CHICAGO – When the University of Chicago football players step onto the gridiron this fall, they will have a new set of competitors on the other side of the ball. The Maroons are returning to a familiar league from their past – the Midwest Conference.
Previously, the MWC served as the conference home for Maroon football from 1976-86, and 2017 marks UChicago's first year as an affiliate member in the 12-team league. UChicago spent the past two years competing in the Southern Athletic Association (SAA).
The squad posted a 4-6 record in 2016, including a 4-4 mark in the SAA. Head Coach Chris Wilkerson is excited for the new challenge of playing for an automatic postseason bid within a regional conference.
"We know the Midwest Conference is a highly-competitive league and will present some tremendous challenges, but we are looking forward to the journey," Wilkerson said. "We have a tremendous amount of work to put in this preseason and we just want to improve with every opportunity we have. It's about laying it on the line for each other, helping each other be the best team we can be."
VIDEO: 2017 Season Preview
(Full YouTube Link: https://youtu.be/qvpLZw_2Ul4)
UChicago's offense is coming off its most prolific season in school history. The fast-paced aerial attack frequently took a no-huddle approach, dissecting defenses and gobbling up yardage. At year's end, the Maroons had broken 10 team and 11 individual records. Quarterback Burke Moser ranked second in the nation with 376.6 passing yards per game while tossing 30 touchdowns. The offense averaged 30.6 points and 485.6 total yards per game.
Now in his fifth season leading the Maroons, Wilkerson hopes that the offense will be able to recapture and refine last year's magic.
"We were very excited about our growth as an offense last fall," he said. "The players did an outstanding job learning a new system; but more importantly, they continued to develop fundamentally. With some time to evaluate in the offseason, we are also very aware there is a lot of room for improvement. We know we start preseason with a blank slate. Now we're looking forward to maximizing our potential."
Chandler Carroll proved to be the key that unlocked the offensive explosion. The incoming senior running back made his presence felt all over the field, leading the team in both rushing yards and receptions (74). His 174.2 all-purpose yards per game ranked 11th in all of NCAA Division III. Carroll was elusive as ever in the backfield, crossing 1,000 rushing yards for the second-straight year (1,077) and averaging 4.8 yards per carry. The team co-captain found the end zone 15 times with eight rushing and seven receiving touchdowns.
"Chandler has certainly been a workhorse for us over the last three seasons," Wilkerson said. "He has continued to grow as a player and leader. He has a great skill set and passion for the game and has set a new standard for our team. The biggest thing about Chandler is his gritty, competitive nature. He is more focused on helping us be the best team we can be than any individual accolades. Chandler will do whatever it takes to help us be a great team."
The wide receiving corps returns a wealth of depth and talent. Sophomore Dante Nepa leads the way after a breakthrough debut that included 62 catches for 899 yards (14.5 YPC) and eight touchdowns. Junior Trevor Anderson (22 catches, 324 yards, 14.7 YPC, 5 TD) and Jamie Rieger (25 catches, 312 yards, 12.5 YPC, 2 TD) both ranked in the team's top five in receptions and yards. Sophomore Troy Reed, senior Erik Wong and junior Andrew Falk are also back in the fold after productive seasons.
The offensive line will have a new look after the graduation of four starters. Junior guard Tucker Squiers will embark on his third year as a starter, while the rest of the spots on the line are open for competition.
In the wake of Moser's graduation, UChicago will have a first-time starter at quarterback. Three sophomores and two freshmen will be competing for snaps. Wilkerson is looking for a signal-caller that demonstrates leadership, poise and ability to make good decisions.
"This is obviously the biggest question entering the season," said the veteran head coach. "Sophomores Marco Cobian and Brian Collis certainly have been impressive in practice and both have shown flashes of greatness. Those two will be challenged by a pair of first years in Campbell Garrett and George Krantz. Both were accomplished players in high school. In addition, we have added rising sophomore Drew Ventrelle."
UChicago's defense returns mostly intact with nine starters from 2016. Increased pressure by the defensive line will be key to the unit's fortunes in 2017.
"Like we say on offense, it all starts up front," Wilkerson stated. "If we are making sure the quarterback is never able set his feet and get into rhythm, it makes us a better unit and team. We have improved our depth tremendously up front and have a ton of guys ready to go when their number is called."
Senior defensive end Peter Casey is back for his third year as a starter on the edge. Alongside his 42 tackles, Casey led the team with six tackles for loss while registering 1.5 sacks. Junior Michael McGinley and sophomore Ben Christensen were key cogs as first-time starters last season on the defensive line. They tallied 27 tackles each. Christensen finished with four tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception and one blocked kick. McGinley posted 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack.
The secondary returns the most experience with a quartet of starters. Senior cornerback Andrew Beytagh and junior safety Jeremy Vincent lead the way as team co-captains. Beytagh paced the Maroons with three interceptions and 12 passes defended, to go with 34 tackles. Vincent tied for second on the team with 79 tackles. He also recorded three passes defended and two forced fumbles.
"Certainly Andrew Beytagh and Jeremy Vincent have played a lot of productive football for us," said Wilkerson. "They have done a great job with leadership and setting the standard for the group. I know they are looking forward to getting this group back on the field and continuing to improve. They have raised the expectations for the unit."
Sophomore safety Bill Rotnicki was in on plenty of tackles as well, as his 79 stops tied Vincent. He added three tackles for loss and four passes defended. Junior cornerback Bryson Merriweather totaled 34 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and seven pass breakups.
The linebacker corps includes returners Zach Atiyeh and Grant Byrne. Now an incoming sophomore, Atiyeh made an impactful freshman debut with 52 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack. Byrne enters his senior season fresh off 33 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.
The focus for this year's defense is to end drives earlier and limit big gains. "I was very pleased with our improvement as a defense in the spring," Wilkerson said. "I thought we really started to function well together as a unit. Continuing to improve our fundamentals during preseason will be important. The pillars for our defense are tackling, takeaways, team, technique and trust. We know we need to stop the run, eliminate the big plays, get off the field on third down and take the football away."
The Maroons will have continuity in the kicking game, as Mike Kurzydlowski returns for his junior season. The kicker/punter converted 5 of 6 field goals last year while averaging 35.4 yards per punt and 54.8 yards per kickoff. UChicago's consistent scoring allowed Kurzydlowski to set a new school records for PATs made in a season (39) and points kicking in a season (54).
In the return game, junior wide receiver Austin Maltbia brings back the most experience from 2016. He fielded 18 kick returns for 376 yards (20.9 YPR).
Wilkerson views his special team unit as a big x-factor during games. "Special teams can produce huge momentum plays in either direction," he said. "The battle for field position begins with them. Mike was great for us last year kicking, but we know we need to improve our net punting and there will be a heavy emphasis on improving the return game as well. Austin Maltbia did a great job on returns last fall, but there is some good competition and possibly some new faces back there with him on both kickoffs and punts."