There was no need for a lengthy off-season analysis to determine ways the Central College football team can improve in 2013.
A late-season surge let the injury-battered Dutch emerge with a 5-5 record in 2012 and tie for second in the Iowa Conference at 4-3 in the league, but coach Jeff McMartin said the recipe for progress was immediately evident—make fewer turnovers and allow fewer big plays. It was clearly an issue in early action, but there was significant improvement as the season progressed. The Dutch committed 25 turnovers but were plus 10 in turnover margin over the last four games of the season. Likewise Central yielded 15 touchdowns of 20 yards or more, but just four in the final four games. Consequently, the Dutch rallied enough to once again be able to proclaim they haven't had a losing season since 1960, Dwight Eisenhower's final year as president.
"Eliminating turnovers and eliminating big plays will really help us enjoy more success," McMartin said. "That's got to be a focus for us."
Experienced players generally make fewer mistakes and with 15 starters returning, the Dutch are a far more veteran crew than the squad that took the field a year ago.
"We're going into it with guys that are proven and with the expectation that we can be a better football team," McMartin said. "We really feel good about this squad. There are always injuries to deal with but if we keep people healthy, shore up the turnovers and limit big plays, we could be a dangerous football team."
Nowhere is the increased experience level more evident than at quarterback, where the Dutch were unsettled entering 2012. Now Central has two players back who have taken the game's first snap. Junior Aaron Eiseler (6-foot, 210 pounds) emerged as the starter in the last half of the season, while sophomore Brendon Boerm (5-11, 185) started three games at quarterback and three at wide receiver, although he'll likely stay at receiver this year. Also back is senior Austin Blom (6-2, 195), who got some playing time last year and is getting a shot this season, as well as sophomore Cael Halfman (5-10, 190) The Dutch have some promising freshmen candidates as well.
McMartin isn't naming a starter yet but should be able to do so much sooner than he did last year.
"I think we can get to a point pretty quickly where we're getting these guys prepared and ready to play," he said. "We'll have a competition, evaluate the competition and get things in place so we can let them get a feel for what their roles are.
"Last year we really had some questions but this year we at least have guys who have played. Two of them have started and we have another quarterback who's played."
Eiseler (6-0, 210) completed 114 of 188 passes (60.6 percent) for 1,311 yards (145.7 yards per game) with eight interceptions and seven TDs.
"Aaron did a nice job," McMartin said. "We want him to continue to improve and become a complete quarterback."
Blom saw less action but has McMartin's confidence.
"Austin traveled last year and took another step in his progression," he said. "He's competing very well."
Boerm is still an option, if needed. He only completed 11 of 29 passes for 133 yards but knows how to run the offense and is a serious threat on the ground. He gained 122 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries.
Junior Jack Norgaard (6-3, 220) started all 10 games last year at tight end, with 21 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown.
"Jack did a great job," McMartin said. "I'm excited to see what he can do this year. He's a tough player who runs good routes."
Sophomore Drew Lindaman (6-3, 225) appeared in nine games, catching two passes for 29 yards while sophomore Jake Wassenaar (6-3, 215) was a regular for the JV.
"They both did a good job as freshmen and got bigger and better in the off season," McMartin said.
The Dutch return three starters up front in senior left tackle Travis Hook (6-4, 270), senior right tackle Matt Schrafel (6-2, 260) and junior left guard Ryan Collins (6-1, 245). Hook received second-team all-conference recognition.
"We have the most experience at tackle," McMartin said. "Travis Hook did a nice job at left tackle last year and Matt Schrafel also got better."
Junior Jordan Youngman (6-4, 305) will contribute at tackle as well.
"Jordan had a great off season," McMartin said. "Those are three guys we can build around."
Collins is among a host of other line candidates.
"He improved a lot this summer," McMartin said. "Ryan really did a great job of adding strength and size."
Senior Joe Flaherty (6-2, 265) will be in the mix.
"Joe can help this football team," McMartin said. "He has a great attitude and works hard."
