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Trujillo or McGregor: Who will lead team to PFL title?
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Will it be the cagey and elusive senior at San Diego, the strong-armed sophomore from Jacksonville, or some other quarterback that lifts his team to the 2009 Pioneer Football League crown?
Few FCS conferences put as much importance on the quarterback position as the PFL. Josh Johnson of San Diego, Kevin Hoyng of Dayton and David Macchi of Valparaiso vaulted their teams to the top in recent years and Josh McGregor was a key element in Jacksonville’s rise last season.
McGregor earned freshman of the year honors in 2008 and led Jacksonville to the title, setting a school record with 2,444 yards passing and 24 scores. Off- season shoulder surgery could slow the sophomore, but McGregor is expected to recover enough to start opening day.
Sebastian Trujillo (2,822 yards, 35 TDs, nine interceptions), a Payton Award candidate, returns behind center for San Diego. The junior college transfer had big shoes to fill in 2008 after Payton Award finalist Johnson (9,699 yards, 113 TDs passing from 2004-07) graduated.
In addition to the two top QBs, the non-scholarship league also features a Dayton squad poised to make another title run in 2009 and a Butler team that is improving. The Flyers finished tied for second with the Toreros last season, while Butler tied for fourth and posted its first winning season since 1997.
Drake and Morehead State, squads that frequently challenged for PFL honors in recent years, could also slip into the mix, while Davidson and Valparaiso will look to move up.
Campbell, which restarted its program after a 58-year absence, is still building, while former Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference member Marist will likely have growing pains in its first year in the league.
1. Jacksonville (9-4 overall, 7-1 in conference, first in 2008)
Former Florida quarterback star Kerwin Bell pushed the Dolphins to the top of the standings in just his second season as coach, turning around a program that had been 3-8 in 2007 and had experienced only one other winning season since starting football in 1998.
Expectations are high in 2009 after the 2008 squad ranked in the top 40 nationally in both total offense and defense.
McGregor is joined by All-PFL running back Rudell Small (1,364 yards, 13 TDs rushing). The 5-9, 205-pound running back has played under Bell for seven straight seasons dating back to high school. Paving the way for Small is offensive tackle Leonard Payton, known for his ability as a dominant run and pass blocker.
Defensive end Shaun Lewis (13.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 60 tackles in 2008) and cornerback Brian Valdez (two interceptions) return to anchor a unit that held six opponents to 10 points or less last season. PFL second-team selection Joseph Fennell (61 tackles, eight tackles for loss, one interception) and Will Perry (68 tackles, five tackles for loss) will lead a linebacking corps looking to improve a run defense that ranked 73rd nationally last year.
The secondary features a pair of All-PFL performers, senior free safety Jason Wood (14 pass breakups and 83 tackles) and Tremaine Mack (four interceptions, three TDs, 5.5 tackles for loss, fumble recovery). The Dolphin secondary ranked fifth nationally in defensive passing efficiency.
“I give all the credit in the world to Ron McCrone, our defensive coordinator,” said Bell. “Our defense is very complex with a lot of different coverages.”
All-American punt returner Elliot Finkley is back to give Jacksonville a dominant field position advantage. The speedster returned three punts for TDs last season and ranked eighth nationally with a 15.7 average.
2. San Diego (9-2, 6-2, tied for second)
The loss of Payton Award candidate and All-American wide receiver John Matthews (102 catches, 1,478 yards, 21 TDs) presents a challenge for San Diego, but Trujillo returns to an offense that ranked 17th nationally in 2008.
Ron Caragher enters his third season with the squad and knows the team could be even better in 2009.
“The injury bug really bit us last season,” said Caragher. “We have better depth on both sides of the ball this season and a lot of young players that will develop and evolve.”
Junior Godfrey Smith (24 catches, 231 yards, two TDs) and sophomore John McGough (14 catches, 177 yards, two TDs) will need to pick up the slack for the graduation losses of Matthews (102 catches, 14.5 average, 21 TDs) and Ben Hannula (48 catches).
The running game should be in good hands with Phil Morelli (786 yards, seven TDs, 4.4 average) and Matt Jelmini (548 yards, 6.2 average).
