CHICAGO – One defining trait that the University of Chicago football team is seeking to harness in 2018 is continuity. The Maroons bring back eight starters on each side of the ball. They also embark on year two as an affiliate member of the Midwest Conference.
The 2017 Maroons enjoyed a successful debut in the MWC, taking second in the North Division and finishing with a 6-4 overall record. With plenty of experienced players in the fold, UChicago is gearing up to challenge for the conference title.
"It's certainly an exciting time of the year and we are thrilled with the continued development of the returning players and the addition of some very talented first-year players," said sixth-year head coach Chris Wilkerson. "It's certainly nice to have guys back who have played a lot of football for us over the years. There will be competition at every position and we feel like that will raise the overall performance of our team.
"It is nice to have familiarity with almost all of the teams on the schedule this fall, including our Midwest Conference opponents. The MWC is a very balanced, competitive league and we know we must continue to compete and improve daily to put our best foot forward each Saturday."
One familiar face that will no longer be in the huddle is Chandler Carroll. The Maroon graduate was the engine of the offense at running back during his tenure, setting four school career records in touchdowns, rushing touchdowns, points scored and rushing attempts. Carroll's 2017 season was particularly prolific as the elusive back scored a season-record 18 touchdowns while finishing as UChicago's No. 2 all-time leading rusher with 3,979 yards.
Carroll's every down impact will be missed. However, Wilkerson believes his current backfield will be up to the task.
"Replacing Chandler Carroll will be difficult, but we have a very gifted group of running backs returning this fall," Wilkerson said. "I expect there to be tremendous competition with this group and it will probably be done by committee. Henry Imburgia, Riley Trettel, Vittorio Tricase and Michael Martinson all showed flashes of greatness last fall. Each has the ability to handle the load as a ball carrier, is a threat to go the distance with every touch, can catch the ball out of the backfield and they are all very capable blockers. We also feel great about the two new first-year additions."
The quarterback position will see a new starter as well this fall. Junior Marco Cobian enters the preseason as No. 1 on the depth chart with his blend of size and athleticism. Five quarterbacks are on the roster, including three rookies.
"Returners Marco Cobian and George Krantz continued to improve tremendously during the spring," said the veteran head coach. "The biggest thing we will be looking for is someone who can lead, make quick decisions, operate the offense efficiently, and take care of the football. I anticipate good competition for this spot from all five guys."
One of the deepest positions of strength the Maroons will possess is at wide receiver. The group of 12 features plenty of new blood with seven newcomers. Team co-captain Dante Nepa headlines the group entering his junior season. The 6-foot-4 pass catcher has 80 career receptions for 1,177 yards (14.7 yards per catch) and 12 touchdowns to his credit.
UChicago ran the ball on 64 percent of its offensive plays last season. But with so many options out of the backfield and on the edges, the Maroons could look to sling the ball around at a higher rate.
"There will be some very talented players to target in the passing game, led by co-captain Dante Nepa," Wilkerson said. "Speedster Trevor Anderson will also provide big-play capability and it will be nice to have Troy Reed back. Reid Martin and Will Seelman continue to improve. We also have seven of our most talented first-year players coming in at the receiver position and look forward to seeing what they can do."
In the course of one year, UChicago turned a perceived weakness into a strength. In 2017, only one starter returned on the offensive line. Now all five starters are back in the trenches for 2018, which will help speed up the team's offensive learning curve in preseason. Senior right guard Tucker Squiers and junior center Doug Barkauski were both recognized on the 2017 First Team All-MWC Team.
"Everything we do starts up front on both sides of the ball," said Wilkerson. "It's very nice to return five guys on the offensive line with starting experience. Squiers, Barkauski, Matt Zimmerman, Harrison Paul, and Mike Hiestand all return. Tim Rogus has really stepped up in the off-season and spring ball, and a number of other guys continue to develop. This group has worked very hard in the weight room and I really look forward to watching this group continue to improve and help lead our offense."
The unit that made the most improvement was the Maroon defense. UChicago chopped down its total yards surrendered per game by more 200 compared to the 2016 season. The dramatic turnaround helped the Maroons rank 26th in NCAA Division III with 282.6 yards allowed.
The change could be traced to a pair of key factors – a bullying pass rush and an opportunistic secondary.
"The defense made huge improvements from 2016 to 2017," Wilkerson said. "It really started with the core group of returners and their commitment to getting back to playing championship-caliber defense.
"Our defensive line was extremely active, physical and continued to harass opposing quarterbacks. In addition, there were some key new faces that helped us take tremendous strides forward. Jackson Ross, Ryan Montgomery and Dylan Faires were all outstanding additions last fall. We know we can't be satisfied with where we were last fall – we have lots of work to do to get where we want to go."
The defense spent plenty of time in the opposing backfield. Sophomore Jackson Ross made a big impression at nose tackle, racking up a team-high 85 stops to go with seven tackles for loss. He was awarded Second Team All-MWC honors and was named North Division Newcomer of the Year. Senior Michael McGinley and junior Ben Christensen were a particularly disruptive duo on the line with a combined 26 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Christensen also added four fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks. Junior Kris Dammen-Brower looks to rebound from injury as well following a productive rookie season.
At all three levels of the defense, UChicago had a nose for the ball. The Maroons finished third in NCAA Division III in turnovers gained thanks to 14 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries. Now a two-time team captain, senior safety Jeremy Vincent snagged four picks to go with 42 tackles and eight passes defended. Vincent's production led to First Team All-MWC honors. Junior safety Bill Rotnicki tallied three interceptions, nine passes defended and 57 tackles. Sophomore Ryan Montgomery started right away at cornerback. The Second Team All-MWC honoree tallied 63 tackles, eight passes defended, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Junior team co-captain Zach Atiyeh leads the linebacker corps in his third year as a starter. He posted 60 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks in 2017. Sophomore Dylan Faires (40 TKL, 4 TFL) contributed as a rookie starter, and junior Henry Winebrake (37 TKL, 2 TFL) makes his return from an injury-shortened 2017 campaign.
"We are fortunate to have some great leadership on this team," said Wilkerson. "Certainly two-time co-captain Jeremy Vincent and co-captain Zach Atiyeh are two of our outstanding leaders; but also Henry Winebrake, Ben Christensen, Michael McGinley and Bill Rotnicki will also provide tremendous guidance."
Special teams will be counted on to provide momentum plays once again. The Maroons ranked 19th in the nation last year with six blocked kicks. Senior team co-captain Mike Kurzydlowski also returns for his third season as the starting kicker and punter. Kurzydlowski made 9 of 11 field goals and 31 of 32 PATs last year, while averaging 35.0 yards per punt.
"This is the underappreciated third of the game," Wilkerson said. "We are fortunate to have co-captain Mike Kurzydlowski back. We also have some nice continuity with our deep snapper Nick Low, short snapper Grant Crum and holder Macalaster Schmidt. With Vincent, Martinson and Tricase back as our primary return people, we feel like this group can be very explosive. Now we need to find the other players to surround these guys with who want to be part of something special."