Others in contention include juniors Caleb Lynch (6-0, 270), Garrett Young (6-0, 265) and Lucas Sears (5-10, 225) and sophomores Ben Field (6-0, 250), DJ Smith (6-1, 265), Tyron Steere (6-2, 280), Curtis Weeks (6-0, 240), Nick Watson (6-4, 245), Steven Clubb OL (6-1, 265) and Travis DeFrancisco (6-1, 265).
Watson moved to offensive tackle after lettering in the defensive line as a rookie.
"That's a good move for us," McMartin said. "He gives us some flexibility."
McMartin also likes the potential of some incoming freshman linemen.
"They can give us some depth," he said.
Boerm and junior Blaine Forsythe (6-1, 200) have starting experience as receivers after both arriving at Central as quarterbacks.
Boerm topped the receptions chart with 34 for 364 yards and a touchdown. Forsythe had 24 catches for 328 yards and a team-high three TDs.
"Brendon is a dual threat," McMartin said. "He can do a lot of different things. We're counting on him to take another step as a playmaker.
"Blaine has great hands. He's a former quarterback so he's a heady football player. He really knows the game and is a big target."
But senior Grant McArdle (6-3, 215) also developed into a threat as well after being slowed by injury. Debuting in the third game last season, McArdle had 15 catches for 237 yards and two TDs.
"We're really excited to have Grant back," McMartin said. "He really came into his own last season and made some big plays down the stretch. He got better every week."
Seniors Nolan Blythe (6-2, 195) and Keegan Frisch (6-1, 195) will compete and be factors at the position. Frisch appeared in nine games and Blythe also saw action.
"They both contributed as juniors," McMartin said. "They can help us."
Moving over from defensive back, junior Landon Coker (5-9, 180) is getting a hard look as well.
"He's got good hands," McMartin said. "He just has to continue to learn the offense."
Central also picked up Justin Fisher, a promising transfer.
Combined with the increased experience at quarterback, the Dutch receiving numbers should continue to rise.
"We've got a number of freshmen who will help this group as well," McMartin said. "They've got to work together to help create a really strong unit."
While Central graduated its starter at running back, the position is in good hands. Elusive juniors Josh Osborn (5-10, 190) and De'Andre Currie (5-6, 170) may lack size, but they put up good numbers and are breakaway threats. Osborn rushed for 548 yards on 116 carries (4.7 per carry) with two touchdowns while Currie gained 339 yards on 66 carries (5.1 per carry) and three scores. Osborn, who received all-conference honorable mention, also caught 17 passes for 158 yards and Currie caught three balls for 41 yards.
"Those two guys have a lot of experience," McMartin said. "They have different styles but they both have the potential to make big plays. They're very willing and capable blockers and are great in the passing game in the open field."
Another undersized back, sophomore Taylor Cox (5-6, 155) got his feet wet late in the year as a punt and kick returner.
"Taylor can do some good things at running back and in the slot," McMartin said.
Junior Schyler Bardole (6-0, 205) appeared on special teams.
"He's getting bigger, better and faster," McMartin said.
Another physical option is junior Tyler Lenox (6-1, 230), who was a blocker at the S-back position last year but will be used more at running back.
"He's a bigger back who runs the ball well," McMartin said. "He slips a lot of tackles and can bang it in there when needed. He can do a lot of things for us."
Central also got a boost when sophomore transfer Adam Lindell (5-11, 210) joined the squad.
The S-back position, similar to a fullback in Central's pro-style offense, returns junior starter Austin Shaver (5-11, 225), who rushed just three times but was an instrumental part of the Dutch running game.
"He's continued to get bigger, stronger and better," McMartin said. "He also catches the ball well."
Depth is a concern, however. Sophomore Parker Smith (5-9, 215) is in the mix but was the only other returnee as the Dutch opened preseason camp.
"This is an area where we might have to move people," McMartin said. "It's an important position for us."
The Dutch D should be solid up front. Senior ends Danny Samson (5-11, 255) and Jack Shipley (6-3, 255) both return, along with junior nose guard Brody Janssen (6-2, 250).
Samson, a versatile athlete who even made a few appearances on offense and rushed for a touchdown, made 42 tackles, including 11.5 tackles for loss and a team-high 5.5 sacks. He also had a blocked kick, a forced fumble and a pass breakup, earning first-team all-conference honors.
