COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Following their most successful season at the Division II level, Ohio Dominican's football team has high hopes for an encore as the Panthers enter the 2013 campaign.
With loads of experience at the skill positions and a reloaded defense that came on strong at the end of 2012, ODU will look to build on its 8-3 record from a year ago in the always challenging GLIAC.
"We feel like we're entering this year with a lot of confidence," head coach Bill Conley said. "The success we had last year, particularly in the second half, really springboarded us into the offseason. This year, we know that we can compete with anybody for all four quarters, which we'll have to do given how tough our schedule is."
The 2012 squad rattled off five straight wins to close the season and earn a tie for second place in the conference standings. The Panthers ranked amongst the nation's best in several categories, including scoring offense, scoring defense, rushing offense and sacks allowed.
Overall, the Panthers return 21 players who started at least one game last season, with a total of 47 letterwinners returning as well. Add in a talented freshman class and several transfers, and ODU feels that it has the right mix on veterans and skill to contend in the GLIAC.
"We have a lot more depth than we've had in the past and we're really excited about the leadership on this team," Conley said. "We're excited to evaluate our freshmen and other newcomers to see how they fit in on the two-deep and special teams as well."
The Panthers, who kick off the season at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 5 at Georgetown (Ky.) College, were selected to finish second in the GLIAC South Division preseason poll and are picking up votes in the AFCA Top 25 poll as well.
The Panthers return junior all-conference selection Mark Miller (Cincinnati, Ohio) to direct the offense. As a first-year starter in 2012, Miller threw for 2,099 yards and 21 touchdowns, completing 60.7 percent of his throws.
Miller picked up GLIAC Player of the Week honors after throwing for 230 yards and four touchdowns against Findlay, and he also had a four-touchdown game, along with a career-best 292 yards, in a win over Northern Michigan.
"Mark has really become a field general for our team," Conley said. "He's done a great job growing as a leader this offseason and had a great spring. You feel much better about this position when you have someone with experience returning."
Arguably the deepest position on the roster is in the backfield, where the Panthers return their top three rushers from last season.
"We can be in a position this year where we'll always have fresh legs on the field," Conley said. "We can even play two of them at the same time as well. We have great depth at this spot."
Sophomore Brandon Schoen (Olentangy, Ohio) burst onto the scene last year, gouging No. 4 Grand Valley for 298 yards in his debut, and would rush for over 100 yards in his first five games, finishing with 1,007 yards and 11 touchdowns on the season.
"Brandon has a ton of speed and you can see that in how he separates from defenders," Conley said. "He's also a powerful back."
Alongside Schoen is senior Mark Nichols (Pataskala, Ohio), who returns after averaging a team-best 7.0 yards per carry while finishing with 649 yards and eight scores. Senior Ronnel Spates (Cleveland, Ohio), who started five games and ran for 361 yards and three touchdowns, also returns.
The wideouts proved to be explosive in 2012, as the passing game produced 35 plays of 25 yards or longer, including 11 touchdowns.
Highlighting the returners are the top two pass catchers from last year in junior Abe Johnson (Cincinnati, Ohio) and sophomore Ronald McCloud (Cleveland, Ohio). Johnson led the team with 46 catches, going for 571 yards and eight touchdowns.
"Abe might be our most versatile wideout," Conley said. "He plays in the slot, has tremendous yards after the catch, and is a threat in the return game."
McCloud and classmate Dez Stewart (Cincinnati, Ohio) combined to form a home run threat every time they touched the ball. McCloud averaged 19.2 yards per catch, leading the squad with 616 yards and tying Johnson for a team-best eight touchdowns, including a 93-yard score. Stewart, meanwhile, averaged 18.5 yards per catch and scored on touchdowns of 59 and 50 yards.
Also back for the Panthers are juniors Nick McKnight (Middletown, Ohio), who had a 40-yard touchdown against Grand Valley State, and Casey Williams (Nashport, Ohio), who started a handful of games last season.
The unit that will see the most change on the offense comes in the front five, where the Panthers have to replace all-conference linemen Tyler White and Andrew Carpenter, along with Zach Cook.
That trio helped propel ODU's offense to rank among the nation's best in scoring and rushing and also allowed just six sacks the entire season. However, there are plenty of talented pieces back to help ease the transition for several new starters.
Senior all-conference selection Jake Brandt (Bexley, Ohio) will continue to man the right tackle position, and junior Perrin Cunningham (Cincinnati, Ohio) is also back at left guard. Brandt has started 32 games the past three seasons, while Cunningham started all 11 games a year ago.
