Ask any seasoned member of the 2017 Valparaiso University football team what stands out going into the start of fall camp on Wednesday, and the consensus is clear.
“The biggest difference is experience,” senior wide receiver and captain Frank Catrine said. “We’re returning almost everybody on offense and defense. Everybody has been playing in this system for a few years. Everyone is getting stronger and ready to go.”
The Crusaders return 1,008 of their 1,112 rushing yards from a year ago with all of their top nine rushers back on the team. All three players who saw time at quarterback in 2016 are back, although two have switched positions. All five players who had 200 or more receiving yards have returned, and overall the Crusaders return 14 of the 17 players who caught a pass a year ago.
“We’re returning so many guys,” senior tight end Ryan Clarke said. “I’ve never seen that in my time here, such a large number of quality returning starters coming back to camp. Now, instead of learning the playbook, it’s refining the craft as opposed to learning the basics. I think that’s going to excel us to the next level.”
Valpo’s top nine players in terms of all-purpose yards are back. The team brings back 33 of its 34 touchdowns scored last season. Defensively, 10 of the team’s 13 interceptions were made by players who return this year, and 13 of the team’s top 18 tacklers are back.
“The excitement for camp is the highest since I’ve been here,” redshirt junior wide receiver Dalton Stokes said. “We finished off last year with a great win against Jacksonville, a school that is usually at the top of the table. We have the taste of victory already in our mouth.”
On special teams, the Crusaders bring back every punt, field goal attempt, extra-point attempt and kickoff and retain 48 of their 49 kickoff returns.
“The excitement level is at an all-time high,” senior kicker Jake Simpson said. “For us seniors, it’s our last year to make something happen. It’s our last year to go out there and win more games than we have in the past. It’s a different feeling than past years.”
Fifth-year senior captain J.J. Nunes also returns after suffering a season-ending injury in the 2016 opener. He ranked second on the team in tackles in 2015 and was an all-PFL honorable mention in both 2014 and 2015.
“It means everything to me,” Nunes said. “This is the most talented group we’ve had in all the years I’ve been here. Our goal is a PFL championship. We have a team that is collectively on the same page and wants the same thing.”
A group of about 30 players stayed in Valpo for the summer, training together in the weight room and running on the field.
With head coach Dave Cecchini and four key assistants now in their fourth season, nearly every player on the roster has played at Valpo exclusively under this staff’s tutelage.
“I think that’s a big factor,” senior Brandon Riley said. “We have the chemistry we need to trust ourselves and communicate the way we should. Since I’ve been playing football, I’ve never had the same defensive coordinator from year-to-year before coming to Valpo. From fifth or sixth grade on, I’ve always had transition. To finally get the same coaches and same philosophy has helped a lot.”
The season-long theme for the 2017 Crusaders is CRU, which stands for commitment, resilience and unity. Each year, the team selects a new season-long theme to go along with the one that has been in place every year under Cecchini – “Attitude.”
“This coaching staff has brought unbelievable consistency within the message,” Nunes said. “Attitude has been the message since they came in. That has been the theme of our program and everything we do.”
The August camp will build up to the start of the season on Saturday, Sept. 2 at Montana. For this year’s group of seniors, the opener represents the first in a series of lasts as they attempt to close their Crusader careers on a high note.
“Even though sometimes things haven’t gone our way, we’re here for one last chance,” senior running back Jarrett Morgan said. “This may be our best chance yet. It would mean so much to help Valpo turn the program around. To be the guys who can say they turned it around – that’s crazy thinking about it.”