Aug. 13 - BETHANY, W.Va. – Although 17 starters are returning for the Bethany College football team for the 2008 season, there is still quite a bit of change affiliated with the Bison program, which is entering its third year under the direction of head coach Tim Weaver.
One of the changes affects Weaver, who led Bethany to their second consecutive 4-6 season (2-4 in the PAC) last year. In addition to being the head football coach, he is now the director of athletics and recreation and one of his main duties has been to oversee the revitalization of Bison Stadium. Bethany’s home field underwent extensive work over the summer, which included the installation of a new FieldTurf playing surface and lights.
The first game at the Bison’s refurbished home is Sept. 13 against Kentucky Christian University, a first-year NAIA program, and the updated facility brings quite a few perks to the entire program.
“Any kind of progress is exciting and a project like this is the best kind,” said Weaver, whose teams have broken or tied 20 school records in his two-year tenure. “Our day-to-day operations will be helped tremendously. We won’t have to worry about the condition of the practice field, we can stay out under the lights for practice late in the season when daylight ends quicker and we can practice on the same surface we’ll play most of our games on as well.
“And obviously it’s going to help in recruiting,” said Weaver. “It’s a better looking facility, but it also shows institutional commitment to the program and isn’t just lip service.”
When Weaver took the reins to the program in December of 2006, he had a clear vision of where he wanted to take the program and how long it would take to get there. Coming into year three, Weaver says everything is going to plan to this point.
“We are right on schedule as to where we wanted to be and have hit all our progress landmarks,” said Weaver. “We’ve grown from about 80 players in the program to nearly 110 this fall, saw a significant increase in wins the first year, then saw major statistical improvements during the second year. The gap between us and the top teams in the league was so considerable when we arrived, we couldn’t be too discouraged when we lost. Now we feel we’ve closed that gap and the next step is to beat those teams.”
The one major change for the Bison offense will come at quarterback. Milton Joyner paced the BC offense to a school-record 4,105 total yards last year, as he threw for more than 2,000 yards and 21 TDs, while rushing for five more scores. The lone returner at the position from last year is sophomore Dan Pegg (Uniontown, Pa./Laurel Highlands), who completed 5-of-6 aerials for 47 yards in the ’07 season finale. While the Bison coaches like Pegg, he will have to fend off some skilled freshmen for the starting job.
“We are excited about Pegg,” said Weaver. “He battled injuries early on last season, but came on at the end of the year and followed that up with a very good spring. If we had a game today, he would start, but he’ll have to earn that spot over some very talented freshmen. We’re also pretty happy about our recruits at that position.”
The new quarterback will be hoping to see the running game show continued improvement. After gaining just 71 yards per game on the ground in Weaver’s first season, BC’s ground production jumped to better than 185 yards a game last year. Sophomore RB Marcus Santini (Seminole, Fla.) was a big reason for the improvement, as he churned out 473 yards on just 78 carries (6.1 average) and scored five touchdowns despite missing three games because of injuries. The questions to be settled in camp include who will be the primary back-up behind Santini at tailback and who will rise up to grab the fullback position.
“We have a good, experienced player in the backfield in Santini,” said Weaver. “It’s great to have a player at that position that is physically and mentally tough. Depth will be a concern though. We have some guys coming back that we like, but need to improve to show they can be the second guy. We feel good about the fullback spot because we have two or three guys who can play at a high level. It was nice to add that to our offense last year and go with two-back sets to run the ball.”
In addition to a solid ground game, the Bison offense also features a talented receiving corps, possibly the deepest in the PAC. Junior Matt Cruse (Naples, Fla./Barron Collier) returns after catching 52 passes for 763 yards and a school-record tying nine TDs last year, which earned him Second Team All-PAC. Senior Taylor McNeil (Old Saybrook, Conn.) matched Cruse in receptions for 711 yards and five scores, while also amassing more than 1,450 all-purpose yards.
Add in junior Matt Dahle (McKees Rocks, Pa./Sto-Rox), who had 11 catches for 153 yards, and sophomore Randy Rankin (Uniontown, Pa./Laurel Highlands), who pulled in 15 passes for 147 yards, sophomore Clint Wilson (Moundsville, W.Va./Bishop Donahue), as well as junior TE Jorge Laboy (New York, N.Y./Central Park East), and there will be no shortage of targets for whoever gets the call under center for Bethany.
“Wide receiver is definitely a position of strength,” said Weaver. “We feel we may have the two best in the conference in Cruse and McNeil. Our next three options in Dahle, Rankin and Wilson are talented, tough kids who we like. And we are looking forward to seeing Laboy’s development. He had a great spring, has added 20 pounds since he came here and has all kinds of athletic ability.
