What do we know about Linfield this year? Yes, we know the ‘Cats are highly ranked and have made the National Semifinals in back-to-back seasons. But why are D3 pundits expecting more of the same from the ‘Cats this season? Well, you can start at the quarterback. Sam Riddle is back for his senior season and the father of two is primed and ready to lead this program once again. Saying Riddle is going to have options is an understatement. 4 of Riddle’s top 5 receivers from 2015 are back on the roster this year as Erick Douglas III, Zach Kuzens, Johnny Carroll, and Eric Igbinoba are all back for Riddle. Also, Sam Robinson is back for his Senior season after spending most of 2015 on the sideline with injury, and Reed Peterson is going to be a key contributor as well.
Taking handoff this year will once again be 1 team All-NWC running back Spencer Payne. Payne is one of the most dynamic running backs in the country with his allusiveness, power, speed, and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Spencer is in line to have a monster 2016. But the ‘Cats are far than just a one-man show in the backfield. Offering up some power will be Sutter Choisser who was a great change up to Payne in 2015, and a huge bonus is the return of a fully healthy Bryan Cassill. Cassill will be a dynamic back for Linfield this season. These three will offer up huge flexibility for the offense in 2016.
Now the big question for the offense….the offensive line. Linfield loses three starters off of last year’s offensive line that was critical to the success of the previous two seasons. The good news is that the ‘Cats have a lot of talent on the offensive line but it’s unproven talent. How quickly the group can gel will be a major factor for Linfield this season. Returning starters for the ‘Cats are Guard/Tackle Stephen Nnabue and guard Kela Grace. Ryne Furmark, who did start multiple games last year, returns as well. There is a laundry list of big bodies the ‘Cats could roll out there this season and there should be plenty of opportunities to find the unit that clicks.
|#3 Eric Igbinoba and the Wildcats receivers are looking to light up the scoreboard in 2016.|
|Photo Courtesy from Brad Thompson: See Brad's 2015 photos here.|
The second biggest question for the Linfield offense is Tight End. Linfield had the luxury of having Levi Altringer the past two years as he was a fantastic outlet for Riddle and hauled in six touchdowns in 2015. An area of concern this offseason for the coaching staff has turned into a spot of optimism during fall camp. Linfield has a number of young and talent options at Tight End with Sophomore Byron Greenlee leading the charge along with freshman Jacob Calo expecting to see lots of action.
Flipping to the other side of the ball, Linfield’s defense should once again be a fantastic group. Yes, the defense losses three All-Americans in defensive end Alex Hoff, Keanu Yamamoto, and Kyle Belcher, but Linfield returns a bevy of talent that should form another darn good defensive unit. Manning the corners this year will be seniors Kennedy Johnson and Dylan Lewis. Both of them are multiple year starters for the ‘Cats and should have great senior campaigns. Also look for junior Cory Stowell to have a huge impact for the ‘Cats at cornerback. At the safety spots, Linfield has the luxury in returning two 1st team All-NWC defenders in Mikey Arkans and Skylor Elgarico. Nate Sample, Duke Mackle, and Tala Teaupa should also see time for Linfield. Rounding out the ‘Cats defensive backfield is Mitch Lewis who will be taking up the mantle from Yamamoto at the Rover position. Wade Ransom will factor in at Rover as well as Niles Tuihalangingie and Austen Dahl.
Headed up the Linebackers is a group that represent speed and toughness. Preseason All-American Jake Reimer headlines a dynamic group of backers. Both Mitchell Kekel and Jason Farlow also put in outstanding sophomore campaigns, with Kekel making a number of huge plays and Farlow being named a 1st team All-NWC Linebacker, and these two will once again have a huge impact for the Wildcat defense this year. The heartbeat for the LBC this season will be senior Kyle Chandler who I’m expecting to have a big impact in his final campaign. Kyle’s toughness will be a great addition in the middle of this defense as well as sophomore Patrick Pipitone’s talent.
One of the biggest changes for the ‘Cats defense this year is the departure of Alex Hoff from the defensive line. Hoff is one of the best players in program history so that’s tough to make up for but ‘Cat fans should be optimistic about this group. Defensive End Marcus McGovern is an All-American in waiting in my humble opinion. Maybe that’s unfair to put those types of expectation on McGovern but I think he’s going to have a huge junior season. Lining up on the opposite side will be junior Jake Handran. The 6’ 4” 265 lbs defensive end will be a load for teams to handle and I like Jake’s motor. Eli Fults is going to see plenty of action in the rotation and don’t be surprised to see Frosh Tony Kraus in the mix as well. In the middle, Linfield will be led by returning 1st team All-NWC defensive tackle Zach Grate. The junior did a fantastic job in chewing up space in the middle of the Linfield defense and should have a great junior season. Lining up next to Grate is senior Ty Farber. Farber is a powerhouse with some great quickness and should cause havoc during his senior season. Dakota Church is going to be a factor in the middle for Linfield as well as Chris Stinchcomb, and freshman Hayden Bell.