On defense, The Toreros’ defense welcomes back PFL freshman defensive player of the year Al-Rilwan Adeyemi (five interceptions, two TDs, five pass breakups, 47 tackles as a cornerback) as well as first team selections junior linebacker Derek Martin (55 tackles, four for loss, two interceptions, one sack) and junior cornerback Gabriel Derricks (six pass breakups, one interception, 42 tackles). Senior Kevin Dunn (26 tackles, two forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks) will make the jump from the secondary to the defensive line as an end joining junior nose guard Paul Tremblay (33 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks)
The Torreros only two losses in 2008 came at the hands of Jacksonville and Dayton by a combination of nine points.
3. Dayton (9-3, 6-2, tied for second)
A 9-1 start to the season nearly wrapped up the PFL for the Flyers, but Dayton dropped its final two games to Morehead State and Jacksonville, abruptly ending what could have been another spectacular season.
Rick Chamberlin, in his second season heading the program after replacing legendary Flyer coach Mike Kelly, watched his team fall prey to injuries at the end of the season.
“The players went home for the holidays and came back ready to get started,” said Chamberlin. “Expectations are always high here.”
Sophomore quarterback Jeff Pechan looks to become the new starter. He appeared in eight games last season as a backup to Rob Florian, passing for 377 yards (32-of-54) and three scores. Also competing for the nod is sophomore Timmy Fogarty.
First team all-PFL wideout Steve Valentino is the team’s most versatile player. The junior (50 catches, 626 yards, four TDs) averaged 11.8 yards per punt return and 23.9 yards on kickoffs and rushed for 103 yards.
The backfield will feature a combination of role players. Senior Ben Shappie (625 yards rushing, 14 TDs), sophomore Taylor Harris and junior Andrew Zapinski will give the Flyers different looks in the backfield.
The loss of All-American and PFL defensive player of the year Scott Vossler (8.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions) and first team all-PFL selection Kalen Hemmelgarn (11.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, five QB hurries, two forced fumbles) leaves the Dayton defense with uncertainty.
Senior tackle Sean Heenen will look to lead a defense that typically reloads, rather than rebuilds. Defensive end Brandon Wingeier and linebacker Joe Ries should also be significant performers.
4. Butler (6-5. 4-4, tied for third)
Butler won six games last year, its most since 1997. A 4-2 road record included blowout victories over both Campbell and Valparaiso. But the Bulldogs faltered to four consecutive losses after starting out 6-1.
It was the second straight collapse for Butler, which went 4-0 in 2007 before dropping seven in a row. Coach Jeff Voris will try to find more consistency this year.
A major reason for the Bulldogs improvement early last season was the arrival of defensive end Grant Hunter, who was second nationally to Eastern Washington Buchanan Award winner Greg Peach in sacks last season. Hunter had 14 sacks and 18 tackles for loss (10th in FCS) as a freshman.
The offense returns senior wide receiver and second team all-PFL honoree Dan Bohrer (953 yards), who set a school record with 11 TD receptions and ranked second in the conference with 70 grabs.
Another aspect that will garner attention for Butler is the punt return game. Last season, the Bulldogs ranked 15th nationally, led by junior Tadd Dombart (16.9 average, one touchdown).
5. Drake (6-5, 4-4, tied for third)
Drake’s four conference wins in 2008 came against the lower half of the league (Campbell, Davidson, Morehead State and Valparaiso) but the Bulldogs have some tools to make more noise this season.
After enduring three coaches in three years, Chris Creighton returns for his second season.
Drake struggled to replace Scott Phaydavong, who had rushed for 1,000 or more yards in four consecutive seasons from 2004-07 and finished 92nd nationally in total offense and 93rd in scoring.
All-PFL fullback Steve Platek (three rushing TDs, 468 receiving yards, four receiving TDs) moved to the offense after spending the last two seasons as a linebacker and became the Bulldogs’ second-leading receiver in 2008. Sophomore running back Patrick Oliver (332 yards rushing, three TDs) will complement Platek in the backfield.
Senior Ben Osterman (831 yards passing,324 yards rushing) takes over at quarterback. Osterman started several games in 2008 for injury-plagued Cole Ingle.
Senior strong safety Andy Green (six interceptions, one TD, 60 tackles) leads a defense ranked ninth nationally in 2008. The second-team all-PFL selection is joined by cornerback Tim Harvey (five interceptions, two pass breakups, 50 tackles) giving the Bulldogs the most dangerous secondary in the PFL.
6. Morehead State (6-6, 4-4 tied for third)
Morehead State played spoiler last season, beating Dayton on the road, 14-13, denying the Flyers a share of the PFL title and giving the Eagles some conference credibility entering the 2009 season.
