ORANGE, Calif. - Turnover can be a crippling thing. Not the fumbles and interceptions, although those turnovers can be maddening in their own right. The topic here is personnel turnover and when a football team graduates 25-plus seniors – starters and veteran contributors – only the programs with depth can rebound and in some cases improve.
Enter the 2011 Chapman University football team, which may do exactly that. The Panthers graduated 25 seniors from last year's team, yet Chapman head coach Bob Owens has this to say about his current squad: "It may be a more complete football team. We think we're bigger, stronger, faster on both sides of the ball."
Several factors provide Owens with optimism that Chapman might get over the 4-5 win-loss hump it's been stuck in the past two years:
- He's enthusiastic about group of running backs so deep and talented that it may be unprecedented in Panthers history.
- For the first time in three years Chapman will have the same starting playcaller for a second straight year.
- And the Panthers' defense – hit hardest by graduation – boasts a ferocious linebacker corps that Owens believes will help limit the opponents' ground game.
The running game will the key to Chapman's success in 2011, both offensively and defensively. Known primarily as a passing offense in Owens' first five seasons, the Panthers' sheer wealth at the running back positions has forced the coaching staff to approach the offensive scheme differently.
Chapman will be led by a pair of seniors Al White and Kevin Krail; the two alone could carry the offense. White emerged as a threat in the middle of last season, topping the Panthers with four touchdowns despite suffering a broken ankle in the sixth game of the year. And Krail's longevity as a backup and kick returner brings experience. But it doesn't stop there.
"We've got to find out what Al can do and how much of a load he can carry," says Owens about White's recovery. "The great thing about that position is we don't have to put too much pressure on Al. He's one of the hardest working guys in our program. And without question one of the toughest guys."
Owens also feels confident that his backs will have plenty of room to run thanks to a large, athletic and experienced offensive line that includes All-America hopeful junior LT D.J. Brandel, sophomore LG Justin LaLonde and senior RT Earl Wilson.
"This may be the strongest up front group we've had since I've been here," says Owens. "We have some strength and size with those guys and we believe it will allow us to consistently run the football."
Another key ingredient will be the consistency provided by having an experienced quarterback leading the offensive charge at a position that has been a virtual carousel the past two years. Senior QB Bret Visciglia is expected be the Panthers' first opening day play caller in back-to-back years since 2008 bringing stability to the huddle.
"We're very pleased at how well Bret has worked during the offseason," says Owens. "We think it will be good for the football team to be able to point at that position and say 'that guy's the guy'."
Visciglia passed for 1,182 yards last season and tossed seven touchdowns. He will be backed up by another familiar face in sophomore Michael Lahey , an option-style quarterback who ran for almost as many yards (216) as he passed for (272) as a freshman.
Potential passing targets including senior WR Mike Lambesis, who Owens is excited will have the "chance to be a big player for us and be an impact guy" after making 31 catches for 381 yards and four touchdowns last year.
One who could emerge as a receiving threat is sophomore TE Brian Kirwan, who is making the transition from the quarterback position. A 24-year-old sophomore (because of a minor league baseball career out of high school), Kirwan has added 25 pounds of muscle since last season and, according to Owens, has "huge upside".
"His maturity, quickness, toughness is what set's him apart," says Owens. "He runs good routs and has extremely soft hands."
Where running the ball will be critical to Chapman's success on offense, stopping the run will be the key to its defense. The Panthers allowed over 172 yards per game on the ground and 24.6 points – both five-year highs under Owens. Chapman must also improve those numbers with just four defensive starters returning.
"There are some things we need to make definite improvement on this year and stopping the run is one of those things," says Owens. "The reason we believe the defense will be different this year is that great linebacking corps that will allow us to stop the run. I think it's going to be extremely difficult to run on us."
Those linebackers include juniors Kellen Matsuno and Michael Mehlhaff and sophomore Wade Minshew, the three of which combined for 128 tackles a year ago. Additionally, sophomore Anthony Ferraro has made the move to linebacker after playing strong safety and recording 33 tackles as a rookie. Owens also expects sophomore Samir Hanna and junior college transfer Evan Pesonen (Golden West College) to make big contributions.
Chapman's defensive line is another big, strong and veteran crew anchored by junior nose guard and two-year starter Kevin Anderson who ranked third on the team with four tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The line, which also includes juniors Ross Campbell, Elliot Cooley and senior Stephen Sales, has bulked up and will contribute to a run defense that hopes to improve on its 158th national ranking in 2010.
And while not one member of the Panthers' secondary has played a down of NCAA football, Owens says "We've got some guys coming in we think will do a good job and help stabilize the secondary," including a strong recruiting class at the corner position.
One of the strengths of the Chapman program in Owens' tenure has been on special teams where the Panthers have led the nation in kick returns (in 2009) and currently possess one of the top punters in the nation in senior Jimmy Adranly. Another All-America candidate, Adranly has finished in the top-10 in Division III in punting average each of the past two years, ranking seventh in 2010 with a 42.18 yards per punt average.
"Having a guy like Jimmy is extremely critical to our football team," says Owens. "If you have a guy that experienced he can pin the opponent down in their red zone, that goes a long way in the battle for field position."
Chapman's kick return unit fell back with the pack in 2010, ranking 189th just one year removed from leading the nation, but Owens expects that will be the exception, not the rule.
"Last year was the first year we were very average in kickoff return," says Owens. "We're going to look long and hard and people that can run, get on their blocks, become magnets, stay on those guys and create some run lanes. That's going to be a heavy emphasis for us and we should return to form."
This summer, Chapman officially joined the SCIAC ending the university's longstanding status as an independent. And although the Panthers have played every conference member since 2006, playing those teams as a conference peer gives each contest added meaning this year.
"I don't think you're going to look at a team in the SCIAC this year and say 'those guys are pushovers,'" says Owens about his counterparts. "Who's to say who's going to emerge at the top of the food chain?"
And despite not being eligible to compete for the conference title in its first year as a SCIAC member, Owens believes his team will be among the best. "I think we will be one of those teams that will fight for the conference championship. What is that 'de facto' champions?"
by Doug Aiken
Sports Information Director