Last but never least the ‘Cats kicking game. Linfield is in fantastic hands with their punting duties as Kevin McClean is back for one more season. McClean is a talent and huge weapon for the ‘Cats. Kick off duties once again fall to the foot of Cayman Conley. Conley has a huge leg and has looked fantastic in fall camp. The biggest question mark is who is going to be handling Linfield’s field goal/PAT’s opportunist. In camp, those duties have been split between Conley and transfer Willy Warne. That should be ongoing in the early part of the season.
As for the ‘Cats opening opponent, Chapman? Linfield fans are very familiar with Chapman at this point as this will be Linfield’s 4th meeting with the Panthers in three seasons. The Panthers took it a bit on the chin in 2015 after their 2014 SCIAC title. The Panthers are a bit of a mystery to me coming into Saturday’s game. There has been almost zero press, video, heck not even a write up on their sports page. What I do know is that they will be well prepared for Linfield. I think the Chapman coaching staff does a heck of a job in scheme and game day coaching so you know they’ll want to bring their best shot back to the ‘Catdome.
Get To Know A Wildcat
#45 Jake Handran, Junior, Defensive End
Hometown: Woodburn, Or, High School: Blanchet Catholic
Favorite place to eat in Mac: Tequila Grill
Favorite Movie: Benchwarmers
Favorite Music: Country/Classic Rock
Favorite TV show: American Ninja Warrior
Favorite Book: America: Imagine the World Without Her
Class I Most Look Forward to: International Business
iPhone or Android: iPhone
Personal Mantra: Inner Fire
Social Media of choice: LinkedIn
Car or Truck: Car
Xbox or PS3: PS3
What first inspired you to play football: My inner fire
Favorite Coach Smith Saying: It's all about the little things
Favorite part of playing at Linfield: Being apart of something greater than myself and being blessed with the opportuity to get better everyday.
Describe Coach Vaughan in three words: Defensive Schematic Genius
Post Linfield aspirations: Just keep livin' the dream!
Wildcat11’s Keys To Victory
Don’t change who you are: I don’t think any Linfield fan needs to worry about Linfield trying to reinvent the wheel in 2016. The ‘Cats are going to be who the ‘Cats have been for a long time and that’s a team that plays fast and with controlled aggression. The first game always has that element of the unknown and that’s when programs need to turn to their core values to preserve through unknown times. Chapman will have looks on both sides of the ball the ‘Cats haven’t seen, so the ‘Cats will have to adjust on the fly. If the ‘Cats can do this then I expect Linfield to start showing flashes of why many think this is one of the teams to beat in Division III.
Establish the rush: How far this Linfield offense will go this season will be determined by if the ‘Cats can move the ball on the ground. Yes, we have the offense and players that can throw it 50 times a game and win football games, but rushing the football effectively will be the key if this team and program can take that other step forward. We’re young on the offensive line but talented. I’m looking forward if we can establish a rushing attack.
|#46 Marcus McGovern should be meeting plenty of QB's like this in 2016.|
|Photo Courtesy from Brad Thompson: See Brad's Photos here.|
Turn Chapman into a one dimensional offense: Chapman has been more of a rush first team in recent years and in 2015 the Panthers rushed the ball 63% of the time. Part of that reason is Chapman’s best offensive player in 2015 was a running back that has now graduated. So what does that mean for Saturday? I’m not sure. Maybe Chapman goes Air Raid on the ‘Cats, or maybe they go ground or pound? That’s the beauty of the first game…the unknown. Either way, Linfield’s defense will need to figure it out and if the ‘Cats can turn Chapman into a one dimensional offense, then Linfield can turn it loose.
Special Teams Pressure: Linfield has been fantastic with their Special Teams on this run since 2009. The ‘Cats have dangerous returners, fantastic coverage units, and some great legs. This group can be huge to turn momentum into Linfield’s favor against the Panthers with flipping field position.
Pressure the Chapman backfield: Chapman will have a new starting QB under center this year as the probable starter is Junior, Mac Vail. The 5’ 11”, 180 lbs. signal caller had solid numbers in limited time last year in going 35 of 58 throwing ball (60.5%) and tossed 7 TD’s to only 1 pick. Vail’s throws a nice ball, and it will be critical for the ‘Cats front four to make him uncomfortable in the pocket and hopefully force some poor decision making.
Make Plays on the Ball: No doubt both the Linfield offense and defense is going to have opportunities this weekend to make plays on the football. Linfield’s offense isn’t all the sudden going to change into a dink and dunk passing attack so you know Sam Riddle is going to get it up in the air and challenge Chapman deep, and I’m suspecting Chapman is going to also see if they can take some chunks in the air as well. We have experience and talent with our receivers and secondary and it’s up to them to want it when those opportunities come.
‘Cats by 17. All the wait is finally over for Linfield. While the ‘Cats do have some questions that need to be answered, there is no denying on the potential of this year’s team. I do respect Chapman and what their coaching staff has done for that program, but if Linfield comes out with a purpose and executes there is no reason why this game will be close. Can’t wait to see it.