Some who follow politics call Ohio a red state. Others proclaim it a blue state.
Ashland University head football coach Lee Owens wants to make it black AND blue, especially in rural Ashland County.
In 2012, Owens wants to make sure his Eagles play a physical brand of football. He promises intelligent football on both sides of the line of scrimmage. His message is broad-based, battle-tested and nearly fool-proof if it can be carried out. It's free of graft and corruption. As his AU tenure indicates (two NCAA playoff berths), his promises aren't hollow like some political pretenders. He believes if the Eagles play up to their potential, the polls will reflect Ashland's message. Muck-racking, name-calling and finger-pointing can all be answered by what happens on the field.
A year ago, the Eagles were well regarded in the regional and national polls after a last-second, 20-17 win over sixth-ranked Wayne State. At that point, the Eagles were 5-2. Unfortunately, AU went 1-3 the rest of the way and finished 6-5 (6-4 GLIAC). Inexperience and injuries were two culprits in AU's demise down the stretch. Owens believes a failure to concentrate on the task at hand, week to week, may have been a third.
The AU head coach promises that won't be the case this year. The Eagles open the season at home on Aug. 30 (7 p.m.) against Indianapolis and the clarion call of this campaign is to zero in on that night.
"If there's been one point we emphasized during the offseason, last spring and that we're going to emphasize again when we come back, it's that we can't look past Indianapolis," stated Owens. "We're looking at Indianapolis and only Indianapolis. That's the focus for our football team right now. We can't look ahead. It's a fault we had last year and we can't do that again."
The AU head coach was willing to peer into the future in talking about his football team. That preview follows.
The Eagles bring back 51 lettermen. There are nine returning starters on offense and five on defense. AU averaged 30.3 ppg., and gave up 23.9 ppg. Owens is in his ninth season on campus.
Summary – No problem with the starter, but the Eagles must develop depth.
Fast Fact – The only AU quarterbacks to throw five TD passes in a game are Billy Cundiff and Taylor Housewright.
Taylor Housewright (Ashland, Ohio) is in his third season as the starter. A year ago, he completed 156-of-254 passes (61.4 percent) for 1,798 yards with 15 touchdown passes and three interceptions. Housewright's numbers were probably hurt by the fact that the Eagles were forced to break in so many newcomers on offense. Nevertheless, the 6-2, 215-pound senior enters his final season second in career touchdown passes (39) at Ashland and third in career completions (338). He has two of the top single-season completion marks (.673-second-2010 and .614-fourth-2011) in school history. Over the last two seasons Housewright has thrown 510 passes and been picked off only 12 times. The senior was honorable mention all-conference in 2011.
"Taylor had to spend a lot of time getting the running backs lined up, making sure the receivers were running the right routes, getting the offensive line set," reminded Owens. "He was really a coach on the field. He won't have to do that this year."
Ball security, an accurate arm, durability and the ability to make plays with his feet are Housewright specialties. The coaching staff has few worries concerning his play.
The main issue here is depth – the backup positions are wide open and the candidates are untested for the most part. The most experienced option is 6-1, 188-pound senior Matt Skubik (Plymouth, Mich./Plymouth-Canton), but he didn't throw a pass in game action last season. The Eagles also have approximately eight newcomers taking snaps.
"Matt's a senior and he's been in our program for four years," Owens said. "He's determined to fill the role of backup quarterback. If a young guy comes in here and matures, his maturity grows to a point where he's ready to go on the field, then we'd play him. But I've not been around too many young guys who are ready to play. That would be unusual."
Summary – The Eagles are blessed with a nice blend of power and speed.
Fast Fact – The only freshman running back in the last 15 years to surpass Jordan McCune's 834 yards last season was Matt Otero (1,030) in 1997.
A year ago, rookie Jordan McCune (Bellville, Ohio/Clear Fork) gave the Eagles a power running game. D.J. McCoy missed much of the first part of the season with injuries and that opened the way for McCune. The 5-8, 227-pound McCune ended up ninth in the GLIAC in rushing yards per game (75.8) and ninth in scoring (84 points.7.6 ppg.) and was named to the GLIAC honorable mention list. McCune gained a team-high 834 yards on 187 carries (4.5 ypc.). He's the first freshman to lead the team in rushing since Paul Bockmore in 1999.
