Even with the graduation of star quarterback Ian Kolste and six other offensive starters, Whitworth has high expectations this year.
Coming off an 8-2 season and a second-place finish in the Northwest Conference, the Pirates may employ a more balanced offense thanks to a veteran line and running backs.
Several questions will follow fifth-year coach Rod Sandberg as the Pirates open fall camp on Sunday.
Who will take the reins at quarterback? Kolste’s numbers last year (2,483 yards, a 68 percent completion rate and just five picks) will be hard to match. So will the Pirates’ NWC-leading stats from last year.
“You do not try to replace a guy like Ian, or any of our recent graduates,” Sandberg said. “You have the next guys step up and be the best they can be. It is crucial that you remind them they have to be themselves.”
Sandberg and offensive coordinator Alan Stanfield have two solid candidates in junior Leif Erickson and sophomore Connor Johnson.
Erickson, the top backup last year, appears to have the inside track to start in the season opener against visiting LaVerne on Sept. 1. Last year, Erickson was 48-for-81 with four touchdown passes and two interceptions.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Johnson offers a contrast to Erickson’s dropback style and offers a strong running threat.
Will the Pirates run the ball more this year? Last year Whitworth’s spread offense averaged 295 yards per game through the air and 173 on the ground. Expect those numbers to be a bit more balanced, as Sandberg returns two of the top rushers in the league along with a veteran offensive line.
Senior Mason Elms and junior Tariq Ellis each averaged better than seven yards per carry last year while combining for 1,098 yards and 10 touchdowns. Elms also led the Pirates in all-purpose yards with 798 while earning second-team All-NWC honors.
Depth is a strength, as backups Brad Mills and Braydon Corona saw action in 2017.
Only two starters are back on the line, but left tackle Tyler Adamson is going for a third-straight spot on the all-NWC first team and possible All-America honors, while fellow senior Jacob Hubbard will set the tone at center.
Juniors Kurt Blackman, Seth Fukushima and Icher Pule-Annes will contend for starting roles after all saw major playing time last year.
Besides Garrett McKay, who will catch the ball? Perhaps the biggest rebuild will come in the receiving corps, which graduated three of its top four performers. However, senior Garrett McKay (51 catches for 521 yards last year) is going into his senior year with a chance to break school career records for receptions and yards.
Also back is senior Brett Moser (21 catches, 156 yards) and five juniors battling for the other two starting spots. They include Bryce Powers, Taylor Hall, Nick McGill, Caleb Jones and Taylor Kolste. All but Jones had at least one catch last year.
When Whitworth goes to a formation with a tight end, junior Anthony Ruiz will continue to line up at that position.
How good could this front seven be? Whitworth returns one of the top lines in the conference, which gave up just 11 touchdowns in the last five games of 2017. All four starters – ends Chad Wilberg and Jay Solomon, and tackles Jack McLeod and Charlie Ball – return up front.
The biggest new face is defensive coordinator Adam Shamion, who will try to coax better numbers against the run (177 yards per game in conference play).
“The new coaches have brought some new ideas on how to do things, but I think the biggest thing they have brought is an energy and an appreciation for what they are part of,” Sandberg said.
Also back in the Pirates’ 4-3 scheme are starting linebackers Kale Wong and Zach Hillman and top backup Jaylen Gonzalez.
Pressure up front will be critical, as free safety Shai Pulawa is the only returnee in the secondary.
Can the Pirates get out of the gate quickly? It doesn’t get better than this for the Pirates and their fans: six home games, two bye weeks in September and back-to-back games against the two schools that beat them last year.
The highlight will come Sept. 29, as national power Linfield visits the Pine Bowl. By then, Whitworth will have played nonconference home games against LaVerne and Chapman, with byes following both contests.
A week after the Linfield game, Whitworth hits the road at George Fox, which last year stunned the Pirates 43-23 in a game that likely cost them an NCAA playoff spot.