SPOKANE, Wash. – At the same time that head coach Rod Sandberg and his staff hit their fifth season leading the Whitworth football program, the Pirates are facing a year of major transition heading into the 2018 season.
The entire roster is comprised of players recruited by the current staff for the first time in Sandberg's tenure. Yet, 2018 marks the beginning of a new era of offensive stars for the Bucs.
"Our guys clearly know the culture and expectations of Whitworth Football," said Sandberg, who is 31-10 over his first four seasons leading the Pirates. "It means they are all here for the right reasons and embracing the opportunities that exist here at Whitworth as a school and within our football program."
For the first time since Sandberg's first season, the Bucs will be heading onto the gridiron without record-setting quarterback Ian Koste. Along with Kolste, the bulk of Whitworth's receiving corps graduated last May and the Bucs return only four starters on that side of the ball.
"You do not try to replace a guy like Ian, or any of our recent graduates," Sandberg said. "You have the next guys step up and be the best they can be. It is crucial that you remind them they have to be themselves. You help them reach their full potential, create situations where they can have success and be in competitive situations early in camp."
In addition to replacing Kolste and several receivers, Whitworth will have to replace the bulk of the defensive secondary, including a four-year starter, and the most dangerous kicker in the NWC over the last three seasons. In all, the Pirates return 11 starters (four offense, seven defense) from a team that finished 8-2 in 2017.
In addition, Sandberg has a new defensive coordinator (Adam Shamion), a new offensive line coach (Andrew Faaumu) and several new young assistants on his staff.
"The new coaches have brought some new ideas on how to do things, but I think the biggest thing they have brought is an energy and an appreciation for what they are part of," Sandberg said. "That rubs off on the rest of us, especially the players."
This new mix of Pirates will play their first game on September 1st in the Pine Bowl against the University of La Verne at 1:00 pm.
The competition to replace Kolste as the starting QB remains tight heading into training camp. Leif Ericksen (Jr.) completed 59% of his passes for 418 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions in 2017. And it wasn't all mop-up duty as he started Whitworth's 17-14 win at PLU after Kolste sprained an ankle. Connor Johnson (So.) ran for the first score of the PLU win with a 19-yard carry. He is neck and neck with Ericksen in the competition for the starting job.
Three freshmen will back up Ericksen and Johnson: Jaedyn Prewitt, Koa Pancho and Cole Hinrichs.
Whoever is behind center will have a pair of talented tailbacks to hand off to. Mason Elms (Sr.) and Tariq Ellis (Jr.) combined to run for 1,098 yards and ten touchdowns in 2017. Each averaged over seven yards per carry. Elms ended up as Whitworth's leader in all-purpose yards (798) and in touchdowns scored (8). He earned second team All-Northwest Conference. Brad Mills (Jr.) and Braydon Corona (So.) also saw action as back up ball carriers in 2017.
Whitworth returns one starting wide receiver, but Garrett McKay (Sr.) provides a talented target. He is a two-time first team All-NWC honoree with 182 receptions for 2097 yards and 13 touchdowns in his career. He has a chance to break the Whitworth career records for receptions and receiving yards.
Fellow senior Brett Moser should move into another starting spot after catching 21 passes for 156 yards and two scores in 2017. Five players are battling for the other two starting spots: Bryce Powers (RS Jr.), Taylor Hall (Jr.), Nick McGill (Jr.), Caleb Jones (Jr.) and Taylor Kolste (Jr.). All but Jones had at least one reception in 2017.
When Whitworth goes to a formation with a tight end, Anthony Ruiz (Jr.) will continue to line up at that position.
The Whitworth offensive line will return two starters. Tyler Adamson (Sr.) is a two-time first team All-NWC honoree at left tackle. He is a primary reason for Whitworth's low sacks allowed over the last two seasons, despite the high number of passes thrown. Jacob Hubbard (Sr.) has been the Pirates' starting center for two years in a row.
The other three spots are up for battle. Kurt Blackman (Jr.), Seth Fukushima (Jr.) and Icher Pule-Annes (Jr.) all saw serious playing time in back up roles last season. Dylan McGillen (Jr.) is also waiting in the wings at center. Isaiah Cornish (Jr.), along with sophomores Andrew Diddens, Cody Hattenburg and Devon Zwanzig, could see their first real action on the line in 2018.
Whitworth returns all four starters along with five key backups on the defensive line. The line should be the Pirates' strength on the defensive side of the ball.
Chad Wilburg (Sr.) and Charlie Ball (Jr.) return as the starting defensive ends. Wilburg finished with 51 tackles in 2017, including a team-high 9.5 for losses of 38 yards. He earned second team All-NWC. Ball had 25 stops, including 7.5 for loss. Andrew McCoy (Jr.), Weston Kroes (Sr.) and Tom Wilkie (RS Jr.) all have significant experience playing defensive end as well.
P-Jay Solomon (Sr.) and Jack McLeod (Jr.) are the returning starters at defensive tackle. They combined for 33 stops in 2017. Brennen Folkins (Jr.) and Chase Wilcutt (Sr.) played as backups last season.
Kale Wong (Jr.) returns as a starting outside linebacker. With 33 tackles in 2017, Wong earned honorable mention All-NWC despite missing three games to injury. Zach Hillman (Jr.) is a versatile athlete who started at OLB in 2017, but could move to safety in 2018. If that change does happen, several veterans will battle for the two other starting linebacker roles. Included in that group are juniors Iain Black, Kaipo Barnes and Gunnar Swannack, along with sophomore Jaylen Gonzales.
The Pirates will have to replace three of four starters in the defensive secondary, including four-year starting CB Taylor Roelofs who never missed a game in his career and ended up as a first team All-NWC honoree in 2017.
If Hillman moves to safety, the Bucs will have two veterans in the middle. Shai Pulawa (Sr.) is the lone returning starter in the secondary and he is the leading returning tackler (52.0) as well. He had two interceptions in 2017. Parker Shaw (Jr.) saw playing time as a backup safety last fall.
Jarin Manuel (Jr.) became a starting cornerback late last season. He had a pair of interceptions in the win over La Verne. Jayden Jira (Sr.) and Bryce Hornbeck (So.) will likely battle for the other starting spot on the corner.
Whitworth will need to replace Rehn Reiley, who was the most dominant kicker and punter in the Northwest Conference for three seasons. He graduated in only three years. Reiley led the league in touchbacks by a wide margin, led the league in punting average and finished second in scoring as a place kicker in 2017.
Those three roles could potentially be split up among different players. Kevin Ramsay (So.) kicked one field goal last season.
As always, Whitworth will determine kick and punt return duties during training camp. Garrett McKay returned punts last season, but both of the Pirates' primary kickoff returners are not back in 2018.