By: Ryan Gasser, sports information director
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Capital Football made impressive strides last year and will have majority of the cast returning for the 2017 season. With those that are returning back with full health and a full recruiting class of accomplished players adding to the depth of the Purple and White, Capital is looking to put forth an effort that will move into the top half of the Ohio Athletic Conference.
Capital comes off a season in which they finished 4-6 overall and 4-5 in the conference, a step in the right direction while under the direction of Head Coach Chad Rogosheske. Veterans returning at key positions will play a huge role in both continuing the team's progression, as well as grooming a large number of young and first-year players.
The transition into a traditional spread offense was a huge success in large part to the presence and play of junior Thomas Wibbeler (Zanesville, Ohio/Zanesville). Despite his season coming to an end after just six games due to a knee injury, Wibbeler returned to camp feeling like his former self, and is ready to win the starting job back. Wibbeler became just the third quarterback to hit 1,500 yards passing since 2003, and that number could have been north of 2,000 had it not been for the injury.
"You can tell he put work in this offseason to rehab and get better but he also improved himself physically that didn't have to do with the injury," said Rogosheske. "He seems to be pretty confident and doing very well."
The job isn't a complete lock for Wibbeler, yet. Over the course of his career, senior Nick Iske (Hilliard, Ohio/Hilliard Davidson) has made a habit of entering in clutch situations and keeping the Crusaders afloat when the boat takes on water. Iske, who was groomed in the triple option offense, has become a better passer with increased accuracy and arm strength. Over his career, Iske has passed for 1,426 yards and eight touchdowns, in addition to his 935 rushing yards and 14 scores on the ground.
"Nick [Iske] is having a really good camp too. He is a year further into the system and is much more confident as well," said Rogosheske. "He is making good decisions and worked hard as well this offseason. If you rank your top 11 guys on offense, are probably two that at certain points in time you want them on the field."
Wibbeler likely has the edge to start considering his natural skillset is fitted better for the system, but the competition will endure through the last preseason game. Rogosheske does acknowledge that both quarterbacks do certain tasks better than the other, and it is likely fans will see both over the course of the season in different situations.
The crop of new quarterbacks did leave an impression on Rogosheske in camp, but will likely use the 2017 season for developmental purposes.
"I like the four new guys a lot as far as their potential," said Rogosheske, "but they each have their own areas that they need to develop to get to where Thomas and Nick are at, and a lot of that has to do with experience and what we do and teach at the college level."
Capital's run game also took a more traditional form and will continue to strengthen this year with the return of senior Cory Heeter (Circleville, Ohio/Logan Elm) plus the maturation of sophomore Evin Butler (Dayton, Ohio/Dayton Christian). Another casualty of the injury bug last year, Heeter returns fully healthy and ready to lead the backs with the fullest combination of skills. Heeter was well on pace to threaten the single-season touchdown mark after posting seven touchdowns through his first four games prior to his season-ending injury, and is on pace to hit 1,000 career yards early this season.
"His approach to the game, leadership and well-roundedness makes him the incumbent starting running back," says Rogosheske, "but we know you can't just have one there. It is a position that has become a committee. There are quite a few options this year to make that committee, this year."
Butler's speed makes him a vital part of the running game, and his blocking has greatly improved from his freshman seasons. In his first year, he rushed for 248 yards and fumbled just once in 66 touches.
"As they have been around each other and the program, they [Butler and Heeter] have become closer in their skill sets. With the work that Evin [Butler] has put in, he is now getting very close in what we want from our tailbacks from a well-roundedness standpoint."
Nateshawn Hargrove (Columbus, Ohio/Northland) transferred in from Notre Dame College and showed flashes of solid play in the team's first scrimmage, using his 5-foot, 9-inch, 215-pound frame to both create and expose holes. Additional athletes such as Jaden Gianettino (Zanesville, Ohio/West Muskingum) and Jahmeir Robinson (Rochester, N.Y./Wilson Magnet) add speed to the group, while Jake Pisula (Scottdale, Pa./Southmoreland) possess a more north-south type style to play with.
As the offense becomes more open with the passing game being a high priority to make the rest of the offense more dangerous. This group will get a lot of looks, including returning all-conference receiver David Barnett (Springfield, Ohio/Shawnee). The sophomore exploded on the scene in his first season and created a strong connection between he and Wibbeler, which led to him breaking into the top 10 single season lists for receiving yards (877) and touchdown catches (10) as a freshman.
"He [Barnett] is a naturally stronger individual but having the background of a good offseason has made him an even stronger player, said Rogosheske. "He's physical and can be a mismatch against smaller corners because of his size, and he runs sharp routes."
