CHICAGO – When the University of Chicago football team rejoined the Midwest Conference in 2017, the driving impetus was to compete for an automatic bid to the NCAA postseason within a regional conference. Since then, the Maroons have thrived on the gridiron, posting a 13-3 record against MWC opponents the past two years.
UChicago has proven it can hang with the elite teams in the league. Now the program readies for the next evolutionary step – a push for the postseason.
Head Coach Chris Wilkerson enters year seven at the helm of the Maroons, and the excitement of the preseason with all its possibilities is palpable for him.
"The biggest thing for us to take another step forward as a team this fall is to continue to grow as a family and focus on improving every single day," Wilkerson said. "The W.I.N. mentality and focus on What's Important Now. After two years, we certainly are more familiar with our Midwest Conference opponents. However, with us shifting to the South Division this year, we will be playing some new teams in some new places. We are excited to get back to work with this group and get ready for the fall."
Stagg Field will feature plenty of familiar faces – the squad only graduated one starter on offense and two starters on defense. The veteran core and their cohesion will be key for the Maroons to develop an identity quickly and get off to a fast start.
"It's amazing to welcome 20 seniors back this fall," said Wilkerson. "I think any elite team has the players do lots of the leading. They continue to set and maintain standards for us. We do have a number of key players back, but everyone knows they need to compete to maintain their position or challenge for another spot.
"We should be a little further along at the beginning of pre-season, but we still have to reinstall all the base concepts, evaluate talent, build chemistry and give our players all the things they will need in their 'toolbox' for the duration of the season. The season is a marathon event and there's lots to be done."
One particular position of strength is quarterback. Senior Marco Cobian and sophomore Jeffrey Jackson were efficient and effective throughout 2018. The duo combined to throw for 199.0 yards per game while completing a school-record 66.1 percent of their attempts. They passed for 22 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. The signal callers will compete in camp for the starting position.
"Both Jeffrey and Marco showed flashes of elite play at the quarterback position last fall," Wilkerson said. "They each have things they need to continue to improve on. Both Marco and Jeffrey showed a quick release, accurate touch and the ability to extend plays with their feet. They are both excellent competitors and leaders. As an offense, we need to cut down on the interceptions but not be afraid of making mistakes. The quarterbacks need to operate the offense with confidence, trust themselves and lead the group into the end zone."
The 2018 offense followed suit, scoring a school-record 365 points (36.5 per game) including 63 versus Beloit College. The 2019 version looks to replicate that production with veteran presence across the offensive line and at the skill positions, where a host of youngsters thrived last season. The Maroons were led in rushing by rookie Nicholas D'Ambrose (517 yards, 6.2 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns) and receiving by newcomer Jacob Jackson (59 catches, 769 yards, six touchdowns). Incoming junior Vittorio Tricase found the end zone nine times to go with his 395 yards rushing. Senior Dante Nepa and sophomore Matt Quaglia combined for 54 catches, 563 yards and nine touchdowns.
"Our offensive line is now lead by eight seniors – Doug Barkauski, Matt Zimmerman, Harrison Paul, Mike Hiestand, Jacob Mooney, Grant Crum, Caelan Meggs, Tim Rogus – who will continue to pave the way for our offense," said the veteran head coach. "We had a number of first-year guys become a bigger part of what was accomplished as the season went on. Jacob Jackson came in right away and started from the first game. Jeffrey Jackson was able to get his first opportunity in the second half of game two and obviously had a great run before being injured. Nick D'Ambrose didn't get his opportunity until game three and had a break-out year before being injured in the final game.
"There were a number of other first-year skill guys that got more and more involved as the season wore on – Matt Quaglia, Caden Kalinowski, Elliott Grays, Zack Olson and Mark Eaton. So it's really about continuing to learn the system, improve, compete and be ready when your number is called."
On the defensive side of the field, UChicago exceled at keeping opponents out of the end zone. The squad ranked 11th nationally in points allowed (11.8 per game), setting a new school record along the way. The defense was also fourth in red zone defense and 33rd in passing yards allowed (166.6 per game). UChicago was particularly dominant in league play, shutting out a school-record three opponents.
"We have our defensive standards and I know our players maintained the standard last fall," Wilkerson said. "I think to have the season they had last year takes strong performance at all three levels. Certainly our front was able to battle at the line of scrimmage. Our linebackers (Henry Winebrake, Zach Atiyeh, Josh Godosky, George Coyle) did a great job of being physical and defending the run and the pass. Our back-end guys (Bill Rotnicki, Ryan Montgomery, Daniel Cho, Makai Robinson) did an outstanding job limiting the passing yards.
"How well they all work together and complement each other will continue to define us as defense. If the coverage is tighter, it allows guys up front to get to the quarterbacks. If the pressure is quicker up front, we don't have to cover as long. If the guys in the middle can get us lined up and defend the run and pass, it helps us as a unit."
The defensive line returns three of its four starters in the trenches – junior Jackson Ross, senior Ben Christensen and senior Connor Phelan. Ross stood out with big numbers, pacing the 104 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and two blocked kicks. The defensive tackle also added 4.5 sacks, one interception and one fumble recovered. At season's end, he was named to the D3football.com Third Team All-Region. Christensen posted 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and two blocked kicks of his own.
"I believe any elite football team is strong up the middle. Our defensive line's aggressive play gives us an opportunity every week to be an elite defense," said Wilkerson. "Jackson Ross is certainly one of the pillars of the defense, but the entire group works very hard and well together. Ben Christensen is one of our most steady forces up front. JR has the ability to wreak havoc with offenses. He has a great punch and is relentless to the football. As good of a football player as JR is, he is an even better person and man. He has done so well in every area of his experience since arriving in Hyde Park in fall of 2017."
The special teams unit has emerged as a calling card in recent years. UChicago blocked six kicks for the second-straight season. Punt return defense was particularly stout with a miniscule 1.7 yards per return allowed. Those detailed advantages are key to the team's ability to win games consistently in Wilkerson's mind.
"This is the hidden 'third' of the game," he said. "We still want to be aggressive, create great field position and score with the offensive kicks. Also, we want to be aggressive, fundamentally sound and have relentless effort with our defensive cover kicks. It's really nice to have both snappers back with Nick Low and Grant Crum. Having Brian Uhler (punter) and John McCormick (kickoff) along with some kick return guys in Mike Martinson and Tricase back is helpful.
"The biggest question for us this fall will be replacing kicker Mike Kurzydlowski. We need to continue to find other guys who will surround the 'battery' who want to be part of something special. There will be some tremendous competition during camp and I look forward to seeing the guys compete."