“We have high expectations that if they can stay healthy and keep working hard, they will put up big numbers,” said Weaver.
Another key to the offense’s production last year was the play up front. The Bison return four out of five starters on the offensive line, including First Team All-PAC guard Brian Liptock (New Salem, Pa./Uniontown) and Honorable Mention tackle Chad Sedlacek (Monaca, Pa.). Junior Chris Bailey (Pittsburgh, Pa./Shaler), a two-year starter at center, and sophomore tackle Bob Rovnanik (Springdale, Pa.), who started six contests, are also back. What solidifies this position for BC is the depth they have acquired following two strong recruiting years.
“The offensive line is another position of strength for us and we have high expectations for this group,” said Weaver. “Two All-PAC players are back and two other starters return from a unit which improved a tremendous amount from the year before. And because of our strong incoming classes, we’ve gone from eight linemen to 22, which creates competition, depth and the ability to get more guys into games and practice.”
The defensive side of the ball is where Bethany must see improvement. Although the Green and White held three teams to 14 or fewer points last year, the most since 2002, they still ranked eighth in the league in scoring (31.4) and total defense (390.6). The key to bettering those numbers starts up front, where Weaver is looking to senior Chris Boland (Cape May Court House, N.J./Middle Township), who had a team-high three sacks, and sophomore Brad Ragghianti (Pittsburgh, Pa./North Hills), who made 31 stops as a freshman, to pace the way.
“We have to play better up front and we’re looking to guys like Boland and Ragghianti for leadership,” said Weaver. “We have big, talented guys who need to be more productive and consistent. Their production dropped from one year to the next and we need them to step up to that previous level.”
The big area of change on the defense is at linebacker, where Bethany graduated all three starters from a year ago. While there may be a shortage of experience, there won’t be a shortage of competition to fill those spots. The competition is so open, Weaver didn’t even single out a favorite for any of the positions.
“We are really, really excited about the infusion of youth at linebacker,” said Weaver. “We are looking to be more athletic and more productive. We have a lot of good guys who will make it very competitive in camp.”
The defensive backfield will be the strong point of the unit, with three starters back and a fourth who saw considerable time last year. Sophomore FS Nelson Mitzen (Waynesburg, Pa./Waynesburg Central), the team’s leading returning tackler (65), was Second Team All-PAC after also leading Bethany with two interceptions. On the corners, senior Brandon Zeman (Bridgeville, Pa./Chartiers Valley) was Honorable Mention All-PAC with 35 tackles despite missing the final four games because of an injury, while junior Michael Salters (McKees Rocks, Pa.) is back for his third year as a starter.
“The secondary will be our leadership position with a good deal of experience and talent back there,” said Weaver. “Zeman, Mitzen and Salters all started last year and when we moved John George (Munhall, Pa./Steel Valley) to strong safety midseason, we knew he was our best player. With another year and a full camp, he’ll make us even better.”
Bethany’s special teams will have plenty of returners who can break a big play at any time, including McNeil, who set a school record for kick returns (34) and yards (643). Sophomore Jermaine Washington will also get a chance to bring back kicks, while the punt returning duties will be handled by Dahle, who took a punt back for a score last year, and Cruse, with Washington also possibly pitching in there.
The Bison punter will definitely be a freshman, as Mike Elias graduated. The kicker could be sophomore Nick Comer (Falling Waters W.Va./Hedgesville), who hit a pair of extra points last year, but he’ll be pushed by three freshmen in camp.
“Our return teams have been very good for two years and we expect them to be good again,” said Weaver. “Dahle and Cruse will take the majority of punts and McNeil has been at the top of the PAC in kick returns each of the last two years. Washington has the athletic ability to make things happen on one or both return teams.
“Our punter will be a freshman and Comer can do the job at kicker,” said Weaver. “But we felt we brought in three freshmen kickers and we’ll let them compete for the job. The kicking game was a point of emphasis in recruiting and hopefully we have that situation solved.”
In order for the Bison to continue to hit the progress landmarks that Weaver has set, their main objective is to get better defensively, while giving their quarterback a chance to be successful on offense and making plays on special teams.
“If we want to continue to make strides as a program, we have to improve defensively,” said Weaver. “This is the year for us to make significant improvements, especially against the run. Offensively, whoever the quarterback is, we have to get him ready to play and put him in situations where he can succeed. And we have to look for advantages and make plays on special teams, whether it is returns or fakes to get any advantage we can.”