If the Northwest Conference football coaches preseason poll is correct, the Whitworth Pirates will do something this fall that hasn’t happened in the last six seasons: Finish below third place.
The coaches picked Whitworth as the fourth-best team in the new-look NWC (associate member Menlo exited and Pacific restarted its program after nearly two decades on the sideline). The last time the Pirates finished out of the top three was in 2003, a fourth-place finish that coincided with the program’s last losing season.
The Pirates respectfully disagree with the pollsters.
“Our players know they have to come out and compete, they’re not coming in as the favorites,” 16-year head coach John Tully said. “Each day our guys’ confidence is growing. We just like this football team. It’s neat to say as a coach and that would be echoed from everybody on our staff.”
There’s a lot to like.
Standout running back Adam Anderson (Riverside High) was granted a medical redshirt after an ankle injury limited him to 30 carries in 2009. Anderson had surgery March 16 and he’s still working his way back into shape. He’ll probably have a lighter workload early, especially with the promise shown by sophomore Anthany Lessier.
At the urging of his fiancée, Anderson has his surgically repaired right ankle taped and braced for each practice.
“Coach Tully even said have it taped for walkthroughs and stuff,” Anderson, the two-time NWC offensive player of the year, said with a smile.
He already passed his first big test.
“The one thing I was worried about was inside run,” Anderson said. “The first week or so I wasn’t able to do inside run. The coaches wanted to ease me in, but once I did it, I don’t feel (the ankle) at all.”
Sophomore quarterback Taylor Eglet, a Lewis and Clark product, was pressed into action last season when Andrew Durant and Cub Jansen suffered season-ending injuries in the second quarter against Linfield. Eglet went 3-1 as a starter as the Pirates finished the season 5-5. Durant is concentrating on baseball and Jansen didn’t return.
Eglet has a number of pass-catching options, including All-NWC punter Zack Clow (Priest River), who is pulling double duty at tight end, and a set of receivers that figure to be among the tallest in college football. Dale Entel, at 6-foot-2, was second on the team with 27 catches last season. Along with ex-Mt. Spokane Wildcat Connor Haley (6-3), Jake DeGooyer (6-0) and the Ingman twins – Joseph (6-4) and John (6-5) – the group is “not only big, but they can run,” Tully said. “I think we’re going to be able to vertically stretch people, and we just haven’t been able to do that in a while.”
Starting offensive linemen Zak Richardson, Jared Warren and Emilio Sulpizio (Mead) return. Travis Todd and converted defensive lineman Nate Guthrie (East Valley) will replace graduated standouts Michael Nahl and Jeff Kintner. Colby Davis (Central Valley) should see time at center with Sulpizio sliding over to guard.
“We feel good that we’ll be able to throw the ball and run the ball,” Tully said.
And the Pirates may be even stronger on the defensive side of the ball. Nine starters return, including talented linebackers Layton Brown, Paul Werhane, Brian O’Kelley and Nick Ashley, tackle Travis Niles (Mt. Spokane), end Jeff Erlenmeyer, and cornerbacks Cailen Thomason and Derek Stottlemyer. Niles has been slowed by a strained knee.
Whitworth wants to force more turnovers and improve its pass rush (just 11 sacks last season, three by graduated Brandon Martin, a three-time All-NWC selection). The Pirates led the NWC in takeaways while winning back-to-back titles in 2006-07.
“I think we’re vastly improved on defense over last year,” Tully said. “We have athletes there, experience there. The secondary is going to be much better. The defense has a chance to create turnovers.”