An outstanding front seven on defense, returning all-stars at the skill positions on offense, plus one of the most talented kickers in school history give Linfield football coach Joseph Smith every reason to imagine great possibilities for the 2012 season.
Fourteen starters are among 43 returning lettermen from the 2011 team that rolled to a 10-1 record before falling in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
The Wildcats enter the season seeking their fourth straight Northwest Conference championship and 57th consecutive winning season. The ultimate goal of capturing the program’s fifth national crown appears within the Wildcats’ reach.
“Our guys know the race toward a national championship is a day-to-day process of improvement,” said Smith, a former Wildcats All-American starting his seventh season. “Teams that don’t improve each week never reach the level of play necessary to compete for a championship.”
Linfield faces a front-loaded schedule that has Smith concerned about the level of talent the Wildcats will encounter during the first three weeks of play. “Menlo might be the most individually talented team we’ll see all season. Hardin-Simmons is an outstanding program, one that always fields great teams. And Cal Lutheran is going to be potent. If we can come out of that gauntlet with a 3-0 record then we’re certainly worthy of our No. 5 ranking.
The Wildcats again unleash an attacking defense, led by All-America tackle Tyler Steele and a quartet of physical and savvy linebackers.
Playing alongside Steele on the line is veteran Mike Maierhofer. Up-and-comers Trey Farber and Jeremy Girod are also in the mix at tackle. Talented freshmen Marq Randall and Conner Williams could work their way into the lineup. Defensive end is another source of strength, with key contributors Brynnan Hyland, KeAlli Poomahaihealani, and Michael MacClanathan leading the charge. Providing depth at end are veterans Nick Rhoten and Kyle Rehberg, plus lanky freshman Franklin Lime.
The linebacking corps is as solid as any in program history, with veterans Dominique Forrest, Tim Edmonds, Brian Dundas and Tyler Robitaille headlining the group. Adding depth are junior Nick Fairhart and freshman Eli Biondine.
Perhaps the Wildcats’ largest hole to fill is in the secondary, where all five starters graduated. Linfield, though, can simply reload with a fleet experienced veterans.
At cornerback, Brandon Funk, Michael Link and Ian Zarosinski each return with substantial playing time as reserves last season. They’ll rotate along with promising freshman Chad Coburn.
Colin Foreman will start at safety, filling the void of graduated All-American Drew Fisher. Zarosinski and Mikey Arkans are expected to spell Foreman, as necessary. Mike Nardoni and Nick Pietrzyk are in contention for the starting job at rover with Erik Knapp and Robitaille in the picture.
Kyle Wright is the expected starter at monsterback with Jordan Giza trailing close behind.
Offensively, the Wildcats should field another explosive, yet balanced unit. Quarterback Mickey Inns is poised for an All-America season after passing for 31 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards as a junior. “Mickey’s leadership and ability to understand our offense and prepare for games is priceless,” said Smith. Backups Josh Yoder and Matt Yarbrough also return with game experience, so the offense should be in good hands no matter who is taking snaps.
At running back, the Wildcats also appear to have a wealth of talent. First team all-conference honoree Josh Hill, whom Smith calls “one of the best running backs on the West Coast,” leads a cadre of talented backfield that includes senior Stephen Nasca.
The receiving corps is full of talent with vets Diedre Wiersma, Charlie Poppen, Aaron Hire, Evan Peterson Colin Nelson, David Sigler and Derek Preistley all capable of big games. Linfield also has a pair of top-notch tight ends in returning starter Jacob Priester and Westly Meng, a second generation Wildcat and transfer from Oregon State.
The offensive line must replace two stalwarts, but returns three starters, including guard Drew Wert and tackle Steven Schultz. Jeremy Patrick is the anticipated starter at center.
The Wildcats are set at kicker, with Fred Mitchell Award finalist Josh Kay poised for another outstanding season. Punter Josh Repp, a two-year starter, returns in excellent shape, further stabilizing the special teams.
To reach their goal of a fifth national championship in 30 years, Linfield must withstand the grind of a long season, one that, if the Wildcats have their way, will span 16 weeks.
“Our mentality is that we have to beat the best teams, not only from the West, but beyond our region, in order to make it back to the Stagg Bowl,” said Smith. “We’ve had the weapons to do that the past several years, but in order to reach in the championship game, you must play at a very high level in the playoffs, not just for one week, but for an extended time.”
It won’t be easy, but Linfield remains one of the Division III’s elite programs capable of putting it all together.
“The keys to getting back to the championship game are staying healthy, playing your best football against very talented teams, and doing that 4-5 weeks in a row,” said Smith. “That’s hard to do but we’re up for the challenge.”