AU's third-leading rusher was another freshman, Anthony Taylor (Arlington, Va./Washington-Lee). Taylor is from Arlington, Va. That's an area of the country the Eagles have not tapped often in recruiting. They may want to head that way more often as the 5-10, 180-pound Taylor rushed for 381 yards on 81 trips (4.7 ypc.) with three touchdowns.
Senior Justen White-Reid Akron, Ohio/Copley) is an experienced third option. He gained 172 yards on 20 carries (8.6 ypc.). Owens reports that the 5-8, 179-pound White-Reid is in the best condition of his career.
AU will look to develop at least one more contributor here. The name mentioned the most is redshirt freshman Jimmy Luther (Hartville, Ohio/Lake). Owens is intrigued by his speed and ability to break tackles. But the 5-11, 175-pound Luther has spent a year battling knee injuries.
"The big thing is the injury and having him continue to progress," said Owens. "He's not 100 percent right now. We haven't had the chance to see what he can do when he's 100 percent healthy."
Owens is excited about the situation at fullback. Logan Slavinski (Bellville, Ohio/Clear Fork), a 6-2, 214-pound sophomore, played well a year ago at tight end and fullback. Freshman Steve Nagy (Hudson, Ohio) will also get a long look. The 6-1, 234-pound Nagy is the first true fullback the Eagles have recruited since Ray Kent in the first AU recruiting class under Owens.
Summary – This was one of the youngest areas on the team last season and the hope is that this group has matured.
Fast Fact – Of Anthony Capasso's 53 catches last season, 30 came in the final in the final six games of the season (5.0 rpg.)
This group was forced to grow up during the season. There's no denying that at the outset of the season the wideouts struggled. There wasn't an upperclassman in the bunch and in the second half of the season, several of the youngsters began to emerge as playmakers.
Last season was Anthony Capasso's (Columbia Station, Ohio/St. Edward) first on offense after starting his career in the secondary. A senior, the 5-10, 197-pound Capasso led AU with 53 catches for 740 yards (14.0 ypc.) with nine touchdowns. He was 11th in the league in receiving yards per game (67.3) and was named honorable mention All-GLIAC.
Eric Thompkins (Canton, Ohio/South), a 6-3, 171-pound sophomore, saw extended action as a true freshman. Thompkins, who is also a sprinter on the AU track and field team, brings tremendous speed to the perimeter. He ended the year second on the team in receptions (29) and averaged 13.7 ypc., with three scores. Dan Piko (Oak Lawn, Ill./Marist Academy), a 6-0, 173-pound sophomore, caught 19 passes and David Soucie (Sagamore Hills, Ohio/Brecksville), a 5-11, 185-pound junior, had nine receptions.
AU coaches and players believe the numbers for all of these players will expand in 2012 thanks to the experience they gained last season and the familiarity of working with Housewright for more than a full year.
This is the one area where a player can move up the depth chart in a hurry. Others players to watch include sophomores Waquiem Comar (Twinsburg, Ohio), Chris Harvey (Columbus, Ohio/Walnut Ridge) and Alex Weber (Ada, Ohio) and redshirt freshman Ryan Moore (Jeromesville, Ohio/Hillsdale).
Summary – This appears to be a rapidly improving unit that has gained the confidence of the coaching staff.
Fast Fact – In the eight years Lee Owens has been the head coach and Doug Geiser the offensive line coach, four linemen have been honored as All-Americans.
As was the case with the wide receivers, the offensive line began last season searching for an identity and there were some rough patches. But by season's end the unit was playing as well as it had all year. A year ago, this area was viewed as a question mark. To show how much it has progressed, now it is viewed as a strength.
The starting tackles are 6-4, 283-pound junior Zach Vermillion (Bellefontaine, Ohio) and 6-4, 278-pound redshirt sophomore Balil Knight (Cleveland, Ohio/Shaw). Tyler Sibbersen (Oregon, Ohio/Clay), a 6-3, 305-pound sophomore, should hold down one of the starting guard spots. Keith Dingler (Massillon, Ohio/Washington), a 6-2, 287-pound junior, is back at center. James Triplett (Newark, Ohio), a 6-3, 240-pound sophomore, had as good a spring as anyone on the line and looks to be the starter at left guard.