Nick Waters (Hilliard, Ohio/Hilliard Davidson) flourished in the passing game last year, as well. He made 29 catches for 383 yards and one key touchdown grab against Otterbein in 2017, but his presence on the field was always felt between his leadership and dual threat as a runner, slot receiver, or wide out. Waters led the team and was third in the league in all-purpose yards (1,114/139.3 ypg), many of those coming on kick returns.
The duo will also receive some help in Division II transfer Dartavious Stanford (Zanesville, Ohio/Zanesville), who joins Capital after spending two seasons at nearby Ohio Dominican University. With the Panthers, he was the team's second-leading receiver in 2017 after making 60 catches for 687 yards and four touchdowns. He reunites with Wibbeler after the two played together at Zanesville High School during the school's deep playoff runs during their prep days. Rogosheske used the terms "smooth" and "reliable" to best describe Stanford's play.
Junior Eddie Preciado (Downey, Calif./Downey) will remain in the fold on both kickoffs and as a threat on the outside. Rogosheske noted that Preciado had a good preseason and needs to continue being consistent in order to use his natural athleticism to the fullest.
Sophomore Nathan Sperling (Marion, Ohio/Harding) and junior Jante Wright (Delaware, Ohio/Hayes) also adds to the depth of a large wide receiving group. Rogosheske added that there are a host of guys the Crusaders can call upon, and they will all receive reps both on the inside and outside while they sort out the best fits.
The idea of how to use the tight ends group has been under observation since Rogosheske stepped on campus before the 2016 season. As they grow the position in numbers, so to do the opportunities to use the position grow.
Senior Trey Reese (Pittsburgh, Pa./Penn Hills) made a successful transition from defensive line to tight end – though he still may be used in a defensive role in 2017 – and showed his pass catching ability with 11, including one touchdown, in 2016.
Junior Andrew Cline (Port Clinton, Ohio/Port Clinton) also made a position transition after beginning 2016 as an offensive tackle and then morphing into a blocking tight end to add depth to the position. The duo will sit atop the depth chart this year, though it is expected to have Noah Dall (Dublin, Ohio/Bishop Watterson) and Josh Moore (Belpre, Ohio/Belpre) in the mix for reps.
Senior Hunter Smith (Zanesville, Ohio/Philo) returns as the team's lead choice at H-back, which requires a lot of blocking with a mix of run and swing plays to maximize a comprehensive skillset. Freshman Drake Harris (Pickerington, Ohio/Pickerington Central) will add depth behind Smith.
What had been one of the Crusaders' strongest position groups over the last four years will undergo a reloading effort this year after graduating four key players that made up the offensive line. Cap will heavily rely on seniors Zach Clapper (Zanesville, Ohio/Zanesville) and Second Team All-OAC lineman Zack Kennedy (Grove City, Ohio/Grove City) to anchor the line and bring up a new crop of blockers to each side. It is expected that senior Eddie Lehman (Longwood, Fla./Lake Mary) will join that group after playing a fair amount as a junior. Juniors Logan Hernon and Colter Thompson are returners that have continued to compete for starting spots.
"The one thing with offensive linemen is that you can never have enough," said Rogosheske. "We have a good split of guys returning with experience and new guys coming in who are competing and pushing those guys, providing depth and fighting for playing time."
The freshman class brought in a lot of size, and that may get them some looks as Rogosheske rounds out the top five linemen. Those include Aaron Blubaugh (6-2, 310), Josh Boyle (6-2, 255), Josh McSweeney (6-1, 320), and Nicholas Russell (6-1, 265). But Rogosheske also mentioned that size does not always make the best linemen, and that good feet may win the position battle.
While the depth continues to develop, he cited that there will be a lot of crossover training between different positions to help utilize the assets around them. Rogosheske admits the depth may not quite be there yet, so they are going to be a tougher group.
The defense instituted a 4-2-5 set a year ago and face some concerns with those that graduated. Instead of switching gears, Coach says he will instead switch personnel and use more athletic players in places where holes reside.
Senior Kris Lee (Piqua, Ohio/Lehman Catholic) and junior Drew Selegue (Westerville, Ohio/St. Francis DeSales) are locks to return and bolster the inside of the defensive line. Both battled injuries a year ago, but are ready to return for 2017.
On the outsides, a mix of players will see time to provide a speed rush to get to the opposing quarterback. Of those returning, Malachi Beckles (Titusville, Fla./Titusville) and Justin Scott (National City, Calif./Eastlake) will flex between defensive end and linebacker. Sophomore Will Futrell has grown into a spot where he may be able to bolster the inside of the line, while junior Cory Mays continues to learn the game and position while providing a large frame (6-5, 240) on the outside.
