The song remains the same for the Linfield Wildcats entering the 2016 season: a run at a national championship. The Wildcats are favored to dominate the Northwest Conference and enter the season ranked No. 2 in the country by D3football.com. Several media outlets have pegged Coach Joseph Smith’s Wildcats as national title favorites and with good reason. Linfield is coming off of a 12-1 season a year ago when reached the NCAA Division III semifinals, one game shy of the Stagg Bowl.
At quarterback, the Wildcats are arguably the best in the country. Sam Riddle enters his senior season healthy and loaded with options at running back and receiver, Riddle should fare extremely well in both the passing and rushing attack for the Wildcats. Sophomore Troy Fowler has earned the job as Riddle’s backup, with Clark Hazlett as the third option.
Quite possibly, the Wildcats’ deepest position comes is running back. McMinnville-bred senior Spencer Payne led the Wildcats in all-purpose yards last season and is listed as the Day 1 starter. Sutter Choiccer and Bryan Cassill are experienced performers and even more talent awaits behind them in sophomore Michael Fuller, Andy Nelson and Austin Martins.
After an outstanding run in last season’s playoffs, the wide receiver corps carries high expectations into the 2016 campaign. Seniors Eric Igbinoba, Zach Kuzens and Reed Peterson are penciled in as Day 1 starters but the list of capable starters is long and includes proven players Erik Douglass III, Samuel Robinson and Johnny Carroll.
The Wildcats are breaking in a new tight end this fall. Sophomore Byron Greenlee and freshman Jacob Calo are fine run blockers and pass catchers and both have established a rapport with Riddle and Fowler.
Having undergone a metamorphosis with the loss of three starters due to graduation, the offensive line must get up to speed quickly. Tackles James Andrew and Dakota Smith, guards Stephen Nnabue, Kela Grace, Ryne Fuhrmark and Aaron Kokubun, and centers Will Heck and Matt Matteo return as the most seasoned blockers on the roster.
Defensively, the Wildcats enjoy the luxury of both talent and depth in the secondary and at linebacker. Jake Reimer, Jason Farlow, Kyle Chandler and Mitchell Kekel for an outstanding foursome of linebackers and the Wildcats expect to feature a variety of different looks and personnel this season. The rover position will be anchored by senior Mitch Lewis with highly heralded freshman Niles Tukhalanginige waiting in the wings.
The cornerback position spotlights some of the Wildcats’ top athletes, including Dylan Lewis, Kennedy Johnson, Issac Williams and Cory Stowell. Johnson was named as a preseason All-American as a returner.
The safeties are an experienced group that could be one of the best in the nation by season’s end. Skylor Elgarico returns to his spot at monsterback and Mikey Arkans is back at safety. Duke Mackle and Nate Sample provide support behind the two senior veterans.
The defensive line will be tested this season. It’s young group that may lack depth but has shown great potential throughout the summer and in training camp. Led by tackles Ty Farber, Zach Grate and Dakota Church and ends Jake Handran, Marcus McGovern and Eli Fults. Emerging players Chris Stinchcomb and Tony Kraus will also play prominent roles this season.
Special teams looks solid as always. Kevin McClean returns as the starting punter. Veteran kicker Cayman Conley is competing with freshman Willy Warne for the starting spot. Dylan Lewis serves as the team’s long snapper with Johnny Carroll back as the placeholder. Returning kickoffs will be the All-American Johnson as well as Cassill, Payne or either of the Lewis brothers.