The Whitworth football team opened preseason practices this month with plenty of faces, many of them familiar.
The Pirates return 21 starters from the team that went 4-0 last spring, and on a sunny, clear Wednesday morning this week, the roster of 130 spread out for drills on fields behind the Whitworth Fieldhouse.
“This is football. This is what people come to play college football for, for fall training camp,” senior safety BJ Mullin said. “This is football again.”
On Sept. 3, Whitworth is scheduled to begin its season at home against Carnegie-Mellon in a nonconference Division III matchup. The Pirates are hoping to build on the momentum from last spring, when they steamrolled Northwest Conference foes Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran twice each by a combined score of 167-51.
“Our mindset is, it’s fall training camp: How can we get better?” said Rod Sandberg, Whitworth’s head coach since the 2014 season. “How can we reach our full potential? … Spring was a great springboard into fall, but now it’s fall training camp. We gotta get ready for a season. (We) gotta get ready for Game 1.”
The Pirates are plenty experienced, with a secondary that returns four senior starters, including Colten Chelin, who has been a staple in the lineup since his freshman season. The continuity, with Bryce Hornbeck and Jacob Hogger also back in the secondary, will make the group more adaptable, Mullin said.
“Right away we’re in early installs,” he said. “All the experienced DBs, they know what’s going in, so we can add on more quicker, we can do more. We can be more versatile.”
Senior quarterback Jaedyn Prewitt is throwing to a group of receivers he knows well from last spring when he started all four games, but he’s doing so now in his third offensive system in three seasons. New coordinator Matt Troxel took over for Ian Kolste after the spring season. Kolste had replaced Alan Stanfield from the season before.
Troxel, a Lake City High School graduate who then played at Montana, has coached at various levels of football, including stops at Idaho State, Idaho and Oregon State.
“All of them were different,” senior receiver Jerusalem To’oto’o said of the three coordinators. “They had their own style of how they coached the game. I think what’s different from this one than the other ones is it’s more complex, more details on routes.”
Sandberg, who is 51-14 as Whitworth’s coach, pointed out that in previous seasons when coordinators changed, on either side of the ball, the Pirates got better. So he doesn’t expect this transition to be any different.
“Anytime you have change, it’s an opportunity to evaluate what you’re doing. (Troxel) brings new ideas, new energy,” Sandberg said. “Old players can’t just (say), ‘Oh, I know this.’ They are on a high sense of alert. They’re listening and soaking it in. So I think there’s a lot of advantages.”
After playing as juniors during the spring, many of the current seniors, including Mullin and Prewitt, expect to take advantage of the extra COVID-19 year of eligibility granted by the NCAA and to play in 2022.
There are also seven players for whom 2020 would have been their final year, yet they stuck around for this 2021 campaign. Mullin said their presence is just another motivator to maximize this preseason and the full schedule of games to follow.
“There’s seven guys that stayed, and it makes it extra special for them,” Mullin said. “A lot of them had, at the end of the year, unfinished business. With the COVID year, they didn’t get the full season they wanted.
“They came back with a purpose, and we’re gonna fulfill that purpose this year: win a Northwest Conference championship and go further.”
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