Rogosheske notes that the defensive line group is a much more versatile group which will allow them to play sideline-to-sideline, an essential skill needed to compete in the OAC.
The linebackers are, without question, the most experienced and deep position group on the Crusaders roster. The top three tacklers from last year's corps return and 11 freshman have been added to the mix.
All-conference pick Derek Eibon (Amherst, Ohio/Amherst Steele) will again serve as the rock to the linebackers and station the middle of the field. The senior is now in his third year as a starter and comes off a season in which he posted 81 total tackles, averaged nine per game, and also forced a pair of fumbles.
To his right and left will be senior Shawn Facione (Marion, Ohio/Harding) and Kane Murray (Warren, Ohio/Warren G. Harding). Murray had a breakout year serving on the outside in the STAR position, and now finds himself the second-leading tackler of those returning from a season ago. Murray has a knack to find the ball and get into the backfield, as shown with his 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss. While Facione missed two games last season and had his play impacted by injury, his leadership, on or off the field, is unquestioned. Hard hits and instincts are a part of the senior's game, and he will look to heighten numbers from a season ago (24 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR).
"Top to bottom, the linebacker group is a real solid one for us and we will be looking for a lot of them to contribute in one way, shape or form," said Rogosheske. This includes getting reps on the special teams units while newcomers mature in their defensive positions.
Some of those younger linebackers expected to see time include juniors Jon Eaton, who switched from running back to linebacker early in 2016, and Julian Mendoza, sophomore Jason Campbell, freshmen Michael Lauofo and Isaac Kennedy, and newly transformed linebacker Isaiah Lyle.
Whether they line up on the outside or up top, the defensive backs will be an interesting group to follow. After making huge gains in pass defense, especially in team interceptions (15), the Crusaders look to keep the upward trend going. They will be relying heavily on senior Eric Stroski (Concord, Ohio/Riverside) and his versatility to play either free safety or line up to cover in the slot in a pinch. Stroski tallied 53 tackles and one pick while lining up in a variety of positions.
The strong safety position is up for grabs, though the staff is hopeful that the experience senior Austin White (Hebron, Ohio/Lakewood) has accumulated will be enough for him to elevate into that role. Among those backs returning, he leads the group with three interceptions.
On the outsides, Capital feels comfortable with the seasons that sophomores LaShaun Sanders Jr. (Columbus, Ohio/St. Francis/Ohio) and two-year starter Jordan Duncan (Sunnyvale, Calif./The Kings Academy) put up. Together they finished with 86 tackles, plus each made two interceptions and four pass breakups. Senior Eriq Hall (Lorain, Ohio/Lorain) has worked tirelessly to get healthy again, and will be in the mix with a pair of freshmen for opportunities in the secondary.
Special teams will undergo an overhaul this season. Wyatt Pertuset, who punted out of necessity last year, will sit out the 2017 due to injury. This leaves the door open for the trio of freshmen brought in to compete for both the kicking and punting jobs. Anis Galal (Berlin, Germany/Toledo Start) returns after a year filled with injury to lead the competition for kicking duties. Incoming freshmen that will have opportunities include Bryce Wilson (Jamestown, Ohio/Greenview), Blake Middleton (Miamisburg, Ohio/Miamisburg) and Avery Wirt (Findlay, Ohio/Findlay).
Those taking kicks both on kickoff and punt return are expected to be very familiar to fans. The cast of Eddie Preciado and Nick Waters are likely to rotate for reps between the two return teams. Last year, Waters led the OAC in kick return yards (589), helping him finish the year seventh in all-purpose yardage. Cory Heeter may find himself in line to return based on previous success, as well.
The 2017 action begins with a home game on Sept. 2 against Mount St. Joseph University, a team that had a successful 2016 season in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. A second home game will follow as Cap opens the OAC slate with its annual night game versus Muskingum University on Sept. 16. Cap hits the road for the first time on Sept. 23 with a roadie to Wilmington College before gearing up for a heated rivalry matchup with Otterbein University on Homecoming Weekend to close out the month.
October always proves to be a grinder of a month, and begins with Ohio Northern University in the first of two straight road games. A pair of national semifinalists await in weeks six and seven with the University of Mount Union and John Carroll University, respectively. To close out October, Cap will head to Berea in a redemption match against Baldwin Wallace University after stealing a double-overtime win from the Yellow Jackets at home last season. The Crusaders celebrate Senior Day on Nov. 4 when they host Marietta College in the final home game of the year. The Purple and White will close the regular season with a road game at Heidelberg University on Nov. 11.