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Cardinals look to take next step as a program

Photo Provided Receiver Collin Palmer (86) and defensive back J.R. Atkinson (8) battle for a ball during Wheeling practice.

WHEELING — Speaking at MEC Football Media Day Wednesday, Wheeling University head coach Zac Bruney said the Cardinals are looking to take the next step as the program enters its fifth year.

“We’re in that phase where it’s time to take that next step,” Bruney said. “We’ve had some success now from a wins standpoint in the last two seasons…and we’re looking to take that next step hopefully to break into the top half of the conference and compete for a championship.”

The Cardinals took one step last season, finishing with a 5-6 record and going 5-5 in conference play, and look to go even further in 2022 with a roster full of experienced returners that has been supplemented with a talented class of newcomers.

“We’re excited about the team that we have coming back and we’re definitely excited about the young guys we have joining our program,” Bruney said. “I like our freshmen group, I think it’s one of the stronger freshmen classes we’ve recruited. Depth-wise, there will be some young men in that group who push to play, push to be on the two-deep and push beyond special teams.”

Defense has been the Cardinals’ calling card for the last two seasons and while that won’t change this year, Bruney is hoping that a more consistent offense will take some pressure off that side of the ball.

“We’ve needed more consistency on offense and we’re getting that on offense this Fall camp,” he said. “I think that’s a product of just having guys with experience.”

Running back Sy Alli IV became the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher last season and will lead a stable of capable tailbacks. At receiver, Lowell Patron emerged as a No. 1 option last year with 584 yards and three scores. With several returning starters back along the offensive line, the biggest question mark on Wheeling’s offense is again at quarterback.

The Cardinals had three players attempt at least 75 passes last season and combined for just a 19-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

“We’ve got a nice battle at quarterback going on right now with two incumbent guys who have been here and then we added Javon Davis,” Bruney said. “Those guys have steadied that room and we’re getting consistent play out of all three and we’re getting good leadership.”

Graduate senior Trent Jackson played in five games and threw for 531 yards and five touchdowns last season. Classmate Chad Palmer saw time in three games and threw for 460 yards and two scores.

The wild card could be Davis, a 2017 Ohio high school state champion at Steubenville, who transferred to Wheeling this offseason from Indiana University (Pa.). There he passed for 703 yards and eight touchdowns in sporadic playing time across three seasons.

Redshirt-freshman Ryan Cammas could also be an option after suffering a season-ending preseason injury last year.

Pairing a consistent offense with the Cardinals’ tenacious defense is a combination that Bruney believes could launch Wheeling into contention in the ever-competetive MEC.

Mountain East Conference, especially given the spot the program is in entering its fifth year.

“The feel of camp has been what you would want it to be by year five,” Bruney said. “The older guys know what to do, they coach the younger guys up on how we do things.

“The feel of camp is one you would expect for a team of 120 guys now. Our roster is finally to a point where you want it to be in Division II.”

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