BETHANY - Although he is entering his sixth season as the head coach at Bethany College, Tim Weaver, who led the Bison to a 5-5 record last season for their first .500 season since 2001, is getting to experience a lot of firsts, as his team begins preparations for its 2011 season opener at Allegheny Sept. 3.
Bethany, which finished third in the PAC last season with a 4-3 conference mark, tied for fourth in this year's preseason poll with Grove City and behind only three-time defending champion Thomas More, Washington & Jefferson and Waynesburg. It was the highest Bethany has been picked to finish in Weaver's tenure, but it's not the only milestone he is enjoying after taking over a program that posted three straight 1-9 records prior to his arrival.
''There are a whole bunch of benchmarks you need to hit when you rebuild a program like we've done here,'' said Weaver, who is 19-31 in his five seasons. ''One is to have more returning veterans than newcomers, which we have for the first time this year. That takes time to do, but it changes the whole demeanor of the program because we have so many guys who know what we're doing at the start of camp.
''In addition, we were also able to put together a special teams' two-deep with no freshmen. We also have proven game experience at every spot on the field. And not just people who have played, but they have played well when they've had an opportunity, so we finally have pretty good depth nearly everywhere on the field.''
Last season's finish, which came on the heels of two straight 3-7 campaigns, has built up a lot of momentum for the Bison entering 2011. And after a bit of a philosophy change prior to 2010, the success of last fall has changed the way the Bethany program is looking ahead to this season's slate.
''Prior to last year, we always talked about winning championships, but we changed our goals because we were not good enough to win it,'' Weaver said. ''It takes time to rebuild the way we've been doing it here with mostly freshmen instead of transfers, and while we could see a light at the end of the tunnel, we still had to change the mindset. So coming off back-to-back three-win years, we set the goal of getting to four wins as quickly as possible and building from there.
''Now that we accomplished that, we are changing the way we are approaching the season again. Now we openly talk about being one of those teams in contention every week and having a chance to win every game. We talk about playing in the postseason and getting to play that 11th game. And whether it's somehow winning the league or going 9-1 and getting a bid to the NCAA playoffs, or winning seven or eight games and having a chance to play in an ECAC Bowl, we would be ecstatic either way. We don't have to win a championship to have a very good season. If we can get to six, seven, eight wins, it will be another step in this process for us.''
A total of 19 starters will be back on the field this spring, highlighted on offense by the entire backfield and 80 percent of the line. In the backfield, sophomore quarterback Matt Grimard is back after throwing for 1,490 yards and 10 scores, while also rushing for 882 yards and 11 touchdowns, both Bethany records for a quarterback, on his way to Honorable Mention All-PAC.
Fighting for the backup position are a pair of freshmen in Jarrett Mitchell and Tony Moran.
''Matt has a year of growth under his belt and he needs to throw the ball better this year, which he knows,'' Weaver said. ''He stayed here over the summer to lift and is in better shape. Now we just need to continue his work on the fundamentals of throwing the ball.''
Bethany expects to have a dynamic 1-2 punch behind Grimard. Senior captain Eric Walker continued his record-setting career last season, as he rushed for 898 yards and 12 touchdowns. In addition to earning second team All-PAC, he set Bison standards for career rushing touchdowns (33) and total touchdowns (39). With 456 more yards, Walker (2,491) will surpass Will Anderson's Bison record of 2,946 rushing yards. As a freshman, Nico Irizarry totaled 184 yards and a score and his work in the spring has the Bison staff trying to devise ways to get both backs touches, not only to keep Walker fresh but to take advantage of Irizarry's skills.
''We feel really good about having both Eric and Nico back,'' Weaver said. "We spent part of the offseason talking about ways to get Nico more touches because we think he has a lot of ability. We thought we wore Eric down two years ago but he was better prepared last year. He's a horse who doesn't get hurt and is always in great shape. And while trying to get Nico more touches will help down the stretch of the season, it's more because of the work Nico has done that we want to give him more chances.''
The Bison bring back a lot of wide receivers and a junior tight end in Fletcher Coffman who have seen a good deal of action. Injuries cut the season short for junior captain Johnathan Foster, who caught four passes in two games, and junior Marcus D'Aguiar'Alexander, who had 11 catches in five games. But this unit, which includes returners in senior Alex Evans and junior Ed Holmes, needs to step up in productivity, according to Weaver.
''The last couple years, our receivers and tight ends have shown flashes of being good, but no one has developed into our go-to or No. 1 guy we turn to when we need a play,'' Weaver said. ''We are going to see a lot more one-safety looks because of our running game and we have to be able to throw and catch to take advantage of those situations. We have an abundance of talent there, but haven't shown the consistency needed yet and as a group and as a coaching staff, we have to figure out a way to get more production.''
Perhaps the most complete unit on the offense is the line, which led the way for Bethany to rank second in the PAC in rushing offense (202.4). Senior center and captain Cory Potter is a two-time All-PAC selection and is flanked at one guard by Oak Glen grad Doug Murray, a junior. Both tackles return as well, with junior Bryan Benzinger, an Honorable Mention All-PAC pick, on the left side and junior Nick Gore on the right end.
''We are really excited to have four starters back on the line and they are all juniors and seniors, which we've never had at that position,'' Weaver said. ''Last year, we played well up front and were able to run the ball well, but we still had trouble with bigger, physical front lines. But all of our guys made a commitment and came back significantly stronger, which will only make them better.''
