Gebele, Denison facing the challenge

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Canaan Gebele running with the ball for Denison. (Denison athletics photo)
It doesn't take a Moneyball-level analyst to note that Canaan Gebele has ably quarterbacked Denison to the playoffs.
Denison athletics photo

By Joe Sager

Denison University’s Canaan Gebele wants to begin his career in analytics next year.

For now, though, the senior quarterback is focused on finding the trends to help the Big Red corner the college football market.

His attention to detail helped Denison capture its first NCAC championship since 1986. The Big Red (8-2) tied Wabash and Wittenberg for the title, but earned the conference’s automatic bid via NCAC tiebreaker policy.

“There’s no better feeling than winning a conference championship,” Gebele said.

Gebele could certainly revise that statement if Denison prevails in its matchup at No. 1 Mount Union (10-0) on Saturday in its second-ever postseason appearance.

“Playing college football in Ohio, you always hear about Mount Union,” he said. “We have a lot of confidence in what we can do. We’re used to being the underdogs. We haven’t always been the favored guys even in NCAC play. We’ll go in there with a chip on our shoulder and just leave it all on the field.”

Nevertheless, getting to the playoffs is a big achievement for Denison, which last appeared in the postseason in 1985, a 35-3 loss to Mount Union, which was making its playoff debut as well.

“It’s really special. It’s been a lot of work. This is an outstanding group and I am really proud of them,” Denison coach Jack Hatem said. “We’re excited about this game; we’re playing one of the best programs in the history of college football. Who wins like they do? We’re going to experience the best of the best. We’ll walk into a great facility against an outstanding football team with an outstanding coaching staff. We’re really excited about the opportunity to play in this game.”

Canaan Gebele behind center. (Denison athletics photo)

Gebele helped guide the Big Red to the postseason. He passed for 2,085 yards and 25 touchdowns and rushed for another 646 yards and 14 scores. In last week’s 61-7 win vs. Kenyon, he became the third player in NCAC history to surpass 10,000 yards of total offense in his career. He’s rewritten the program’s passing records along the way.

However, according to Hatem, Gebele’s best trait isn’t his right arm or his legs. It’s what’s underneath his helmet.

“You can see how much maturity he’s gained physically as a runner and a passer, but the growth, as far as his knowledge of the game and his confidence with this team, I am not sure how you measure it. He is just phenomenal,” he said. “I think the thing that is really amazing is that he is extremely analytical. At any point, he will look at things happening and notice minute details and might know what pressure is coming or what coverage teams will use and know how to get around that. It’s amazing. It’s nice, too, because is an extension of the coaching staff who happens to be taking the ball every snap.”

That part comes as naturally as throwing or running with the football for Gebele, a data analytics major.

“Denison University is my other major,” he said with a laugh. “It’s essentially another class and I have a test every Saturday. Our coaches work their tails off every week, too, and they do a great job preparing us. The analytic side is a huge part of the game. Being able to think about how teams will attack you is huge. It definitely makes things easier come game day when you’ve seen every look and get it down to statistics and science. It’s something that’s very interesting to me, as an academic field. Data analytics, as a whole, is the future of what a lot of businesses are moving toward. The field of sports analytics is really interesting, too. I guess it all started a few years ago with ‘Moneyball.’ Now, you see all these pro sports leagues hiring analytics guys, but it’s hard to land one of those jobs.”

When Gebele watches video, he’s not just studying opposing defenses, he’s aware of what Denison’s offense is doing, too.

“We’re trying to be unpredictable and a threat from all phases of the game,” he said. “There’s so much film out there now.”

Gebele combines the video work with experience picked up in the 39 games he’s played at Denison.

“It’s really nice to have someone there who has been playing for four years and starting for almost all of them,” Denison senior wide receiver David Weimar said. “He is really talented on and off the field. He is one of my roommates, too. We’ve been able to form a connection on the field. We’ve been able to practice timing and route concepts through springs and summers and during the school year for the past three years.

“He is an incredible athlete. He can run the ball and, obviously, throw the ball. He is smart back there. He can check a play if we need to and he can make a play if we need it. Really, to have someone you can trust has been really great on the receiving end. I know he has a lot of trust in me and all the other receivers and the rest of the offense. I think that makes for a strong bond as an offense. To have someone who is always thinking back there, ready to react and make a play is great.”

Weimar has been one of Gebele’s top targets the past three seasons. This year, he leads the Big Red with 45 catches for 654 yards. He paces the team in completion percentage, too, after going 2-for-2 for two touchdown passes to Gebele on trick plays.

Gebele doesn’t have to worry about losing his spot under center, though. 

“It depends on who you ask is the best quarterback,” Weimar said with a laugh. “I like to joke with him. If you look at the completion percentage, I might have him there. It’s been fun to have some unique plays thrown in on the offense. There are things we practice for any situation so that, if we need it, we have it.”

While Gebele had a hand in eight touchdowns (four passing, three rushing, one receiving) in a 66-18 win vs. Wooster, he certainly doesn’t have to do it all for Denison. The squad features tailback Alex Minton, who won the NCAC rushing title with 1,291 yards. Denison boasts a deep receiving corps in addition to Weimar. And, the team’s offensive line paves the way for a unit that averages 488.4 yards and 43.7 points per game.

“I’ve had so many great players around me that have been able to grow up in this offense with me,” Gebele said. “Our offensive line is the best it has ever been. We have Minton in the backfield and plenty of playmakers around so we can spread the ball out. That balance has helped me follow the plan and adjust along the way. It feels like everything is all coming together. It’s great.

“This season has been an absolute blast. It really does feel like this senior class has been here forever. We’ve played quite a few games here at our home field. To be able to play in the postseason is unreal. It’s very exciting for us all.”

Denison, the first NCAC program other than Wittenberg or Wabash to compete in the NCAA playoffs since Wooster in 2004, hopes to embrace the opportunity against the Purple Raiders.

“To be able to put Denison back in the playoffs is really awesome. To go out and win the conference and get a chance to play in playoffs my senior year, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Weimar said. “If you ask anyone, they’ll tell you Mount Union is a strong program. We definitely understand that as well. It’s awesome to have the opportunity to play them in the first round. We’ll see what we have and what we can put together. There’s no doubt we’ll work our hardest this week. To this point, everything was focused on getting to the playoffs. So, to be able to go out and play in a playoff game, it’ll be fun. We do feel like we’re at our best now.”