Bulldogs Look To Young Talent
A lot of familiar faces are gone.
Graduation and off-season departures stripped 16 starters from last
year’s Butler football squad, including the No. 1 passing duo
in school history.
Those departures have assured that the Bulldogs will have a different look in 2012. They’ve also created an opportunity for many of Butler’s younger players, and head coach Jeff Voris likes the way those players have responded.
“There’s a lot of energy,” said Voris. “It really started back in January. We have so many young guys who are getting their first chance to play that the energy, the excitement, the passion, the work-ethic and those kinds of things have been outstanding.”
“We’ve seen it in practice and in the weight room,” continued the Butler coach. “These guys have really worked hard on preparation. They’ve studied film and they’ve done the things that you expect out of veterans. We’re excited to see how that translates on the field.”
The new guys will have some big shoes to fill. Gone from last year’s 5-6 squad are All-PFL performers Zach Watkins (WR), Nick Caldicott (LB), Ross Teare (DL), Pete Mattingly (OL), Michael Wilson (P), David Lang (PK), Andrew Huck (QB) Jordan Koopman (RS), Grant Hunter (DL), Andy Dauch (DB) and Jay Howard (OL). Watkins finished his career as Butler’s all-time leading pass receiver, while Huck finished second on Butler’s all-time passing list. Lang set a Butler career record for field goals, and Hunter finished among Butler’s all-time leaders in quarterback sacks.
Voris can call on 30 letterwinners from last year’s squad, including eight returning starters. Leading that group is senior linebacker Jordan Ridley, who’s topped the Pioneer Football League in tackles for two consecutive years. Also on hand are All-PFL players Matt Storey (OL), Trae Heeter (RB), Matt Jenson (TE) and Sean Grady (DB).
“We have some great senior leadership and some veteran players who have really done a good job of showing the young guys the right way to do things,” noted Voris.
“We’ll enter the season with some guys who will be getting their first collegiate experience. But what we’ve seen in practice and what we’ve seen in the off-season, we feel good about the guys who are going to be out there.”
Huck passed for 6,560 yards and 53 touchdowns while leading Butler’s offense for the past three seasons. His favorite target was Watkins, who finished his career with school records for receptions (254) and receiving yards (2,994). Replacing that production will be a major task for the 2012 Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs came out of spring drills with junior Matt Lancaster and sophomore Wade Markley as the leading candidates to replace Huck. Lancaster sat out last season after transferring from Illinois State, where he played in 16 games over two seasons. He earned Butler’s 2011 Offensive “Unsung Hero” Award for scout team performance. Markley started one game in 2011 and finished second on the team in passing with 301 yards and three touchdowns. Both had solid spring performances.
“We can with with both of them,” said Voris of his two signal callers. “Wade (Markley) does an excellent job. He understands the system, he distributes the football, he does the things we need from a quarterback. Matt (Lancaster) has really caught up in his knowledge of what we’re doing and what we expect from that position. At this point, we feel good about both of them.”
The winner of the quarterback sweepstakes will be throwing to a young, but promising group of receivers. The top three pass catchers from last season are gone, and the top returning receiver was tailback Trae Heeter. But Voris does have letterwinner Brendan Shannon and starting tight end Matt Jenson returning, and he can call on underclassmen Derek O’Connor, JT Mesch, Brian Akialis, and Brayton Deckard. He can also look to former quarterback Tom Judge, who made the switch to wide receiver this fall. Shannon caught 25 passes for 295 yards last fall, while Jenson had four touchdown grabs among his nine catches.
“(Our wide receivers) might be as athletic and talented as we’ve had, but they don’t have those multiple game starts that we had last year,” said Voris. “It’s all going to come down to how they respond to adversity and how they compete when they walk between the lines, and we think they’ll do both of those.”
Fewer questions exist among the running backs with the presence of Heeter (left), sophomore Don Stewart and junior David Thomas. Heeter led the Bulldogs with 713 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns last season, while Stewart finished second on the squad with 283 rushing yards. Thomas played primarily on special teams a year ago, but he had a good spring performance in the backfield. Several newcomers have added solid depth to the offensive backfield.
