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Aug. 10 - BETHANY, W.Va. – A year after many in the largest freshmen class in school history were forced into duty earlier than expected, the Bethany College football team is hoping last year’s growing pains produce results this year, starting when the Bison open their season Sept. 4 at home against Allegheny.

The 2009 season saw a rash of injuries hamper Bethany from start to finish, as they posted a 3-7 overall record and 1-5 mark in the PAC. The bright side to the injury bug, which claimed more than 20 season-enders by the conclusion of the campaign, was that many of the more than 100 freshmen that came to camp had opportunities to play and gain experience. Head coach Tim Weaver believes the skills learned in their trial-by-fire last year, along with another big year of recruiting, will lead to positive things in 2010.

“Our success in recruiting the last two years has helped stabilize our numbers,” said Weaver, who is in his fifth year at the helm of the Green and White. “That’s usually a 4-6 year process, but we should now be in the 140-150 range every year. Plus, we are almost where we want to be with having a roster of half veterans and half newcomers and we were able to make a special teams two-deep with zero freshmen, so are not looking for very many newcomers to have to contribute right away.

“Looking at this year, we will be young, but not inexperienced,” said Weaver. “Due to the injuries last year and because our senior class is so small, there will be a ton of sophomores playing, but those same players caught a lot of passes, made a lot of tackles and played a great deal of snaps on both lines last year.”

One position where Bethany will still feel the effects of the last year’s injuries is at quarterback. After throwing for more than 3,600 yards and 24 TDs in his first 15 career starts under center, a concussion knocked Chad Smith out of the final four games of 2009 and ended his career. Senior Dan Pegg (Uniontown, Pa./Laurel Highlands) stepped in to throw for 1,081 yards and six scores in the final four games last year and has the advantage coming into camp, but a strong group of freshmen will be pushing him.

“We thought we had achieved quality and depth at quarterback with Chad and Dan and it was a big blow when we lost Chad,” said Weaver. “Dan did well at the end of last year and has proven he can win, but not on a consistent basis. He knows he will be challenged by an exciting group of newcomers and all of our quarterbacks will benefit from an experienced line, a very good running back and wideouts with lots of receptions. It’s our job to coach Dan and the newcomers into a position where they can be successful.”

Joining the signal caller in the backfield will be junior tailback Eric Walker (New Brighton, Pa.), who was Second Team All-PAC last year after leading the conference with 15 touchdowns, which also tied a BC single-season record, and finishing second in rushing yards with 879. While Weaver expects another big year from his junior back, he says the key at that spot will be developing depth.

“We know we have a proven playmaker in Walker, but in watching film from last year, we probably wore him down towards the end of the season,” said Weaver. “We recruited a solid group of backs to hopefully develop and take a little bit of the load off. But we still don’t see any reason why Eric can’t have two 1,000-yard seasons to close out his career.”

Although Bethany lost its all-time leader in every major receiving category when Matt Cruse graduated, this year’s wideouts counter their youth with talent and depth. Sophomores Johnathan Foster (Cumberland, Md./Fort Hill), Ed Holmes (Virginia Beach, Va./Landstown) and Marcus D’Aguiar-Alexander (Waldorf, Md./Frederick Douglas) caught 44, 30 and 29 passes, respectively, last year and mixing in junior Alex Evans (Washington, Pa.), who sat out after transferring to Bethany last year, and sophomore Jarrell Smalls (Whitmire, S.C.), as well as sophomore tight ends Fletcher Coffman (Clarksburg, W.Va./Robert C. Byrd) and Kevin Covert (Jacksonville, Fla./University Christian School), will provide plenty of targets for Bison passes this fall.

“Receiver has always been a good position for us and this year, we are deeper and probably more talented than we’ve been in our time here,” said Weaver. “Foster, Holmes and D’Aguiar-Alexander caught over 100 passes between them last year, while Smalls didn’t get a lot of time, but we like him and we will be glad to be able to put Evans into a game this year. We have two distinctive players at tight end, as Coffman is 6-5, 255 with good hands and Covert goes about 6-2, 220, but is very athletic and can run. We may look to run more two tight end sets this year with them.”

Injuries were also a big problem on the offensive line, as 10 different players started a game last year. Seven of those are returning in 2010, led by junior guard Cory Potter (Akron, Ohio/Green), who was a Second Team All-PAC pick last year. Despite the constant upheaval, the Bison ranked second in the PAC by allowing only 16 sacks even though they posted a league-high 429 passing attempts.

“With seven guys returning who started a game last year, we have lots of experience on the line,” said Weaver. “We get a senior back in Bob Rovnanik (Springdale, Pa.) who missed all of last year because of injury, but everyone returning has proven they can do the job. Because we are experienced and have real depth for the first time since we’ve been here, we need to get them to play as a cohesive unit every week.”

The Bethany defense went through another tough year, ranking eighth in the PAC in scoring (35.6) and ninth in total defense (419.9). Six starters are back however, including four athletic sophomores who gained valuable experience last year. On the defensive line, senior John Gyure (Pittsburgh, Pa./Brentwood) returns after missing nearly all of last season because of injury. Sophomore Robert Baker (Colquitt, Ga./Miller County) made 21 tackles in nine starts as a freshman and other returners, as well as an infusion of freshmen potential, have Weaver seeing better days ahead for the line.