"Danny had a great year," McMartin said. "We're excited to see him elevate his game even more this season."
Janssen made 34 tackles, including four tackles for loss with a sack and a fumble recovery.
"Brody is one of the strongest players on the team," McMartin said. "I look for him to have a great junior year."
Shipley had 35 tackles with six tackles for loss, including three sacks as well as an interception, fumble recovery and two pass breakups.
"Jack has really evolved as a player," McMartin said.
The Dutch have depth as well. Senior Spencer Matlock (6-0, 285) returns for a medical hardship year at nose guard after missing all of last season.
"Spencer is a good leader," McMartin said. "He played a lot as a junior and we're glad to have him back."
Also back is senior letterwinner JJ Kotz (6-0, 235), who had nine tackles.
"JJ made some plays last year," McMartin said. "He's a physical player with a high motor."
Sophomore Dustin Smith (6-0, 230) lettered as a freshman, making 12 tackles. Others contending for playing time include sophomores Jake Pike (5-10, 220), Trent Smothers (6-0, 235) and Kyle Kroymann (6-0, 200).
Central graduated both starting inside linebackers.
"That's a concern," McMartin said.
But the area was also hard hit by injuries last year and there was an upside to that.
"That got some young guys on the field and we saw some good things," McMartin said.
Sophomore Zac Miller (5-10, 195) was among those tasting action. He made 10 tackles and recovered a fumble.
Junior Jordan Wachter (5-11, 205) started two games and made 19 tackles, including two for loss with a sack.
"Jordan played a lot last year," McMartin said. "He's going to be a great leader."
Juniors Nick Henry (6-0, 215), Brayton Meeker (5-11, 235) and Mitch Schroeder (6-0, 195) lettered, as did sophomore Grant Gustafson (6-0, 215). Sophomore Mark Richards (5-11, 185) will also compete.
There's no shortage of experience at outside linebacker, where the Dutch actually return three starters at two positions.
"It's one of the strengths of the team," McMartin said.
Senior Mike Young (5-11, 185) blossomed into a second-team all-conference honoree. He led the Dutch with 79 tackles, including 12 for loss with 3.5 sacks and three pass breakups.
"Mike had a great season," McMartin said. "He's always around the ball."
The Dutch also regain the services of senior Keith Rush (5-10, 210), a three-time letterwinner who was a first-team all-conference pick in 2011 after making a team-high 79 tackles. He's a two-time winner of the team's Lankelma Award as the outstanding underclass player, but missed all of 2012 with injury.
"We're excited to get Keith back," McMartin said. "He's ready for a big year."
Meanwhile senior Luke Geneser (6-1, 225) started all 10 games last season and made 58 tackles, with 4.5 tackles for loss, a sack, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two pass breakups.
"Luke made a ton of big plays," McMartin said.
Sophomore Tommy Feller (5-9, 180) will push for time as well.
"They're all good football players," McMartin said. "They'll all get on the field."
Last year's pain is this year's gain at cornerback as well. Senior Jason Breon (5-10, 175), a team co-captain last season, was injured in the second game and missed the rest of the season. He made 36 tackles in 2011.
"Jason will definitely help us," McMartin said. "He can play either safety or corner."
In his absence, junior Eric Larson (6-2, 175) continued to shine. He made 27 tackles with three interceptions, a forced fumble and two pass breakups en route to becoming a second-team all-conference honoree. He's also one of Division III's top athletes, as he demonstrated when he swept the NCAA indoor heptathlon and outdoor decathlon championships for the Dutch track and field squad.
"Eric had a great season, he just kept getting better and better," McMartin said. "He had to fight through some injuries in the middle of the season but he came back and finished strong. I know that we were a better team when he was healthy."
But McMartin isn't sure about who will start at the other cornerback position. It could be Breon, but others gained experience there last year in his absence, including junior Michael Daigle (5-7, 160) and sophomore Bryan Mejia (5-7, 155). Senior Michael Rus (5-11, 200) could play at cornerback or safety after missing much of last season with injury.
