BETHANY - After posting back-to-back .500 seasons for the first time in a decade, Bethany will bring back 20 starters in a quest to take the next step in 2012 and make a move toward the top of the Presidents' Athletic Conference.
While coach Tim Weaver, his staff and the players recognize last year's finish was another step forward, everyone associated with the Bison felt they could have been even better than that 5-5 record and worked hard in the offseason with the thought of surpassing that mark.
"It was good to go .500 for a second straight year," said Weaver, who has 24 victories in his six years on the sideline. "We were a little celebratory after the first 5-5, but after last year, we were a little disappointed. So we talked a lot in the offseason about staying focused on attention to detail. We installed a lot in the spring, so we should go pretty quick in camp.
"We don't want to lose track of where we've come from. We are now in a position to compete every week, which is not where we were when we came in. But we also enter camp with the mindset that 5-5 is not the goal."
While Bethany has become known for offenses that can rack up yards and points quickly, last year saw the defense deliver strong performances on a more consistent basis. The unit recorded a pair of shutouts and led the conference in yards allowed with 281.1 per game. Eight starters will be back on defense, including a trio of linebackers. Senior Kyle Arrington is a three-time Honorable Mention All-PAC choice inside and with 86 tackles last year, has made 256 stops in his first three years.
Also returning at linebacker is junior Gage Lotozo, who totaled 40 tackles and also caught two TD passes in time as a goal-line fullback, and junior Tyrell Scott, who recorded 44 tackles, including 4.5 for loss.
Sept.1: Centre1 p.m.
Sept. 15: at Randolph-Macon1 p.m.
Sept. 22: at Grove City2 p.m.
Sept. 29: at Washington & Jefferson7 p.m.
Oct. 6: Geneva2 p.m.
Oct. 13: Waynesburg1 p.m.
Oct. 20: at Westminster1 p.m.
Oct. 27: at Thiel1 p.m.
Nov. 3: Thomas More1 p.m.
Nov. 10: Saint Vincent1 p.m.
Win 6, Lose 4
In front of the linebackers will be a pair of starters on the line. Senior Blake DeBord made 32 hits from his defensive tackle spot. His partner inside last year was junior Zach Burton, who had 18 stops but will shift to the end position in an attempt to strengthen the run defense. Others back that Weaver is expecting to make a contribution on the outside are sophomores Greg Roberson and Brian McLee.
"We were very pleased with our defense last year," Weaver said. "Our scoring was a little skewed because we had too many turnovers on offense that led directly to scores. But we feel very good with the middle of the defense in Kyle and Gage at linebacker and Blake at tackle. We have to get better against the run because the games we lost last year, we didn't defend the run well. So to help us in there, we moved Zach to end and he should give us a stouter presence.
"One area that needs to be addressed is depth at defensive end. We have guys like Greg and Brian, who showed a lot in jayvee and limited varsity action last year and in the spring. So we feel we have talent, but they need to step up and produce."
The Bison were vastly improved in the secondary last year, but Weaver believes that group could be even better in 2012. Senior Jeff Joyce nabbed Second Team All-PAC accolades after collecting 43 stops and a team-best three interceptions. He'll be at one corner and the other will be sophomore Wyssmy Despagne, who grabbed two interceptions last fall. Also moving to corner from receiver is sophomore Eddie Chance to provide another athletic defender.
At safety, junior Jordan Joyce, who was fourth on the team with 47 tackles, and sophomore Demetrius Wellington, who had 25 hits, return and with that much experience back in the secondary. Weaver expects to put more people closer to the line of scrimmage in another attempt to help the run defense.
"With Jeff and Wyssmy back and the decision to move Eddie over from receiver, we feel good about the cornerback spot," Weaver said. "They give us athleticism and good ball skills and combined with Demetrius and Jordan at safety, they will allow us to put more people in the box.
"So overall, we feel good about the middle of the defense and the secondary, especially at corner. The only areas of concern are depth at end and at safety, although we have a senior returning in Simeon Young who should help if he can stay healthy. Those two are the only spots we hope to see freshmen help immediately but only for depth and not heavy reps."
The Bethany offense did continue to put up impressive numbers throughout the fall, as the Bison were not outgained in any of their 10 games last year. In addition to averaging 26 points per game, they ranked second in the league in total offense (384.6). What Weaver likes best about the offense is having his starting quarterback returning, as well as four starters on the offensive line. Junior QB Matt Grimard set a Bethany single-season record with 2,685 yards of total offense and threw for 18 TDs while rushing for another five.
