In three seasons, Ashland University's football team has gone from an undefeated regular season in 2012 to a 5-5 record in 2013 to an 8-2 mark in 2014.
College football is full of peaks and valleys. Eagle head coach Lee Owens is hoping his team isn't close to peaking just yet.
AU will open the 2015 season on Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. at Lake Erie – beginning a campaign full of promise and expectations, even if they are tempered.
"I start every season with a cautious optimism," said Owens, beginning his 12th season guiding the Eagles. "We have an opportunity to have a really good football team. We feel real good about being able to compete in every game, (and) have an opportunity to win every game."
With the flip of home and away games from 2014, the Eagles will face opponents with a cumulative won-lost record of 35-22 from a season ago, including two playoff teams – Ohio Dominican and Michigan Tech – at Jack Miller Stadium/Martinelli Field.
"It may be as entertaining and as competitive a home schedule as we've ever played here," said Owens.
Offensively, Ashland returns the 2014 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year, quarterback Travis Tarnowski. Tarnowski threw for 2,167 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions – showing a poise beyond that of most college rookies.
"We didn't know what to expect. We didn't know what kind of player he was going to be," Owens said of Tarnowski at this time last year. "Until you're out there and it's live…you just don't know. To see him go to Findlay and make plays, go to Hillsdale and make plays, go to Grand Valley and make plays…those times where we really faced adversity, he was at his best."
Tarnowski will go into 2015, however, without four of his top five receivers from 2014. The team's top returning pass-catcher also is its top returning rusher, junior tailback Vance Settlemire (753 yards, 8.0-yard average and six touchdowns rushing, 14 catches). Settlemire and redshirt senior Jordan McCune (230 yards, 5.2-yard average, seven touchdowns) will form the 1-2 rushing punch, while sophomore tight end Adam Shaheen will be counted on to be a big target at 6-foot-6.
At wide receiver, where only nine catches return from 2014 (all by senior Drew Brenner), the potential starters are Brenner, junior Jamie Hence and redshirt freshman Matthew Wilcox, seniors Maxwell Shawver and Auston Smith and redshirt junior Darian Reynolds, as well as 2014 transfers Stewart Turner and Terrance Burt, both redshirt sophomores.
"Between that group of eight, it's going to sort itself out," Owens said.
The Eagles return senior guard Jonathan Cipa and junior guard Zachary Douglass along the offensive line, but sophomore center Dominic Giunta will miss the entire 2015 season due to injury, and two youngsters (sophomore Damon Stewart and redshirt freshman John Conner) will be the tackles. Vying to replace Giunta are redshirt senior Brandon Eldridge and sophomore Matt Murphy.
Owens said whomever doesn't start at center will be the sixth/swing lineman.
"Losing Giunta was a huge blow. Talk about an anchor on the offensive line," Owens said. "He set the tone, he was the leader of the group."
AU's defense was the best in the GLIAC in points allowed in 2014 (it yielded a total of 78 points during the six-game win streak), and it looks to be one of the conference's best again this fall. It starts along the line, where senior end Chase Hoobler (40 total tackles, two sacks, team-high 10½ tackles for loss) and senior tackle Tim Lehr (15 total tackles) are the anchors. Junior defensive tackles Brandon Ehlinger and Ed Cleveland also will be keys inside.
Junior end/outside linebacker Adam Wallace (36 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks) is coming off a breakout season, as is junior inside linebacker Brandon Gency (62 total tackles, 8½ tackles for loss, three sacks). Junior inside linebacker Zach Olszewski (34 total tackles, 1½ tackles for loss) and junior whip Daivon Barrow (22 total tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack) also add to the second level.
The Eagles' "D" also can hang its hat on what could be one of the conference's top backfields. Senior corner James Ester (35 total tackles, one interception) will be joined on the other side by sophomore Dale Irby (16 total tackles, one fumble recovery), a special teams dynamo as a freshman.
"I don't see us taking a step backwards, by any means," said Owens of the defense. "I think we'll be every bit as good as we were a year ago."
In the kicking game, either sophomore Aidan Simenc or freshman Kyle Hotz will do placements and kickoff, while junior backup quarterback Austin Bruns will be the punter/Tim Tebow-type runner-passer on fourth down. Senior tailback Mike Taylor and Irby will be the return specalists.
Freshman Travis Downing is the long snapper.
The Eagles are looking to win their first GLIAC title since 2012. AU has finished third or higher in the GLIAC South Division each year of divisional play.
"They're all big," Owens said of the 10-game league schedule. "There's no easy games out there. We've got a veteran crew. We've got a bunch of guys that are confident and expect to win. We've got a bunch of guys that have worked really hard and prepared to win.
"That being the case, I will sleep a little better."
Ashland will have its second intersquad scrimmage on Thursday (Aug. 27) at 7 p.m. prior to its season-opener.