Starting safeties Jacob Tune (6-1, 205), a junior, and senior Jacob Edleman (6-0, 185) return. Tune was Central's third-leading tackler with 61, including 3.5 tackles for loss with three interceptions and four pass breakups. Edleman, meanwhile, had a team-high six interceptions to go with 57 tackles, including four for loss and two pass breakups.
"They both did a great job," McMartin said. "Jacob Tune's a very physical player and a hard-hitting safety. Jacob Edleman covers a lot of ground. He really stepped into an important role.
"They both kind of learned on the run but they've got a season as starters under their belts now."
Look for sophomore Jaemin Powell (6-3, 190) on the field as well after lettering as a freshman. He made nine tackles. Others getting a look are senior Levin Spain (6-1, 175), senior Tug McLeery (5-10, 185) and junior Spencer Beekman (5-10, 180).
And McMartin isn't ruling out giving some newcomers a shot.
"We've got some freshmen we're excited about," he said.
The strength of the special teams last year was one of the squad's most consistent players, junior kicker Kevin Sheldon (6-0, 190), a first-team all-conference selection in each of his first two college seasons. He was a third-team all-West Region pick by D3football.com. Sheldon was perfect on 25 extra-point tries and 12 of 17 on field goals (70.6 percent) with a long of 47 yards, only 5 yards shy of the school record. He's missed just one extra point attempt at Central (47-48).
"His leg definitely helps us," McMartin said.
Forsythe handled the punting duties last year, averaging 37.7 yards with nine kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
But there are other options. Senior Tanner Price (5-10, 245) can kick and punt as can sophomore Jacob De Waard.
Boerm and, later, Cox were among those returning punts last year. Cox averaged 7.8 yards on four returns. Boerm and Osborn also returned kicks. Osborn averaged 23.7 yards on 11 returns.
McMartin isn't sure who will return kicks and punts this year, but he's determined to see improvement in all areas of special teams, normally a source of pride for the Dutch.
"We got off to a slow start last year," he said. "We didn't do a good job of covering or returning. There's no reason we can't be great at special teams."
Central has the same daunting non-conference slate as last year, although the Dutch at least get to play two of the three games at home. Wis.-Oshkosh was dominant in a 47-28 season-opening win last year en route to reaching the NCAA Division III semifinals and is also the opening opponent in 2013. Augustana (Ill.) and Albion (Mich.) present challenges as well before Central ventures into a wide-open Iowa Conference race. But McMartin is looking at the bright side.
"A tough non-conference schedule will help us from a maturity standpoint," he said. "It will push us to be prepared. We've got to continue to improve every week. That's a big key."
Coe is the defending league champ and the preseason pick of league coaches, but there's no clear-cut favorite, McMartin said.
"I think there are at least six teams that could win the league," he said.
After the non-conference hurdles, Central has to open the conference schedule with back-to-back road games. McMartin doesn't want the results of those early contests to affect his club's performance down the home stretch.
"We have to look at each week with a one-game mentality," he said. "We've got to keep a positive attitude throughout the season--that's critical. Every game is important for us."
McMartin thinks this year's newcomers will provide a talent upgrade.
"We've got some very talented kids," he said. "You're going to see some of them playing and others will develop into solid players down the road.
"We felt like we really needed good linebackers and wide receivers. Those areas were addressed and, really, we've got some talented players at every position. That's exciting."
McMartin was quick to credit the work of his assistant coaches, especially newcomers Carl Coleman and Nick Mulder, for Central's recruiting success.
"They helped tremendously," he said. "And they'll be very good as we move forward."
There's one more change on the staff this year as 2010 Central grad Cody Baethke returns to coach the tight ends along with the punters and kickers. He was a four-year letterwinner at defensive back for the Dutch.
Central has also raised its competitive level in facilities. A new Fieldturf playing surface was installed over the summer. And PPI of Pella made a huge commitment to the college by funding a new Daktronics video board that should be ready by mid-season.
"We're really excited about that," McMartin said.
Now it's just a matter of doing it on the field.
"We've got to coach these guys well," McMartin said. "The players have got to have confidence in each other and believe they can win. That's the great challenge we have as football coaches. The players' challenge is to execute."