Tyler Morrill, for the Review
Like every spring at Linfield, the football program kicks off its new season with spring practice.
Out on Maxwell Field, you will see the team working on getting used to playing with each other all over again. Many positions are open with the seniors moving on and young players using spring practices as a way to impress the coaches.
After one of the toughest seasons to swallow, the ’Cats have to rebuild from the ground up.
Linfield was 6-3 overall last season and had some disappointing losses. Although the Wildcats lost to Willamette University earlier in the year, they still landed in the conference championship deciding game against Whitworth University. Whitworth forced the ’Cats into five interceptions, one of which Whitworth returned for the game’s only touchdown.
Practicing in the spring is intended to give the team a chance to work on replacing the graduated seniors and give the coaches a chance to evaluate the young talent.
“It’s a chance to do a little research and development,” head coach Joe Smith said. “We’ll certainly try some different schematic ideas out and that’s what most coaches do. Secondly, you want to get a good feel for the younger kids maybe you didn’t get to see a lot of in the fall. You’re trying to get a good evaluation of the talent you have returning.”
Next season’s playmaker positions will have some fresh faces in the fall and a lot of off-season work will is necessary to get this team ready for its first game September 13 against Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.
The most obvious offensive change is that Linfield’s two-year starter Trevor Scharer will no longer be at the helm.
Sophomore Aaron Boehme is the frontrunner to step in behind center next year.
“I think everyone is wondering how good our quarterback play is going to be,” Smith said. “I think it’d be foolish not to wonder about that. We definitely wanted to tailor the practices to get a view to see what the quarterbacks were capable of.”
The starting position for running back is wide open now.
Last season, the Wildcats never had a solid starter and this coming season could have a similar situation. Junior Dan Lever is the only back returning who notched more than 100 yards last season.
Linfield is losing all the leaders of its receiving corps, the major source of production from last season. Two receivers are returning from last year that had more than 10 catches, as all-conference receivers Tyler Kaluza and Josh Vierra graduate.
The Wildcats’ most proven offensive returner is senior Travis Masters. Last year, he led the Wildcats in all-purpose yards. Masters started the season sharing a receiving position before being moved to starting running back. The coaches still aren’t sure where to put him, but know he needs the ball.
“We don’t know exactly where he’ll play yet,” Smith said. “He’ll play at running back and slot receiver like he did last year. He’s a great player with the ball in his hands. Wherever he is we have to try to get him the ball.”
The Wildcats bring back a lot of young talent up front, but filling all the holes in the secondary may prove to be a challenge
They have the task of replacing the entire secondary defense, including three all-conference players. Sophomore Bubba Lemon will be the most experienced cornerback.
“We kind of saw that void coming up the last few years with the guys that were graduating ahead of them,” Smith said. “When they were all freshmen, we were preparing for that. They got a lot of extra attention as freshmen and it worked out great.”
Last season the linebacker crew was young but caught on quickly, making several big plays.
Three sophomores started as linebackers for the ’Cats. Jaymin Jackson, Paul Partlow and Alex Tkachuk all stepped in and performed well for the ’Cats. Combined, they contributed 123 of Linfield’s 656 tackles.
“It’s a great trio of linebackers and I think they’ll be the strength of our defense. They took their lumps and had a learning curve along the way like every body,” Smith said. “By midseason, they were playing very well and that’s what we hoped for given their ability.”
The coaches are also looking forward to the new crop of freshman recruits.
With all the new faces, the Wildcats have a lot to work on, but it should be exciting to watch as the team grows up together.