One season ago, the Whitworth Pirates didn’t leave Spokane to play a football game until October.
This year’s schedule is quite the opposite, and Saturday the defending Northwest Conference champions play their first of two nonconference games in California, this one at La Verne with an early 11 a.m. kickoff.
“It’s not a bad thing,” senior quarterback Leif Ericksen said. “I love playing in front of fans at the Pine Bowl, but playing on the road’s not bad, either.”
Whitworth opened last season against La Verne with a 38-2 drubbing at the Pine Bowl, but head coach Rod Sandberg downplayed the usefulness of comparing this year’s squad to that one.
“Well, we haven’t seen anything (from La Verne),” Sandberg said. “That’s the thing. In Game 1 you really have to go in with a broad general game plan and try to see how (the game) unfolds. … We’ll have to do a lot of in-game adjustments.”
The Pirates, ranked 11th in the preseason d3football.com poll, won’t play a home game until Oct. 5, when they open conference play against Willamette. They have just one other nonconference game, against Chapman, which, like La Verne, competes in the Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Whitworth wrapped up its fall camp relatively healthy, with two notable exceptions: sophomore safety BJ Mullin, who started late last year in place of the injured (and now graduated) Shai Pulawa, has yet to practice with the team; and senior running back Tariq Ellis, the presumed starter, tore his Achilles tendon and is expected to be out for the season.
“You miss him as a player because he’s talented, and you miss his charisma and energy,” Sandberg said of Ellis, who ran for 469 yards and five touchdowns as a junior. “He’s not gone. He’ll just have to lead in a different way.”
Junior Brayden Corona will get the start at running back, with senior Brad Mills spelling him. Sophomore Jacob Hogger or junior Parker Shaw will get his first career start at free safety.
Cody Bollig listed atop the depth chart at right guard, is the only freshman expected to start.
“We have a lot of confidence in his ability to step in,” Sandberg said of the 6-foot-1, 304-pound lineman. “We need guys that can play at a championship level, and he can play at that level.”
Perhaps the most interesting new name on the top line of the depth chart is placekicker and punter Noah Alejado, who won the starting jobs during camp. Alejado had played only wide receiver in his first two years at Whitworth, but the team’s two leading kicking candidates left the program over the summer.
That means Alejado, who caught seven passes and two touchdowns last season as a wide receiver, will get his first official collegiate start at two positions he hasn’t played since his sophomore year of high school.
“I’m really excited to put one through the uprights,” Alejado said. “I’m embracing the role. I’m ready.”
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