Written by Student Assistant Christian Bond
TACOMA, Wash. - The Pacific Lutheran University football team is anxious to return to the gridiron in 2016 with a more experienced and veteran squad.
The Lutes had a daunting task of replacing 12 All-Northwest Conference players last season, and the squad's inexperience showed at times, posting a 2-7 record and a 2-5 mark in Northwest Conference play. PLU graduated just eight seniors from last season and heads into 2016 with 22 seniors on the roster who understood the amount of work they needed to do over the offseason.
"I think it started with the spring," said Scott Westering who enters his 13th season as head coach. "We had a great spring. Our guys worked really hard. We came out of last season with real challenges of learning about competing, and what it takes to play at the level we need to play at. We are significantly stronger, faster, and quicker."
The Lutes had a tough time keeping one quarterback on the field in 2015. Jon Schaub, Cole Chandler and Walker LaVoy all started games at the position. A year later, PLU is content with multiple players taking snaps at quarterback.
"We'll play both Jon and Cole," Westering said. "Jon put in a great summer of working and keeping the guys together for 7-on-7. There is a different skillset between the two of them."
"I'm feeling great," Jon Schaub said. "I spent all summer with Aaron Gunther our head trainer, and Chris Rice our strength and conditioning coach. We spent every other day with each other. Those guys have been a huge help and a huge blessing for me. My arm is strong and I'm more accurate than I have ever been."
Schaub played in five games in 2015. The Oregon native threw for 1,151 yards in 176 attempts with six touchdowns including a 59.1 percent completion percentage.
A dual threat, Chandler played in four games as a freshman in 2015, passing for 445 yards, while racking up 122 on the ground. Chandler solidified himself as a possible starter against George Fox University, putting up near perfect numbers. Chandler went 12-13, passing for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
"We can definitely run him, and run some read plays with him. He's got a pretty good arm. Cole brings a whole new dynamic to the pocket by being able to take off and go," said Westering.
In a situation that could easily divide teammates, coach Westering has seen the exact opposite happen amongst his quarterbacks.
"It's one of the coolest things that really has evolved over the last year. In all my years of coaching, I've really never seen it happen. Schaub, Chandler, LaVoy and Nolan Hoover have all become best friends. They hang together, they room together, and they lift together. They are still competitive, but they celebrate the other guy's success."
"Whether we play with two quarterbacks or one quarterback," Schaub said. "We are going to find a way to march down the field. It's about the double win, whatever is going to put our team in the best spot to win."
Whoever is throwing the ball for the Lutes will have plenty of targets to choose from. The 2016 team features five senior receivers in Ben Welch, Kellen Westering, Juston Lind, Beau Lockmer and Cody Johnston. Welch returns after an outstanding 2015 when he caught 38 passes for 360 yards. Westering is returning to the roster after missing the 2015 season. Westering has 72 catches for 948 yards and four touchdowns over his career.
"I think we are a lot more mature," said Kellen Westering. "We are looking forward to third and fourth downs, rather than panicking in those situations. I think our receivers are going to be strong, We also have Derren Hardgrove and Marc Gallant out of the backfield who are pretty strong as well. I think we'll be pretty balanced. It's exciting. We are looking forward to being a more mature team."
Gallant and Hardgrove will head up the rushing attack for the Lutes. Gallant played in eight games, getting 88 carries, accumulating 308 yards and three touchdowns. Hardgrove played in nine games, getting 58 carries for 193 yards and a touchdown.
Making sure the skill position players stay on their feet is the offensive line. The group features two seniors in Lucas Hatton and Christiano Mazziotti. Junior Austin Stiplin returns after earning All-NWC honorable mention while sophomores Alex Fairhurst and Adam McShane round out the projected starters.
"Most of us have touched the field before," said Hatton. "The offensive line is so much about meshing. I can see that we are communicating better and working well as one unit. We are flowing and we understand the offense much better."
Defensively, the Lutes anticipate a group effort being most effective.
"We aren't returning any all-conference players. As a collective group, with Craig (McCord)'s scheme, their belief in each other, they can play up to a high level. It's going to take all 11 of us, every snap to do it."
"We all have another year of experience under our belt," Chase said. "We worked together in the offseason. We built a lot of confidence and we are ready to get after it."
Travis McMillion returns with the most tackles from the 2015 season. McMillion had 52 total tackles, including 37 solo tackles last season.
"We all bought in," McMillion said. "We had a lot of guys get that bug, the lifting bug, the football bug and they wanted to improve on last year. It's contagious. Once you get a little bit of success, which I think we had in the last game of the season, and we felt good about what we were doing. It got to everybody, guys just want to work hard and have fun."
The Lutes are anxious to get on the field in 2016. The group feels more experienced, and more prepared than they were a year ago.
"Last year was a struggle," Schaub said. "So many guys put in so much hard work over the summer. We are head and shoulders above where we were last year. That's what I'm looking forward to the most, to see all that hard work pay off."
"We got a chip on our shoulder," Westering said. "We didn't even come remotely close to playing to our potential as a team. Our chip is to play to our potential."
The Lutes open the lid on the 2016 season on Saturday hosting California Lutheran University at 1 p.m. inside Sparks Stadium.
Series History: The Lutes and Kingsmen have met 21 times on the gridiron with PLU owning a slim 11-10 edge in the all-time series that first began in 1967. The series has been played annually since 2004 with Cal Lu sneaking away with the 30-26 victory last season after scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half.
About the Kingsmen: California Lutheran wrapped up 2015 with a 4-5 overall record and a 2-5 mark in Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference action. The KIngsmen jumped out to a 3-0 start last season but dropped five of their final six games, including four in a row to cap the year.
Senior defensive lineman DeJon Rothschild is the lone returning All-SCIAC player for the Kingsmen who must fill the void left from the departure of seven All-League players from 2015.