2007 WWU Football Preview
July 17, 2007
BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Western Washington University will look to an experienced defense as it seeks to post a winning season and push closer to the top of the rugged North Central Conference.
The Vikings, who were 5-6 last year and 3-5 in the NCC, have nine starters returning on defense, and 10 of the squad's 15 seniors are on the defensive side of the ball for second-year coach Robin Ross.
Western showed improvement over the course of last season, closing the year with three straight victories. That improvement figures to continue.
"Year two is easier because you have something to work from," said Ross. "You keep the things that worked well and look at improving the others. We're so much further ahead than we were a year ago. Scheme-wise, we're a year better, and we also have twice as many seniors."
Anchoring the defense is a deep linebacker corps led by senior middle linebacker Shane Simmons (Kent/Kentlake), a second-team all-NCC pick who was leading NCAA Division II in solo tackles per game (9.8) until having his season end after five games because of a shoulder injury. He had 56 total tackles, 49 of them solo stops, including seven tackles for loss.
Simmons is one of eight returning linebacker letter winners. The other returning starters are seniors Taylor Wade (Mukilteo/Kamiak) and James Day (Vancouver/Mountain View), who both started the first nine games before having their seasons end with injuries. Wade, an NCC Commissoner's Academic Honor Roll selection, had 42 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. Day had 28 stops.
Junior Steve Davis (Kennewick/Kamiakin), who spent time at both safety and outside linebacker last year, had a team-high 69 stops and is a three-year starter. Ross is also high on senior Nick Warren (Bellevue), who made two starts last year and had an outstanding spring.
"We have a lot of linebackers who we feel can play," Ross said. "We'll be able to rotate guys, keep them fresh and healthy. And in Shane Simmons, we have a guy who should be a pre-season All-American."
Leading the defensive line is senior end Ryan Conwell (Kent/Kentwood), a second-team all-NCC selection last season, when he had 36 tackles, including 12.5 tackles for loss, six of which were sacks. He also forced three fumbles and knocked down three passes.
"Ryan is a high-quality player," Ross said. "He was close to making even more big plays last year, and he's set himself a goal of leading the NCC in sacks and tackles for loss."
On the other end is sophomore William Jackson (Seattle/O'Dea), who played in all 11 games last year.
At tackle, Junior Aumavae (Palmer, AK), a junior, was an honorable mention all-NCC pick. A two-year starter, he had 16 tackles and knocked down two passes last year. Junior Shea Thorstad (Stanwood), who made one start last year, also returns, and redshirt freshman Don Thomas (Kent/Kentwood) figures to see significant action.
The least experienced area of the defense is the secondary, although there are two returning starters in junior cornerbacks Maurice Jones (Tacoma/Spanaway Lake) and Anthony Rosso (Walla Walla). Jones started all seven games he played, making 17 tackles. Rosso had 17 tackles in nine games, making five starts. Redshirt freshman Anthony Zackery (Spokane/Ferris) also returns, having been granted a medical hardship after playing just two games, and sophomore C.J. Green (Federal Way) had a solid spring.
At the safety positions, redshirt freshmen Allan Denton (Los Angeles, CA/Upland) and Zach Schrader (Issaquah/Skyline) came out of spring ball as the starters. Also in the mix is sophomore Danny Cumming (Friday Harbor), a walk-on who started two games at the end of last season after injuries struck. Sophomore Noah Jiles (Yakima/Eisenhower) should also contribute.
"We have some depth at corner," said Ross. "Safety is the most inexperienced spot, but we've become more athletic there."
The offense is quite young, with just four seniors on that side of the ball. But six starters return, including the leading rusher and receiver.
Triggering the attack is junior quarterback Adam Perry (Longview/R.A. Long). Perry played five games last season and was involved in four of Western's five wins. He completed 28-of-48 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns, and also ran for 75 yards and a score on 16 carries. In his only start, he threw for 215 yards and directed the offense to a season-high 35 points in a victory over Minnesota State Mankato.
