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Sports >  Whitworth

‘A no-brainer’: Whitworth’s group of experienced defensive backs return for the love of the game

Aug. 29, 2022 Updated Mon., Aug. 29, 2022 at 9:09 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The Whitworth football roster is loaded with experience, with nine returning starters on each side of the ball.

But the defensive backfield boasts experience that goes beyond what is common at a Division III program.

That’s because three of the team’s four senior starters from last year’s unit – BJ Mullin, Jacob Hogger and Colten Chelin – are among the eight 2018 Whitworth recruits who decided to stick around for one extra fall in the hopes of ending their college careers the way they began: with a playoff appearance.

Their season starts Friday, when the Pirates play at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, the farthest east Whitworth has ever traveled to play a football game.

For Mullin, the decision to come back was “a no-brainer.”

“I love football. I want to coach football, and I don’t think there’s anything better you can do than keep playing it,” the second-year captain Mullin said. “I love the game.”

The trip to Pittsburgh completes a home-and-home between Whitworth and Carnegie Mellon, which played at the Pine Bowl in Spokane last season. The Pirates won that game, 13-10.

They followed with victories in six of their next seven games, and the Pirates were poised for a playoff appearance. It would have been their first since 2018, when Chelin, Hogger and Mullin were freshmen. Chelin started every game that season and was named the Northwest Conference’s Freshman of the Year.

But the Pirates lost the last two games of the 2021 season, dropping them into fourth place in the conference standings behind Linfield, George Fox and Pacific, and far from the D-III playoffs.

That ending was one motivating factor for Chelin, who in choosing to come back for a fifth season is in line to set Whitworth’s career record for games started. Chelin has started all 34 of the games he has played at Whitworth and is taking one class this fall to fulfill graduation requirements – a one-credit internship with defensive backs coach Duke DeGaetano.

Hogger and Mullin have 14 starts each – including 10 last year and four during the COVID-shortened spring 2021 season – and have played in 27 and 31 games, respectively.

“We only get to play football so long in our lives,” Chelin said.

Many football players at programs around the Inland Northwest have taken advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted because of the pandemic. But at a D-III school like Whitworth, where there are no athletic scholarships, the choice isn’t simply about football.

That Hogger, Chelin and Mullin have opted to delay their graduation is a big reason why the Pirates have high hopes for their defense this season. Chelin was a first-team All-Conference selection last year, and Hogger led the team with four interceptions.

“You need somebody who carries everyone to a higher level, and we’ve got three guys back there (in the defensive backfield) who just know what they’re doing,” head coach Rod Sandberg said. “They play with confidence, and they execute. They’re capable of following through, and that just breeds confidence for everyone else.”

This is also the fifth season for defensive coordinator Adam Shamion, giving the Pirates a wealth of shared experience as they add complexities to their defense.

“It’s been a blessing to have coach (Shamion) here all five years of my tenure,” said Mullin, whose academic workload this fall includes a business capstone course. “Coming into the installs here (in preseason camp), we know what’s going on. It’s just fine -tuning every year.

“The core of what we do is still the same, but just little tweaks and little improvements, which we love. When (Shamion) brings in something new, we love that.”

Mullin, who is listed at 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, joked that he’s about the same size as he was when he arrived at Whitworth as a freshman, but that mentally, he’s much more mature. He’s also eager for the chance to reach the playoffs, this time as a starter.

But he’s also glad to be back so he can help usher in the next group of defensive backs, just as he watched the veterans on that 2018 team, which allowed just 16.5 points per game and held opposing offenses to only 2.1 yards per carry (68.3 yards per game).

“I enjoyed being the young guy and learning, but it’s our turn to make those plays and then carry on the tradition and teach guys coming up,” Mullin said. “It’s fun to carry that torch.”

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