Building a successful offense will be the key this season for a Matt Ballard- coached that ranked 90th last season and lost much of its firepower. Junior Evan Sawyer returns under center after passing for 1,369 yards and 11 TDs as a first-year starter in 2008.
The Eagles’ defense will once again be the focal point. Senior linebacker and first team all-PFL selection Wes McDermott returns (four sacks, nine pass breakups, forced fumble) after leading the league in both tackles (92) and tackles for loss last season. His 19.5 tackles for loss ranked fifth in the country.
Junior defensive tackle Derik Steiner (16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles) joined McDermott on the all-PFL first team in 2008 and will add to potentially the league’s best defense.
7. Davidson (4-7, 3-5, seventh)
An experienced Wildcat squad was considered a contender for the 2008 PFL crown and managed to hand champion Jacksonville its only league loss, but Davidson was extremely disappointed with a losing season.
Davidson returns 13 starters from a 2008 squad that although inconsistent at times, put together a 38-35 win over the two-time defending conference champions. Senior Mark Iafrate will try to fill the void left by All-PFL selection Will Nolte on an offensive line that allowed just 16 sacks in 384 pass attempts.
Coach Tripp Merritt will be without quarterback Ryan Alexander (9,376 yards, 72 TDs in career). The four-year starter threw for at least 15 TDs each season from 2005-08. No other quarterback threw a pass for Davidson last season.
The Wildcats welcome back top receiver and pre-season all-PFL selection Andrew Aldrich. The senior hauled in 52 balls for 578 yards and four TDs for an offense that ranked 61st nationally last season.
The Davidson defense looks to have a bigger upside in 2009 with the return of the PFL’s second-leading tackler Tyler Lemons (91 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks).
8. Valparaiso (3-8, 2-6, eighth)
Valparaiso had a tough 2008 campaign losing four of their final five games. A lot of that can be blamed on the Crusaders’ 105th nationally ranked offense last season.
Stacy Adams returns to the Valpo sideline and looks to improve on a 14-32 overall record in four seasons with the team.
Both running back Ross Weimer (824 yards rushing, 10 TDs) and wide receiver Nicholas Henton (15 catches, 140 yards) earned preseason all-PFL second team honors and will try and motivate an offense that mustered just 279 yards-per- game last season. Losing first team all-PFL offensive tackle Ryan Kozey will not bode well for a front line that paved the way for 175 yards rushing per game in 2008 (ranked 29th nationally).
On defense, the Crusaders will try and fill a big hole left by linebacker and second team all-PFL selection Ryan Koepke (79 tackles, 4.5 for loss, one interception. Defensive end Adam Rundh (42 tackles, 8 for loss, 3 blocked kicks, 2.5 sacks) and cornerbacks Anthony Curry (7 interceptions, one TD, 49 tackles, six pass breakups) and Kyle Himmelwright (four interceptions, 55 tackles, 7.5 for loss, two pass breakups) all earned preseason all-PFL accolades and will bring veteran leadership to a defense looking to vastly improve in 2009.
9. Marist (4-7, first season in PFL)
Marist becomes the 10th team to join the PFL after playing as an independent last season. The team is no stranger to the league after competing against both San Diego and Davidson in 2008, earning a 24-19 win over the Wildcats in the last game of the season.
Jim Paridy will guide the Red Foxes to this new challenge as he enters his 18th season at Marist.
Senior running back O’Neil Anderson will play a big role in the offense after rushing for 160 yards as a backup last season. He will replace Obozua Ehikioya (1,140 yards, 16 TDs).
Senior Chris Debowski returns at quarterback after piling up 1,993 yards of total offense last season.
Strong safety Rory Foley (83 tackles, six tackles for loss, three pass breakups) returns to the Red Foxes’ secondary after finishing tied for third in the country with seven interceptions.
The Red Foxes return 18-of-22 starters from a year ago and will try and make a name for themselves in the FCS.
10. Campbell (1-10, 0-8, ninth)
Playing it’s first football season in 58 years, Campbell won one contest against Division-III Carthage College. The Dale Steele-coached Camels featured an extremely young 2008 squad with just four upperclassmen.
The team’s spread offense will feature quarterback Matt Vollono (909 yards passing, three TDs). The junior will look to jump start an offense that ranked last in the FCS.
The defense provides some stability with both linebacker Milton Brown (three interceptions, two TDs, 83 tackles, five for loss, two sacks) and defensive back Brandon Chandler (two interceptions, one return TD, 44 tackles, three pass breakups) returning for their sophomore campaigns.