Vying for playing time will be Ben Copher (Dayton, Ohio), Michael Koehlke (West Chester, Ohio), Jarrod Howard (Dublin, Ohio) and Joe Farrish (Monroe, Ohio), in addition to senior Gheon Selemon (Gahanna, Ohio).
"All of these guys had good springs," Conley said. "The biggest thing about them is that they are smart football players with high IQs, and we think they can pick up where we left off last year. It will be a challenge, though."
Despite the graduation of key contributors in Eli Kovach, Vince German and Ben Patterson, Conley believes the depth on the line is the strongest at any point in his tenure at ODU.
"I'm excited for this unit because it has a great combination of experience, athleticism, and size, particularly our defensive ends," Conley said. "We have guys who can run and enough depth to keep fresh bodies on the field."
On the ends will be Di'Andre Harrison (Columbus, Ohio), who burst on the scene in the second half of the season to lead the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, and Sydney Omameh (Columbus, Ohio), who redshirted last season. Also back is Anthony Smith (Zanesville, Ohio), who made six starts, and Jaylen Guevara (Sandusky, Ohio).
The interior is headlined by junior Tyrone Patel (Cincinnati, Ohio), who started seven games last season and tallied 22 tackles, while Paul Wesselhoeft (Logan, Ohio), Luke Carothers (Pickerington, Ohio) and Isaac Jeffers (Mount Victory, Ohio) will also have early opportunities for playing time.
There will be several new faces in starting roles at the linebacker positions, though it features players with plenty of experience.
Sophomore Warren Shields (Richwood, Ohio), who started just one game but still made 44 tackles (7.0 for loss) and registered three sacks, as well as Nikko Tanksley (Reynoldsburg, Ohio), who made 33 tackles (4.0 for loss), will play significant roles in the Panther defense this season. Also returning is Martavius Lewis (Wellington, Fla.), who started 10 games and finished with 49 tackles and a pair of interceptions.
Competing for playing time at the outside linebacker spot – labeled the "star" position in ODU's defense – will be senior Dominic Clegg (Powell, Ohio) and sophomore Austin Osborne (Jackson, Ohio). Clegg saw action in eight contests in 2012 and has 72 tackles in his career, while Osborne made 15 tackles last season on the defense and special teams.
"We're expecting these guys to be leaders of the defense," Conley said. "They can all run really well, which helps us defend against both the run and the pass."
Despite the graduation of Eisen Hardy, one of the all-time leading tacklers in school history, the Panthers return loads of talent and depth.
Highlighting the returners is senior Justin Bell (Columbus, Ohio), a First Team All-GLIAC performer in 2012 who also picked up Pre-Season All-American honors for the coming year. Bell made 100 tackles last season, to go along with three interceptions and two forced fumbles.
"Justin is one of the best players in the GLIAC," Conley said.
Also back for the Panthers is sophomore Billy Eakins (Pickerington, Ohio), who started six games and ranked third on the team with 52 tackles. He picked up GLIAC Defensive Player of the Week honors after snagging two picks against Northern Michigan, while sophomore Brad McCurdy (Columbus, Ohio) also returns after recording 48 stops in 2012.
Sophomore Da'Twane Harris (Cleveland, Ohio) had a pair of interceptions and broke up six passes in six starts late in the season, and the return of junior Cody Culbertson (Galloway, Ohio) from injury also bolsters the defensive backfield.
"We feel like we are much improved back there with the experience we have," Conley said. "They have the ability to make big plays and they're athletic and physical."
The key components from ODU's special teams unit return, and it all starts up front with fourth-year long snapper Tyler Hays (Altamonte Springs, Fla.).
"He's the unsung hero of the special teams," Conley said. "He's consistent and experienced and we don't have to worry about that position at all."
Sophomore Brent Wahle (Pataskala, Ohio) returns to handle the placekicking duties after picking up all-conference honors last year. He led GLIAC kickers in scoring with 87 points, drilling 10 field goals and missing just one extra point.
Also back is sophomore Michael Snyder (Clayton, Ohio), who will serve as the team's punter for a second straight season. Snyder averaged 36.9 yards per punt, placing 12 inside the 20 with a long boot of 59 yards.
Providing depth for the specialists is Justin Bonchek (Mayfield, Ohio), who can both punt and placekick.
The team recently selected four captains for the 2013 season - seniors Justin Bell and Nate Weeks and juniors Mark Miller and Abe Johnson.
Contact: Scott Miles