“Defensive line is an area we need to play better obviously, but it should,” said Weaver. “Baker started as a freshman and showed improvement in the spring, Gyure is back on the line full-time after missing last year, (sophomore) Blake DeBord (Martinsburg, W.Va.) started to see time late last year and (senior) Lamar Fisher (Mount Vernon, N.Y.) moves over from the offensive line. We need to find productivity at defensive end, but that could be a spot where some freshmen can contribute.”

Youth was truly served at linebacker last year, where freshmen started every game for the Green and White. Sophomore MLB Kyle Arrington (Jackson Twp., Ohio/Jackson) was Honorable Mention All-PAC after finishing second on the team with 73 tackles and adding in two interceptions and 1.5 sacks. Sophomore Willis Powell (Virginia Beach, Va./Landstown), who made 52 hits last season, could see time at linebacker or safety, while fellow sophomores McQuel Sims (Colquitt, Ga./Miller County), who battled injuries throughout the season, and Gage Lotozo (Somerset, Ohio/Sheridan), who missed all of last year after getting hurt in a high school all-star game, will provide options for the line-up.

“At linebacker, it was the year of the freshman,” said Weaver. “We were very pleased with the play of Arrington, who needed to work on his conditioning and strength but showed natural leadership and football instincts, and Powell, who is a hybrid linebacker and DB. Sims is as talented as any of them, but only played in spots because he was nicked up all of last season and Lotozo missed all of last year with a knee injury, but had a great rehab and was squatting 500 pounds when we tested him last spring. Young guys will have the opportunity to provide depth but we shouldn’t be in the same spot as last year needing freshmen to play every down.”

The defensive back field is where Bethany will see a lot of new faces, as they graduated three starters. The only returning player is sophomore cornerback Tremayne Ford (Ft. Washington, Md./Friendly), who made 22 tackles in nine games a year ago. Powell may move back to safety, while junior Jeff Joyce (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin) comes over from wide receiver to get in the mix for time at safety as well.

“We graduated three seniors in the secondary who played a ton, so Ford is the elder statesman heading into camp,” said Weaver. “However, we are very excited about the possibilities of who we can put back there. Our production at wide receiver allowed us to move Joyce, who missed all of last year because of injury, and we expect him to start. Powell is a candidate for the other safety position, but so is (sophomore) Kyle Nannah (Sebring, Ohio/Sebring McKinley), who played some there in the spring after switching from quarterback, and we have high hopes for Jeff Joyce’s younger brother Jordan. Overall, this is one area where there is a legitimate chance for a young player to play their way into the line-up.”

On special teams, Weaver says all the talent at the skill positions should translate into better return games than last year and the kicking jobs will both be open competitions throughout camp.

“We really like what we have in the return game,” said Weaver “Joyce is back, Holmes should be a good returner, Walker has run back kicks in the past and Evans is a threat as well, so while we weren’t as good in the return game last year as we have been, we expect to be much better this season.

“We did not have a good year in the kicking game either, so both specialist jobs will be open,” said Weaver. “(Sophomore) D.J. Clark (Pittsburgh, Pa./Brentwood) did a nice job punting the last few games for us, but he is a candidate to get time at defensive end. At kicker, (sophomore) Adam Gibboney (Aliquippa, Pa./Hopewell) has been challenged and we have a recruiting class full of competition for that spot.”

This season’s schedule will feature a difficult first month, with the opener at home against Allegheny (8-2 in 2009) and a road game at King’s out in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., as part of the PAC-MAC Challenge, which will be followed by contests at Washington & Jefferson and at home against Geneva (8-3 last year). The PAC sent a pair of teams to the NCAA playoffs for the second consecutive season, but Weaver says the conference is becoming more competitive every year.

“Our opener is no picnic against Allegheny, a historically great program with a lot returning from an 8-2 team last year,” said Weaver. “Then we play King’s, a team we know nothing about with a brand new coaching staff and we come back to play W&J and Geneva, so we get tested right out of the gate.

“I see the PAC more balanced every year,” said Weaver. “Thomas More has become a force, but of all the teams who have stepped up in recent years, no one has been able to sustain that success outside of W&J. Everyone is getting closer and the conference is much stronger from top-to-bottom than when we got here.”

Among the keys to the Bison hopes if they want to have their first winning season since 2001 is getting through the rough opening stretch of games, with the others being improvement from the defense and the Bison quarterbacks providing solid efforts. If those three things occur, Bethany could send their seniors out with a season full of highlights while also setting the stage for big things to come.

“Our three keys this year is for the defense to make a huge jump, which they are poised to do based on their talent, get really good quarterback play and survive a brutal first month of the season with a positive attitude,” said Weaver. “We have a small senior class this year that we will lean on for leadership and we want them to win some games. But our playmakers are underclassmen and we will lean on their talent for our success, not only this year, but in the coming years as they continue to develop.”