The offensive line presents the biggest rebuilding challenge, with just one full-time starter returning. Senior Matt Storey started all 11 games a year ago and has started 22 consecutive games for the Bulldogs. He’s joined by part-time starters Charles Perrecone and Greg Ambrose as Butler’s lone returning letterwinners in the offensive line. Junior Doug Petty, who saw action in one game in 2011, is Butler’s only other offensive lineman with previous varsity playing experience.
Butler returns five starters from last year’s defensive unit, and key among those returnees is Ridley. The senior from Indianapolis has been a dominant force from his middle linebacker position, where he has already racked up two of the top six single season totals for tackles in Butler football history. Ridley ranked fifth in the NCAA Division I FCS last year with 140 total tackles, and he was seventh in the nation in tackles with 130 in 2010. He’s Butler’s lone returning first team All-PFL performer, an honor he’s held for two straight years.
“You put Jordan Ridley in the middle of anything and it looks really good,” said Voris in assessing this year’s defensive unit.
Ridley will anchor a linebacking corps that includes three additional players who saw considerable action last season. Junior Phillip Powell and sophomores Paul Yanow and Zack Sedivy each started at least one game in 2011. Sedivy finished eighth on the squad in tackles, while Yanow was ninth and Powell eleventh. Voris also can look to returning letterwinners Bryce Barry and Thad Satre, plus several newcomers.
The defensive secondary boasts a host of veterans, including returning starters Jayme Szafranski and Sean Grady (right), and may be the deepest position on the Bulldogs’ roster. Szafranski finished third on the squad with 66 tackles last season, while Grady was fourth with 62. Grady shared the team lead in pass interceptions with three, one ahead of Szafranski. The two returning regulars will be joined by letterwinners Jay Brummel, David Burke, Kevin Cook, Greg Egan, Dan Haber, Bobby McDonald and Jimmy Schwabe, all of whom saw action in the secondary and/or on special teams a year ago. Returning players JoJo Ciancio, Rhyan Henson and Ryan Kelsen also showed promise during spring drills.
Junior Jeremy Stephens is the lone returning starter on Butler’s defensive line, though senior Jace Tennant has played in 33 games during his time with the Bulldogs. Stephens finished fifth on the team with 54 tackles last season, and he was second on the squad in quarterback sacks with three. Tennant has been among the team leaders in quarterback sacks in each of his previous three seasons. The two will anchor Butler’s defensive line from their defensive end positions. Only two other letterwinners, sophomores Glen Somers and Bret Shannon, return to the Bulldogs’ defensive line. Somers played in nine games at defensive tackle in 2011, while Shannon saw action in eight games, primarily on special teams. Several redshirt-freshmen, including Nick McInally, Kyle Annis, Steven Sreniawski and Ian Luscombe, figure to get an early look on the defensive line.
“I think we have great depth on defense,” noted Voris. “It’s young depth that needs game experience, but we feel good about the potential of this unit.”
Graduation took a heavy toll on the Bulldogs’ kicking game. Lang and Wilson were proven performers, who handled their specialty at Butler at an all-league level for three straight seasons. Lang, who led the Bulldogs in scoring for two straight years, had a Butler single season record for field goals (14) in each of his final two years. He led the PFL in field goals, wound up second in the league in kick scoring and finished third in the circuit in field goal percentage in 2011. Wilson ranked second in the PFL in punting in 2010, before slipping to eighth in the league last season. Voris also has to replace dependable long-snapper Robert Koteff and holder Jeff Larsen.
Senior Brett Thomaston and sophomore Daniel Wilson are Butler’s top returning kickers, while Akialis and Judge are the top returning punters. None kicked in a game last year. Szafranski was a back-up holder a year ago, while Sedivy could get the nod at long-snapper. Newcomers also could figure prominently.
“There’s been good competition, and that’s pushed each player,” noted Voris. “We’ll probably to back to a position player handling our punting, as opposed to a true punter. And we’ve had spirited competition among our kickers, which gives us options.”