The Bison already proved last season their running game is enough to carry the team to victories, but for the unit to reach its full potential, the passing game will have to take major strides to keep defenses from loading up at the line of scrimmage.
''A lot of our game planning this year will depend on Matt's progress as a passer and the level of trust we have in the receivers to make plays,'' Weaver said. ''We really liked some of the things we did in the running game last year in reading different people on defense, but we have to take advantage when teams gear up to stop the run. We can win 5-6-7 games running like we did, but to win championships, you have to be balanced.''
On the defensive side of the ball, Bethany made drastic improvements against the run, lowering the yards per game by more than 91. The spotlight this year will be on the pass defense, which ranked eighth in the league. The action will start up front in the Bison's 4-3 look, where three starters return. Senior defensive end Kasib Taalib-Din was third in the PAC with 8.5 sacks, including one to secure the Waynesburg victory, and sophomore Prince Aguzie had 1.5 sacks, including one to force a fumble and clinch the Saint Vincent victory in the finale.
Inside, Bethany brings back junior Blake DeBord, who started all 10 games and made 29 tackles, with sophomores Zach Burton and Seth Cawoski ready to man the other tackle spot.
''We are excited about our two starters back at defensive end in Kasib and Prince,'' Weaver said. ''They are explosive, fast, athletic players who made game-clinching plays for us last year. We hope they continue to develop and it will be fun to see the competition between them to see who our sack producer will be.
''At the tackle spots, we bring back Blake, who is the anchor of our front. We'd like to see him make a couple more plays this year but he is rock solid, knows his job and executes his job. Zach played a lot for us last year and gained a lot from that experience and we expect a big step forward from Seth, who played well in jayvee games last year and had a good offseason. Depth on the ends and inside on the line is a concern and is a place where freshmen may have a chance to contribute this year.''
The linebackers feature a pair of juniors who started all 10 games in Kyle Arrington and Gage Lotozo. Arrington ranked third in the PAC with 97 tackles to bring home Honorable Mention All-PAC honors and Lotozo was sixth on the team with 51 tackles. Weaver is looking for big things from sophomore Tyrell Scott on the strong side, with depth coming from sophomores Duante Mayes, Josh Moody and Michael Wal.
''We have some familiar faces back at linebacker in Kyle, who has started all 20 games in his career, and Gage, who bounced back from an injury as a freshman to start all 10 last year,'' Weaver said. ''Kyle overcompensated from his freshman year by coming in a little heavy last year, but he is in great shape this year and is stronger, leaner and running well. Gage played really well last year. He's a naturally instinctive guy and will play in the middle.
''Our strong side linebacker will be Tyrell, who had a fantastic jayvee season and is one of our better athletes. He is football smart, fast and physical. Behind them we have a group of guys in Michael, Josh and Duante, who missed last year with an injury but had a really good spring, that developed while playing jayvee and will move into solid backup roles.''
If Bethany is to make a step up against the pass this year, the secondary will play a big part in that with three starters returning. Junior cornerback Jeff Joyce was second on the team with 63 tackles, while sophomore younger brother Jordan Joyce was right behind him with 62 hits. Sophomore Jamaan Webb scored Honorable Mention All-PAC laurels with 49 tackles and also back is junior Tremayne Ford and sophomores Raphael McGee and Michael Howcott, who both missed last year.
''We should be way better in the secondary than we've been in my time here,'' Weaver said. ''With both Joyces and Jamaan back after starting all of last year, they have a year of experience under their belts, which will make them more comfortable this year. Tremayne has played a lot for us and Raphael and Michael, who both missed last year but played well in '09, return as well. We believe we can make a similar jump in the passing game this year as we made last year in the running game. If we eliminate the blown coverages that happen with freshmen and first-year players in the secondary, we win two more games.''
The strength of the Bethany special teams will be a lengthy list of potential game-breakers in the return game, including Jeff Joyce, who was Honorable Mention All-PAC as a returner last year, Evans, who was third in the PAC in kick return yardage (23.9), Jordan Joyce, D'Aguiar-Alexander and Holmes. Senior Matt Landowski returns as the long snapper and is one of the better players on the coverage units, while both kicking jobs were open heading into camp, although freshman Stephen Amic could have the inside track on both jobs.
''We feel great about our return game with Alex, both Joyces, Marcus and Ed back,'' Weaver said. ''They have all hit for 40-50 yard plays in their careers, so we are deep and talented in those areas. Matt is back for another year as our long snapper and has done a great job. The kicker and punter jobs are both open coming into camp. It's still very early but Stephen looked good and hit it consistently and Matt (Grimard) has shown some ability as a punter, so it looks like we are in good shape.''
Since Weaver has taken over the Bison program, there are normally tons of questions heading into camp as his staff has worked to rebuild. But with so many starters back and a good amount of experienced depth returning as well, many of the personnel questions have been answered. Weaver feels another question was answered last year, but it brings up another heading into this season.
''Our main goal is to continue to improve and build on last year,'' Weaver said. ''The question we've had to try to answer the past couple years is can we become a good team. I think we finally answered that last year. We weren't great, but we were good. Now that we've reached that step, now the question becomes can we consistently compete to finish in the top three or four in the league and give ourselves a chance to win a championship?''
The Bison begin the quest for an answer Sept. 3 at Allegheny. Bethany's home schedule opens Sept. 10 against King's (Pa.) College in the PAC-MAC Challenge and the conference slate starts Sept. 17 against Washington & Jefferson at Bison Stadium