Rod Sandberg surveyed a preliminary depth chart, seemingly prepared to circle every name.
The Whitworth football coach loves that senior Icher Pule-Annes – who played only the first three plays last season – gets another chance to start this year at left tackle. The depth across the offense excites him.
And don’t get him started about the linebacker trio of Iain Black, Kale Wong and Jaylen Gonzales.
“I don’t think there’ll be three better linebackers in the country: fast, physical, experienced,” he said. “Several teams may have two that are better, but no team can have three that are better than that.”
Yet Sandberg admitted there are a number of positions where the Pirates have questions, and with rare exception, he said, the team needs depth.
But then, that’s the challenge and charge for a Division III program like Whitworth, which will hold its first fall practice Thursday afternoon at the Pine Bowl.
“We wanna be a program that really develops our players, and they’re a lot different when they are seniors than when they are freshmen,” Sandberg said.
1. Who will snap, kick and return the ball?
The Pirates expect sophomore Dhylan Worster to be their long snapper, replacing the graduated Andrew Knox. And they also knew they needed to replace punt returner Garrett McKay, a role Sandberg said junior receiver Isaiah Cole will likely assume.
But he didn’t expect to need to replace a kicker and a punter. Yet that’s what the Pirates need to do, after Kevin Ramsey transferred with two years’ eligibility remaining and Cody McDonald – a freshman last year who took over both duties midseason – told the team in midsummer that he wouldn’t return for the fall.
So, the Pirates have sophomore Nate RaPue and freshman Alvaro Campos on the roster, with junior receiver Noah Alejado listed as the third option to kick and punt.
“We’ve got guys ready to step up and get it done,” Sandberg said. “We’re gonna coach them up and I believe in them.”
2. How good will the offensive line be?
The Pirates graduated both their starting offensive tackles from last year: All-America selection Tyler Adamson on the left side, All-Northwest Conference selection Jacob Hubbard on the right.
The preseason depth chart lists five senior starters, including returners Dylan McGillen, Seth Fukushima and Kurt Blackman, who will slide over from left guard to right tackle. That means Pule-Annes and Tommy Clauson are expected to step in to protect quarterback Leif Ericksen’s blind side.
Behind those five? Sandberg said the team needs to develop depth.
3. Who becomes the primary receiver?
Not only was McKay the team’s punt returner, he is the program’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards. His production (88 catches, 1,0003 yards last year) will need to be replaced, but whether one of the team’s five senior receivers takes a leading role or the group spreads that production around that production remains a question.
Seniors Nick McGill (27 catches, 381 yards in 2018) and Taylor Hall (25 for 343) as well as Taylor Kolste, who missed all but two games last year due to injury, are positioned to lead the receiving corps this fall.
4. Who steps up in the secondary?
Shai Pulawa’s graduation leaves a gap at safety alongside defensive captain Zach Hillman. When Pulawa missed time with an injury last season, BJ Mullin, now a sophomore, stepped in and is expected to start this year.
At cornerback, Jayden Jira graduated but the Pirates return Colten Chelin, NWC Freshman of the Year a season ago. Juniors Bryce Hornbeck and Blake Bingham, as well as sophomore Braiden Ayala, will compete for time opposite him.
5. Which freshmen earn playing time?
Last year Chelin, Mullin and McDonald were among the team’s most prominent freshmen; this year there are 44 listed on the roster. Sandberg said he hopes they can help fill in depth on a chart that, beyond the starters, is currently filled by largely unproven players.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.