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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

2021 football preview: With lofty expectations, Whitworth sets sights on NWC title and beyond

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Throughout his eight years as head coach, Rod Sandberg has elevated the standards of Whitworth football.

The program is 51-14 since Sandberg became head coach in 2014, with a 10-1 season in 2018 that earned the Pirates a Northwest Conference title.

Now, more than just winning the NWC, players expect to make some noise in the Division III playoffs, too. And after a four-game season that featured only two opponents – played in home-and-homes during February and March – the Pirates are eager for the chance to play a full 10-game schedule this fall.

“Oh yeah, we’re excited, because last year we only had that four games and it just created a hunger,” junior left tackle Cody Bollig said. “We’re just excited for each other, to come together and hopefully get that championship.”

Key pieces

Jaedyn Prewitt, QB: The senior started all four games in the winter season after appearing as a backup in previous seasons. He completed 60% of his attempts for 1,074 yards and 11 touchdowns to two interceptions.

He’ll be pushed, though, by freshman Cody Christensen, who at Royal High School set the school record for single-season touchdown passes (50) and won three State 1A championships.

“Everybody’s gotta earn everything,” Sandberg said. “Jaedyn’s playing pretty well. He was our starter in the winter season and we have a lot of confidence in him, our team has a lot of confidence in him, and in a perfect world you would not start a freshman quarterback.

(Christensen has) got a lot of growing up to do, but we’re really excited about him.”

Colton Chelin, CB: Once the NWC’s Freshman of the Year, Chelin is now a senior with 24 starts and six interceptions. As the boundary-side cornerback, Chelin is relied on to be a shutdown corner and to anchor a veteran secondary.

“I think he’s one of the best corners in the conference, in the nation,” senior cornerback Bryce Hornbeck said. “He’s got all the attributes you want: he’s big, strong, fast, physical, and I think he’s gonna have a big year.”

Solomon Hines, RB: Now a sophomore, Hines transferred to Whitworth after playing the 2019 season at Division II Simon Fraser, when he led the team in rushing with 464 yards. He was also a state champion in the 200-meter dash while at Kentridge High School, and in camp he has impressed teammates with his speed.

“Solomon’s real quick, shifty,” Bollig said. “He can hit the holes and gain the extra yards.”

Jaylen Gonzales, LB: After a breakout sophomore season in 2018, when he earned first-team all-conference recognition, Gonzales was limited to three games in 2019 due to an injury and then just the three of the four games last spring. He will be part of an experienced linebacker corps.

Filling in the blanks

Defensive line: The Pirates will be young here, especially on the ends.

Last winter provided a small sample size against just two different opponents who were mostly in catch-up mode during four Whitworth victories. The hope, though, is that junior Mason Bertelli can build on his two-sack performance in the spring and that other young players emerge to bolster the Pirates’ pass rush.

“At (defensive) line, we’re thin, but we’re OK,” Sandberg said. “We’ve just had some guys out. We’ve got some young D-ends. They gotta grow up and get some work.”

Running back: For as promising as the group has looked in camp, it still needs to prove that it can balance what has come to be a consistently good passing attack. Isaiah Jones, now a sophomore, led the Pirates with 130 yards on 35 carries in four games over the winter, but the team’s other three backs that had carries aren’t on the roster this fall. How the Pirates divide up carries between Hines, Jones, and receiver-turned-running back Isaiah Cole will be something to watch.

Tight end: Under its previous coordinators, the Pirates didn’t utilize tight ends in a traditional way, opting instead for a spread offense that usually had four receivers on the field. But under Matt Troxel, the Pirates now have eight tight ends listed on the roster, including former quarterback Kanen Ables and junior

Logan Kitselman, who played running back as a freshman and started as the flex receiver last season.

Solving the puzzle

With such a thin margin for reaching the 32-team playoffs in Division III, the Pirates’ season largely comes down to winning the Northwest Conference, and lately that has hinged on the annual game against Linfield.

When they played most recently, in 2019, the Wildcats won in overtime, 38-31, and went on to finish 7-0 in the NWC to earn its automatic playoff bid. This year, Whitworth will go on the road to face Linfield on Oct. 9, their second conference game.

Whitworth should boast one of the best back-seven defenses in the league, with five seniors and two juniors among them. Their job will be made easier, though, if the front four can find a way to generate pressure consistently.

On offense, Prewitt’s progress will be crucial. He has a pair of senior receivers to rely on in Jerusalem To’oto’o and Ethan Peloquin, who scored seven touchdowns in just the four spring games while averaging 23.2 yards per catch.

If, also, the running backs can give the Pirates a three-headed attack that keeps defenses honest, they are going to be a difficult to contain. Troxel, the OC, has coached in Division I and players raved about his offense during camp.

It will also help the Pirates tremendously if senior kicker Nate RaPue can build on his 6-for-6 effort on field goals last winter.

Whitworth will play six of its 10 games at the Pine Bowl, but the three NWC road games might be their most difficult opponents of the year: at Linfield, Puget Sound and George Fox.

It’s possible they could lose one of those and still win the conference, or maybe even snag one of the handful of at-large bids in the playoffs.