As the 2006 football season kicks off for the Valparaiso University Crusaders, the Brown and Gold will look to embark upon their first winning season since 2003. Head coach Stacy Adams now has one full season of experience at the helm of the Valpo program and now appears ready to begin the climb up the Pioneer Football League standings.
Adams returns 33 letterwinners, including 11 starters, from 2005, a season which saw him take over the head job just days before the beginning of preseason. With most of his coaching staff returning, Adams has reenlisted the services of Sam Bernardi as defensive coordinator, a position he held with the Brown and Gold from 1991-2004. Also returning to the sidelines is assistant coach Rob Hanson, who was an assistant with Adams from 1996-2004. Brandon Sturman is the only truly new assistant coach for the Crusaders, and will help out the linebackers after closing out his playing career as an Honorable Mention All-PFL performer as a senior last season.
Valpo should have the opportunity to score some points in 2006 with five starters returning on the offensive side of the football. Under center, Ryan Doerffler started ten games last season before being sidelined with an injury for the finale. He completed nearly 53% of his pass attempts on the season, throwing for 1,408 yards and nine touchdowns. The redshirt-junior enters 2006 just 34 yards shy of 2,000 for his career. Behind Doerffler, Warren Arnold and Zack Denny will both battle for playing time. Arnold started the Aurora game last season, guiding the Crusaders to victory. On the year, he was 17-of-31 throwing the football. Denny also had a taste of collegiate football last season on the reserve team, and will look to make the move up this year.
Valpo's backfield will be called upon to help carry the load for the Crusaders this season. Senior Jeff Horton, a preseason Mid-Major All-American selection, enters the season needing just 158 yards to become the school's career rushing leader. As a junior, on his way to earning Mid-Major All-American and First Team All-Pioneer Football League honors, Horton set Valpo's single season rushing mark with 1,358 yards, including three 200-yard performances on the year. He found the end zone ten times on the ground in 2005, and caught three more scoring passes on his way to nearly 300 yards receiving as well.
At fullback, Mozelle McHenry and Kevin Folk both should see some action. Both made impacts last season, and are quality blockers as well as able to carry the ball occasionally.
On the outside, Valpo will have several quality targets at wide receiver that are capable of making the big catch. Steve Ogden is poised for a breakout season as the Crusaders' top returning receiver after chalking up 445 yards and two touchdowns last season. Ogden has big play capabilities, as he averaged 22.2 yards per catch in 2005.
Ben Faulkner and Jon Schwoegler also look to vie for a starting spot at wideout. Faulkner, a redshirt-junior, has seen limited action thus far in his career with the Brown and Gold. Schwoegler, a sophomore, appeared in the final two games of 2005 as a punt returner.
While the wide receiving corps may be inexperienced, Valpo's tight ends are anything but youthful. Brandon Bogenschutz and Pete Karamitos both had solid seasons for the Brown and Gold one year ago and will look to duplicate the feat this year. Both showed they are capable of catching the football, while also doing a solid job of blocking, both in passing and running situations. Karamitos hauled in his first career touchdown pass last season, and the duo will hope to be utilized again down near the goal line.
The key offensively for Valparaiso in 2006, though, may come down to the offensive line. The Crusaders have to replace a pair of All-PFL selections in Ryan Palonka and Steven Hlady. Mike Schilling is the only returning starter for the Brown and Gold, and will look to anchor the left tackle position once again this year. He started all 11 games last year after appearing in every contest in 2004 as well, only in a reserve role. Ryan Kozey will look to step in at the other tackle position for the Crusaders. The 6'8" sophomore appeared in nine games in a reserve role last season.
On the interior portion of the line, Brad Schaum and Adam Gregait will look to take over the guard positions after coming off of the bench last season. Gregait, a fifth-year senior, has experience on his side, while Schaum saw a great deal of action on special teams last season. The duo will have to battle Jake Jenrich and Justin Wiler for playing time though. Jenrich and Wiler both look to move up from the reserve team last year.
At center, Brett Barry should be set to snap the ball for the Crusaders in replace of Hlady. He will be called upon in a key role, however, as it will be up to the redshirt-junior to hold together the youthful line.
Defensively, the Crusaders will look to improve upon last season, when they gave up 38.5 points and 412.5 yards per contest. Valpo returns six starters while also regaining the services of Kyle Kater, who missed the entire 2005 season with a knee injury.
The Brown and Gold should be solid up front with three returnees on the defensive line. Honorable Mention All-PFL selection Jimmy Riker made 44 stops last season and has 111 career tackles in his three years so far with the Crusaders. He made 11 tackles for loss last year, including 6.5 sacks.
Doug Howard and Seungyeup Ro also help anchor the defensive line. Howard, a junior, made 31 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, recovered a pair of fumbles, and blocked two kicks for the Crusaders last year. Ro made 29 tackles for Valpo, starting every game at defensive tackle.
David Wright, Andrew Mack, Noah Schroeder, and Dominick Bellotte will also look to rotate in along the defensive line. All four saw action last season and will compete for even more playing time this year.
Valpo's linebacking corps should be solid in 2006. Ryan Koepke and Bryan Kuehn each return in starting roles which they earned during their rookie campaigns last year. Kopeke recorded 41 tackles while Kuehn brought down 42 ball carriers and picked off a pass.
Sean Dillon also had a solid freshman season last year and will patrol the middle along with Kater, who returns after redshirting last year with his injury. In 2004, Kater made 22 tackles and hopes to return to the same form again this year. Matt Mancl also saw a great deal of playing time as an outside linebacker last year, making 20 tackles, and returns for his second season after redshirting as a true freshman.
The Crusader secondary has some experience, however, the Brown and Gold return just one starter in defensive back Matt Watkins. Watkins is Valpo's leading returning tackler after making 49 stops one year ago.
Mike Montgomery will also look to step up at one of the corner positions while Reggie Hicks and Kyle Himmelwright will contend for playing time as well.
At the safety positions, Charlie Thompson and Jason Grunewald appear poised to get the starting nods, after filling in as backups last year. They, along with the rest of the defense, will need to step up big time to help keep the Crusaders close in many ball games.
Valpo will rely on youth in the kicking game this season following the graduation of Andrew McCawley, one of the top kickers in the program's history. Freshman Mike Krieg is slated to handle the place-kicking duties while fellow classmate Mitch Secrest should handle the punting.
In the return game, Horton will look to add to his all-purpose yard total as he is slated to handle kickoffs. He has handled them four times in his career thus far, while also returning nine punts last season. Himmelwright appears ready to handle the punt return duties for the Brown and Gold, the first time in his career he will have handled kicks.
The 2006 slate kicks off on September 2 at Wisconsin Lutheran. The Crusaders open at Brown Field the following Saturday against Trinity International before beginning Pioneer Football League play at Morehead State on September 16. Aurora will mark the end of the regular season at home on November 11. This year, the PFL has returned to a single division format, with every school playing each other for a total of seven league contests. The league champion will play the Northeast Conference winner in the first annual Gridiron Classic on November 18.
Everything appears to be set for a successful 2006 football campaign at Valparaiso. Improvement appears to be the order of business for the Brown and Gold, and with the talent on the roster, a successful season should be right around the corner.