"With a year under his belt, he'll assume a leadership role," Ross said of Perry. "He's very decisive. Indecision buys time for the defense, but he makes quick decisions. He's able to make plays both with his arm and his feet."
At running back, sophomore Craig Garner (Tacoma/Lakes), a second-team all-NCC pick, rushed for 655 yards last season, and had four consecutive 100-yard rushing games after getting into the starting lineup midway through the season. He also added 13 receptions.
"Craig is as talented as any running back in the conference," Ross said. "He has great quickness, vision and acceleration." Sophomore Tyler Roberts (Friday Harbor), who was the leading rusher in spring ball, is the top backup.
When Western goes to a fullback, there are two solid options. Senior Tieba Bropleh (Bremerton) moves over after lettering three years as a linebacker, and junior Matt Clark (College Station, TX/A&M Consolidated) returns after having a season-ending injury in the second game last year.
At wide receiver, junior wide receiver Travis McKee (Bothell) had a team-high 32 receptions for 445 yards and three touchdowns last season. Senior Brett Upchurch (Sammamish/Eastlake) had 30 receptions for 343 yards and one score, and sophomore Rick Copsey (Camas) is expected to see considerable action. Junior transfer DeAndre Williams (Long Beach, CA/Long Beach Poly) provides a deep threat, having made 10 touchdown grabs for Santa Ana JC last season.
Junior tight end Logan Cullen (Anacortes) had 11 receptions for 155 yards and one touchdown last year while making nine starts. Sophomore Steen Raisl (Tacoma/Stadium) returns after seeing extensive action in double tight-end sets, and sophomore Zach Hekker (Bothell), a transfer from Weber State, will challenge for a starting berth.
There isn't a senior on the offensive line, but there are two returning starters in junior center Dan Trask (Aberdeen) and sophomore guard Chris Miller (Everett/Mariner). Junior guard Phil Hayes (Renton/O'Dea) and junior tackle Chris Corey (Federal Way/Decatur) also saw extensive time in 2006, and junior Scott Allanson (Everett/Jackson) figures to be at the other tackle. Redshirt freshmen Nick Bassett (Gig Harbor/Peninsula) and Russell Piette (Vancouver/Columbia River) will also push for time.
Sophomore Ace Younggren (Snohomish) was the regular placekicker in 2005 prior to redshirting last season. In 2005, he was 29-of-33 on extra points and 1-of-4 on field goals. Senior Corbin Anderson (Veradale/University) returns for his third year as the punter. He averaged 35.7 yards a kick last year, and his excellent hang time led to a dramatic improvement in punt coverage.
On returns, Garner averaged 24.1 yards on 25 kickoff returns. Denton might also return kickoffs. Senior wide receiver Casey Dell (Moxee/East Valley) is the likely candidate to return punts. Copsey also is expected to be a major special teams contributor on coverage.
Western is also a threat in blocking kicks. The Vikings blocked four last year, and Conwell and Warren each have multiple blocks in their careers.
This is the final year of the NCC, which placed three teams in the 2006 national playoffs and has two schools leaving NCAA Division II for Division I-AA after this season. Western will return to the Great Northwest Athletic Conference for the 2008 season.
In addition to the NCC schedule, the Vikings also host past and future GNAC rival Western Oregon on Oct. 27, and begin the season at NCAA I-AA UC Davis on Sept. 1, when the Aggies open their new stadium. The highlight of the schedule is on Oct. 20, when Western meets arch-rival Central Washington in the fifth annual Battle in Seattle at Qwest Field.
"It is a very tough schedule," Ross said. "I think the NCC is tough enough that three teams will probably make the national playoffs. And when you include UC Davis, there's four teams on our schedule that are either in I-AA or headed there. But I like how the schedule breaks down, we play at Davis, then have a bye that helps us prepare for conference play."
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