The cast of characters is changing at Whitworth.
However, the entertainment factor will remain high at the Pine Bowl, where the Pirates will host six games while continuing coach Rod Sandberg’s spread offense.
“You play to your strengths,” said Sandberg, who goes into his fifth year expecting to contend for a high finish in the Northwest Conference and a spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Offense: Some of the faces are new, but Whitworth will have the same identity despite losing seven offensive starters from last year’s team that went 8-2 and finished second in the conference.
That identity starts up front, with Division III All-American candidate Tyler Adamson, who protects the blind side so well that “it frees you up to double-team in our pass protection,” said offensive coordinator Alan Stanfield.
And despite all the newer faces, the Pirates will continue to run their spread offense that usually employs four wide receivers.
“The core of our offense is spreading out the field,” Stanfield said.
Leading the way will be fifth-year senior Garrett McKay of Tacoma, who has 182 career catches for 2,097 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“He’s a special kid,” Stanfield said of McKay, who tore his ACL as a freshman in 2014 but hasn’t looked back.
Senior Brett Moser, from Moses Lake, has plenty of game experience, with 75 catches in 29 games. Also expected to see plenty of playing time are Nick McGill, Bryce Powers, Taylor Kolste and Taylor Hall.
Junior Anthony Ruiz, the only true tight end on the roster, should see more playing time as the Pirates hope to employ slightly more power sets.
The biggest question is at quarterback, but coach Rod Sandberg is confident in both of his top choices, junior Leif Ericksen and sophomore Connor Johnson.
“They have different skill sets and we’re going to need them both,” Sandberg said.
Ericksen, a junior from Kalispell, Montana, was the top backup last year to record-setting Ian Kolste, passing for 418 yards with a 59.3 percent completion rate.
Johnson, a sophomore from Snohomish, Washington, has a strong arm and is a gifted runner, but lacks college experience.
“Both are competitors, and that’s what you can go to war with,” Sandberg said. “Leif has been in the program for a year and he’s more of a pocket passer. Connor is more of a Brett Favre back there, extending plays.”
No matter who starts at QB, both are expected to see plenty of playing time behind a strong line and backed by a talented pair of backs in junior Mason Elms and sophomore Tariq Ellis. Both averaged better than 7 yards per carry last year and combined for 1,098 yards and 10 TDs.
“Mason and Tariq are both home-run hitters,” said Stanfield, noting that both backs had multiple carries that went for 50 yards or longer.
On the line, three-time All-NWC first-teamer Adamson gives the Pirates a big advantage.
“He’s on an island a lot of the time, but we feel like he doesn’t need a lot of help,” Stanfield said of the 6-foot-4, 270-pounder. “That frees you up in pass protection, and it’s like having a veteran quarterback out there.”
Senior Jacob Hubbard, who started at center last year, is moving to guard.
Junior Dylan McGillen, a Gonzaga Prep product, is expected to start at center. Juniors Kurt Blackman and Icher Pule-Anness are favored to start at right tackle and left guard, respectively.
Defense: If defensive success begins with a deep, talented front four, the Pirates are on track for a big year.
“Things have been absolutely awesome,” said first-year defensive coordinator Adam Shamion, who will employ a 4-3 scheme that will include a few tweaks from last year’s defene.
“Everyone’s hungry to get better,” Shamion said.
That would an extension of last year, when the Pirates closed with five straight wins thanks in part to an ever-improving defense that gave up just 10 touchdowns in that span.
“We feel pretty confident but we still have lots of steps to take,” said senior defensive end Chad Wilburg, whose 51 tackles last year included a team-high five sacks.
Along with fellow end Charlie Ball, Wilburg was excited to hear that Shamion plans to “bring the fight to the offense instead of having it come to us.”
“I just want to go out and tackle some people,” Wilburg said.
The Pirates also have depth at the ends with Andrew McCoy and Tom Wilkie. “Tackle is a bit more wide-open,” said Sandberg, who so far is without injured returnees P-Jay Solomon and Weston Kroes. However, Jack McLeod, Mason Miksch and RudyJay Keopuhiwa are in the mix to see action.
Whitworth returns outside linebacker Kale Wong, an all-conference contender whom Shamion calls “super hard-working, and competes in everything he does.”
Sophomore Jaylen Gonzales is poised to “become quite a player” at middle linebacker, said Shamion, who also sees Lakeside High School product Gunnar Swannack competing for major playing time, along with Ian Black.
The secondary is highlighted by senior strong safety Shai Pulawa (52 tackles and two picks last year) and the shifting of outside linebacker Zach Hillman to free safety.
Cornerback is a major question mark, but Shamion will count on returnees Jayden Jira, Bryce Hornbeck and a large group of promising freshmen.
Special teams: Place-kicking duties are up for grabs, with sophomore Kevin Ramsey competing with Mt. Spokane product Cody McDonald and Nathan RaPue.
Ramsey has the inside track at punter, while McKay is expected to handle punt returns. Moser and Brayden Corona are the top candidates to return kicks.
Coaching: Sandberg returns for his fifth year after posting a 31-10 record over the past four years; so does Stanfield, responsible for the NWC’s top offense last year.
First-year assistant John Custer will handle tight ends and long snappers, but the biggest change comes on the other side of the ball.
Former University of Idaho linebacker Adam Shamion, who spent the past nine years as an assistant at Post Falls High School, is the Pirates’ new defensive coordinator.
For a perennial winner like Whitworth, there’s one major goal: making the NCAA Division III playoffs.
The only sure path is to win the Northwest Conference title, and to do that, the Pirates need to get past national power Linfield.
That’s easier said than done.
“We’ve never really played our best game against them,” offensive coordinator Adam Stanfield said – but the Pirates have a great shot this year on Sept. 29 at the Pine Bowl.
Not only is Whitworth at home, but the Pirates enjoy a bye the week before. Even better, Linfield graduated its entire starting front seven on defense.
Whitworth’s last win against the Wildcats was a 10-6 victory in Spokane in 2007.