The unit up front brings back both starting guards and tackles, led by senior left guard Doug Murray, who was named Honorable Mention All-PAC last fall. He's joined on the left side by senior tackle Bryan Benzinger, and on the right is junior guard Evan Sargo and senior tackle Nick Gore. With veterans like senior Ian Lanney, junior Alex Tyre and sophomore Terrel Carter battling it out for the last spot, Weaver likes the competition that is shaping up.
"We are pleased to have the most experience at the two most key positions on offense," Weaver said. "On the line, we have four starters back, and good players like Ian, Alex and Terrel who have been with the program and played some, competing for the fifth spot, so we feel we should have seven good ones heading into the season. And at quarterback, Matt is coming off his record-setting season, but we're expecting more. We need him to make better decisions and stay away from the big turnovers because the pick-sixes he threw against Thomas More and Saint Vincent were game-changers."
At receiver, seniors Ed Holmes and Johnathan Foster are the returning starters. Holmes caught a team-best 47 passes last year en route to Honorable Mention All-PAC status, while Foster snared four touchdown passes and averaged a team-leading 14.9 yards per catch. They'll be joined by two wideouts who missed last year due to injury in senior Marcus D'Aguiar-Alexander, who has 41 career catches, and junior Chris Collins, who caught four touchdown passes as a freshman, as well as senior tight end Fletcher Coffman.
The Bethany running attack will have a far different look, as Eric Walker finished his four-year career as the school's all-time leader in rushing yards (3,043) and touchdowns (47). Weaver says the team will look to a trio of returners in junior D.J. LeSane and sophomores Phil Acrie and Brandon Hill to pick up the slack, but they have a combined seven career carries. The Bison coach also says some talented newcomers may get a shot to handle some touches.
"We like what we have back at wide receiver in Ed and Johnathan as the starters and Chris and Marcus come back from injuries," Weaver said. "In the backfield, we lost Matt Landowski, who played fullback for us for three years. We'll also have a great competition for the running back spot with some talented players. D.J. is a junior who has bounced around from running back to DB and now back to running back, while Phil and Brandon had good jayvee years and solid springs. All three are way faster than Eric, so they bring that element to our run game.
"We also feel we recruited a couple dynamic guys who may help," Weaver said. "We won't have to rely on them, but if they work hard and show that ability in camp, they can get some snaps."
The special teams will be led by an outstanding group of return men, including Holmes, who took a kickoff back for a score against Saint Vincent last year, Jeff Joyce, who has a return touchdown in his career, and Jordan Joyce. One question that needs answered in camp is the long snapper position, as Landowski also held down that spot with flawless results for his career.
"We've had and expect to continue to have good production in the return games," Weaver said. "With Ed and both Joyces, who have all made big plays in their careers, as well as Demetrius and Phil Acrie, who we think can be good returners, there is no shortage of speed and skill to return.
"We will miss Matt as our long snapper, as he didn't have a bad snap in three years," Weaver said. "We had guys who did it in the spring, but it's hard to evaluate with no pads and no full rush. We also had a couple guys who did it in high school, so that's a spot we'll need to figure out."
In the kicking game, sophomore Stephen Amic was PAC Special Teams Player of the Week once last year and ranked fifth in the league in punting, but he will be challenged in camp for place kicking duties by two freshmen.
"Stephen comes in as the clear No. 1 punter and will be hard to beat because he has a lot of ability, but we'll let the young guys compete," Weaver said. "It's no secret that he didn't have a good year kicking and he knows that. We hope he comes back improved, but those reps will be split between Steve and the two freshmen we recruited and the best guy will get the job."
When looking at keys to improve in 2012, Weaver goes directly back to some of the factors that played in the Bison losing tight games last year and wants to see those errors erased in 2012.
"First thing we need to do is cut down on key turnovers," Weaver said. "I'm not just talking in numbers, but those in critical situations, like not fumbling on the 1-yard line or having turnovers that turn into defensive touchdowns. We also talked about the need to be better on run defense and we must improve our red zone play on both sides, which includes being able to make field goals."
Last year saw Thomas More win its fourth consecutive PAC title, but the Saints lost a league game for the first time in years and the rest of the standings saw seven teams finish between 5-3 and 3-5. While Thomas More enters the campaign favored to win again, Weaver expects another year of balance and parity in the conference.
"I don't expect much different from last year when everyone spent the year beating and losing to each other," Weaver said. "Teams have really pulled together, as even Thomas More, who won it with only one loss, played a lot more close games. The key will be who can stay healthy and who can stay focused week-to-week and win the battle of consistency through the season."