"Dingler leads the charge at center," noted Owens. "Our tackles have played a full year and that's one of the strengths of our team. We have pretty good depth here."
Tight end is the one position where the Eagles have to re-arrange the depth chart. Graduation claimed Mike Knueven and Joe Wasserbeck. Slavinski, 6-3, 253-pound junior Alex Renner (Toledo, Ohio/Sylvania Southview) and 6-1, 232-pound sophomore Matt Schweitzer (Dublin, Ohio/Bishop Watterson) all saw playing time last season. Knueven caught 26 passes last season (third on the team) and the Eagles will need to replace his sure-handed, in-heavy-traffic, third-down production.
Summary – It will not be easy replacing Jeris Pendleton and Matt Stoinoff, but the returning talent is far above average.
Fast Fact – Jamie Meder has 21.0 tackles for loss in two seasons. The school career record for tackles for loss is 38.5 by Allen Lattimore.
Nose tackle Jeris Pendleton was a first team all-conference selection and was taken in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's the first Ashland player to be drafted since 1972. End Matt Stoinoff was a three-year starter and an honorable mention all-conference pick who had three sacks, nine tackles for loss and 71 tackles (second on the team).
It won't be easy to replace that duo, but few teams will shed any tears for the Eagles. Jamie Meder (Parma, Ohio/Valley Forge) is back at defensive tackle and he had 53 tackles and a team-high 10.5 tackles for loss last season. Meder, a 6-2, 304-pound junior, was named first team All-GLIAC last season and in 2010 was the GLIAC freshman of the year.
AU will ask 6-2, 255-pound senior Tyler Houska (Wadsworth, Ohio/Highland) to assume a larger role this year and the same can be said for 6-2, 289-pound senior Mikel Berry (Upper Arlington, Ohio/Penn State). Both have received steady playing time over the last several years. Houska had 21 tackles and three tackles for loss last season and Berry had nine tackles.
Owens points out that 6-4, 268-pound sophomore Matt Bambauer (Broadview Heights, Ohio/Holy Name) seems to have escaped some nagging injuries and that could result in more playing time for him. There are opportunities here for some newcomers, too.
"The defensive line is a place where some young guys could be backups," said Owens. "We have some young guys who are backups and we have some new guys who could challenge that group."
Summary – The Eagles are counting on a number of underclassmen, but the good news is that they've all received significant playing time.
Fast Fact – The last AU linebacker to record consecutive seasons of 100-plus tackles was Tim Houseman in 1992-93. Cody Bloom has that chance this season.
A year ago, Cody Bloom (Napoleon, Ohio) blossomed into one of the league's most active linebackers. He recorded a team-high 109 tackles (7.5 tackles for loss), finishing second in the GLIAC in tackles per game (9.9). Bloom, a 6-0, 230-pound junior, was named second team All-GLIAC. He was the first AU player to reach 100 tackles in a season since Tom Brenner in 2008.
Domi-on Combs (East St. Louis, Ill.) was one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2011 season. Nothing was expected of him entering the season and he developed into one of AU's most productive players. The 5-7, 203-pound sophomore was fourth on the team in tackles (54/27 solo).
This area figures to receive a huge boost by the return to health of 5-11, 225-pound sophomore Phil Galaska (Strongsville, Ohio). The coaching staff believed he was on the verge of a breakout season in 2011, but Galaska never got to take the field due to a knee injury in preseason camp. Galaska had 25 tackles in 2010.
"Phil's one of the leaders on this team," Owens said. "He's an emotional leader. He's made big plays on special teams."
At inside linebacker, Bloom, Combs, Galaska and versatile 6-2, 215-pound senior Jacob Lerman (Cincinnati, Ohio/Moeller) figure to see most of the action. Lerman was a defensive back a year ago.
At outside linebacker, 5-11, 198-pound senior Tyler McFarlin (Ashland, Ohio), 6-1, 211-pound sophomore Austen Harrison (Newark, Ohio/Granville) and two redshirt freshmen - 6-1, 196-pound Nolan Flowers (Lancaster, Ohio) and 6-0, 223-pound Jaysen Brenen (Cincinnati, Ohio/LaSalle) are at the top of the depth chart. McFarlin has spent the past several seasons at strong safety. He had 37 tackles last season.
