in the nation, now has the top passing attack in NCAA Division III. The Bearcats are ranked #1 in the nation in passing offense with 394.25 passing yards per game.

Under new Head Coach Glen Fowles, who was a long-time offensive coordinator for former Head Coach Mark Speckman, the Bearcats are setting the standard for passing. Fowles hired Brian Sheppard as the new offensive coordinator, and together they began to build the new "Willamette Offense."

"One of his strengths," Fowles said about Sheppard, "is being able to teach and coach the quarterbacks.

"Together we want to build an offense that is effective running and throwing the ball," Fowles continued. "It all boils down to what the defense wants to stop, and having the ability to take advantage of what the defense gives you."

Starting quarterback Josh Dean (Jr., Dana Hills, CA/Dana Point HS) has learned a lot from Sheppard, and has put his knowledge to work for the Bearcats so far this season. Dean has completed 69.4% of his passes for 1,483 yards. He ranks #1 in NCAA Division III in individual passing yards per game with 370.75 yards per contest.

Dean has connected on 120 of 173 passes for 18 touchdowns, and has been intercepted just three times. His quarterback efficiency rating is a stellar 172.24. He is averaging 4.5 passing touchdowns per game.

"When the new offense was introduced to everybody, Dean did a great job in picking it up," Fowles commented. "One of the reasons he's in the position he's in (as the starter) is that he has continued to learn, which is really good for us."

So far in 2012, Dean has thrown for more than 300 yards and at least four touchdowns in every game. He tied a WU record with six touchdown passes in his first start, as he led the Bearcats to a 58-34 win at Hardin-Simmons University (Texas) in the season-opener on Sept. 1. In that game, he passed for a career-high 468 yards, missing the Willamette single-game record by just five yards.

As a team, Willamette is 128 of 186 passing (68.8%) for 1,577 yards and 19 touchdowns. A total of 16 different players have caught at least one touchdown pass, including eight players with at least 1.5 catches per game.

"We have progressive reads. We are less concerned about getting the ball to a certain guy," Fowles stated. "Josh improves weekly on staying true to his reads and doesn't force many throws. He is a student of the game and his performance improves from week to week.

Leading the Bearcats in receiving is Jake Turner (Sr., WR, Ontario, OR/Ontario HS) with 28 catches for 471 yards and four touchdowns. He is averaging 16.8 yards per catch.

Jake Knecht (Sr., WR, Issaquah, WA/Skyline HS/Illinois State Univ.) has grabbed 26 passes for 303 yards and four touchdowns, while Benny Weischedel (Sr., TE, San Pedro, CA/San Pedro HS) has hauled in 19 passes for 303 yards and four touchdowns. The trio of Turner, Knecht and Weischedel have combined for 73 catches, a total of 1,077 yards and 12 touchdowns.

"Our receivers do a great job knowing their responsibilities, and understand that coverage dictates who gets the ball," Fowles said. "When one guy has a great day, it is because the other receivers are doing their job."

The result has been Dean's high passing efficiency rating and nine players who have caught at least one pass for 15 or more yards. The longest pass was a screen that Dylan Jones (So., RB, Santa Maria, CA/Ernest Righetti HS) turned into a 63-yard touchdown against Hardin-Simmons.

One thing that stands out about the passing game this season is the that all of the success is being achieved with players who were already on the team when Fowles took over as the head coach. The same players who are throwing passes and making great catches this fall were helping the "Fly" offense succeed in previous years.

That may be a surprise to many people, but not to Fowles and his assistant coaches.

"We have talented players here and we have good coaches. When Brian and I talked about what we wanted to do, the ability to get more guys involved was critical for both of us," Fowles said. "More guys feel a part of the plan and have responded well with their increased responsibility. We want to get production out of many positions, not just one or two."

So far, the new approach has been working. The Bearcats are 4-0 heading into this weekend's match-up of undefeated teams against Whitworth University, currently 5-0. The Northwest Conference game is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 6 at 1 p.m. (PDT) in Spokane, Wash.

"What we want to do here is have the ability to recruit the most talented offensive players," Fowles explained. "If we can get production out of our skill position players, then the offensive linemen will come, too ... all they want to do is block someone and win some games."

NOTE:  Photos by Naomi Stukey, Photographer for Willamette Athletics

Junior quarterback Josh Dean has thrown for 1,483 yards and 18 touchdowns this season.

Junior quarterback Josh Dean has thrown for 1,483 yards and 18 touchdowns this season.

Dean has a quarterback efficiency rating of 172.24 and has completed 120 of 173 passes (69.4%).

Dean has a quarterback efficiency rating of 172.24 and has completed 120 of 173 passes (69.4%).

Jake Turner leads the Bearcats this season with 28 catches for 471 yards. He is ranked #12 in the nation with 117.75 receiving yards per game.

Jake Turner leads the Bearcats this season with 28 catches for 471 yards. He is ranked #12 in the nation with 117.75 receiving yards per game.

Benny Weischedel is averaging 15.9 yards per reception and has scored four touchdowns.

Benny Weischedel is averaging 15.9 yards per reception and has scored four touchdowns.

Jake Knecht caught a career-high 10 passes in Willamette's 51-17 win over Pacific.

Jake Knecht caught a career-high 10 passes in Willamette's 51-17 win over Pacific.