Summary – Losing Tyler Krummel to graduation will sting, but the secondary has the potential to be very good. Physical play should not be an issue.
Fast Fact – Over the last two seasons, AU has 34 interceptions in 22 games. Defensive backs have accounted for 30 of those thefts. Ashland has returned three picks for touchdowns over the last two seasons.
When the Eagles were at full strength last season, this unit was as good as any in the conference. But the war of attrition took a toll on the Eagles and by the end of the season, the secondary was being held together by everything but duct tape and chicken wire.
At mid-season, when the Eagles defeated Wayne State, this group hit its peak. Safety Eric Schwieterman (Norwalk, Ohio/St. Paul) had six tackles and two interceptions in that game. That's a good illustration of what he means to the Eagles. Schwieterman, a 6-0, 217-pound redshirt sophomore, went down with a season-ending knee injury in that game and the Eagles badly missed his toughness. Schwieterman, who is back at full strength, had 34 tackles and was second on the team in interceptions (four).
Safety Donnie Dottei (Toledo, Ohio/Whitmer), a 6-1, 200-pound senior, is another hard hitter who was slowed at the end of the season with an assortment of injuries. Dottei, an honorable mention all-conference performer, had 40 tackles, a team-high five interceptions and forced one fumble.
Mike McMillan (Hagerstown, Md./Mendocino College) spent the first part of the season digesting the AU scheme. The Eagles were also learning, figuring out the best place in the secondary to play him. All of that came together midway through the season when the 5-10, 209-pound senior was installed at cornerback and became an all-conference honorable mention selection. He had 43 tackles (32 solo) and three picks.
The back line is getting an infusion of talent in the return of Brian Gamble (Massillon, Ohio/Illinois). Gamble, a 6-0, 195-pound senior, hasn't played since the 2009 season. In that one year at AU he was a first team All-GLIAC selection with 77 tackles, five tackles for loss, four interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries.
"We'll line up Dottei, Gamble and Schwieterman at safety," said Owens. "We can play all three at the same time because we play a lot of three-safety schemes."
In addition to McMillan, the others who will see the most time at cornerback are 5-9, 152-pound junior Quenton Scott (Cleveland Heights, Ohio), 5-9, 184-pound senior Francois Hagenimana (Centerville, Ohio) and 5-11, 170-pound redshirt freshman Paul Ward (Northfield, Ohio/Nordonia). Scott had 13 tackles and four pass breakups last year and Hagenimana recorded seven tackles and a pair of pass breakups.
Summary – Anthony Capasso, Davie Soucie and Anthony Taylor give the Eagles three experienced return men. Answers are needed in the kicking game.
Fast Facts – Over the last two years, Berkshire was 12-of-19 from 40-49 yards on field goal tries.
This is the one area where the coaching staff has some work to do. AU has to find a way to replace Gregg Berkshire (42.7 ypp., 16-of-28 field goal attempts, 85 points), who handled the punting and kicking responsibilities. Berkshire was an AFCA All-American and a first team all-conference selection. He holds the school record for the highest career punting average and is AU's career leader in points, field goals and extra points. A year ago he was fifth in the nation in field goals per game and eighth in punting.
Entering camp, both kicking positions are wide open.
"It's the biggest question mark," admitted Owens. "Who's going to kick, who's going to punt, who's going to be the long snapper? We didn't get those answers in the spring. We'll get it done as soon as possible, maybe when we're still in shorts. It's a point of emphasis the first few days of camp. Then we need to get comfortable with how we're doing it."
Summary – There's no opportunity to ease into the schedule, late August and early September could be a challenge.
Fast Fact – AU hasn't started a season 3-0 since 2008. That year, Ashland won its first seven games.
The Eagles get to play their first two games at home, but the assignments are daunting. First is an Indianapolis team (Aug. 30, 7 p.m.) that the Eagles defeated a year ago, 39-36 in four overtimes. That's the longest game in school history.
Next up is a home game with Wayne State (Sept. 8, 7 p.m.), which advanced to the NCAA national championship game last season. AU edged the Warriors, 20-17 a year ago in Ashland.
AU plays six times at home. One major test will come at Ohio Dominican on Oct. 6. A year ago, ODU upended the Eagles, 20-17 in Ashland.