PELLA – Football is a numbers game.
And the numbers are favorable for the Central College football team this fall, according to coach Jeff McMartin. Fifteen starters return, including eight on defense, as well as three specialists. There are 43 juniors and seniors back, along with a big sophomore class and a bountiful freshman class that oozes potential.
Depth abounds. That’s especially valuable given the way the game has evolved.
“Depth is a really important thing,” McMartin said. “It helps you on game day but it also helps you in the whole process of practice and how you practice and the decisions you make in how you utilize people. When you have depth, you can be aggressive in certain facets. We like to play fast, both on offense and defense. In order to play fast, you have to be able to be use tempo to your advantage and you have to be able to practice fast. When you don’t have depth, it’s really hard to practice that way.”
McMartin also says it more directly.
“Teams that have depth are teams that typically win a lot of football games,” he said.
There’s also this number: One game-changing quarterback. Two-year starter Blaine Hawkins is entering his junior season and his name is already sprinkled throughout the Central football record book. The Heerema-Schilder Award winner as Central’s MVP last year, he was an American Rivers first-team all-conference pick. It’s only slightly misleading to note that Central was 8-0 in games he finished last year and 0-2 when he was sidelined by injury. Those two losses were against two of the better teams on the Dutch schedule, but there’s no debate that he’s a difference-maker.
Yet it’s not a one-dimensional offense.
“We’re a year older up front,” McMartin said. “We’ve got four of five starting offensive linemen back and all of the guys that are going to play for us have been on the field. I think that helps us. It also helps us that we have a very veteran group of wide receivers that has played a lot. Having (returning starters) back at S-back and tight end, that’s huge. We want to continue to develop our running game and be a well-rounded offense.
“We want Blaine to play quarterback and not have to be our leading rusher, necessarily,” McMartin said. “One of Blaine’s strengths is he can extend plays and he can run with it. We understand his effectiveness and the importance he has in our offense. Taking pressure off of him will allow him to play better.”
Meanwhile, eight of 11 starters are back for the league’s third-ranked scoring defense. The Dutch have vacancies at safety, cornerback and linebacker, but also have returning experience at those positions.
“We have talent on both sides of the ball,” McMartin said. “We need to go out and play with confidence and be ready to compete. We have to earn what we get.”
A young Dutch squad was a surprise last year with an 7-0 start before closing at 8-2 and tying for second in the league. Matching that mark while navigating an even more treacherous schedule is not a lock.
Yet the sting of last year’s two late-season losses left a mark. Consequently, McMartin isn’t sugar-coating his expectations for 2019.
“There’s no other option for us than to work to be a better football team than we were last year,” he said. “I’m not going to be satisfied with being as good as we were last year. That’s not even acceptable.”
Despite missing most of two games, Hawkins’ 1,896 passing yards are the fifth-most in school history. He completed 147 of 219 passes (67.1 percent) with five interceptions and 17 touchdowns. He also rushed for 318 yards on 105 carries with six scores, averaging a team-high 5.0 yards per carry. Hawkins also established a school record with 212 consecutive passes without an interception.
“Blaine had a great spring,” McMartin said. “He’s healthy and looks good. When Blaine has been on the field for us, good things have happened.”
The Dutch should be better equipped if back-up help is needed. Brayden Egli was pressed into his first collegiate start last year. For the season, he completed 37 of 58 passes for 434 yards with one interception and six touchdowns. He also ran 30 times for 79 yards and one TD.
“Brayden’s got a year of experience under his belt,” McMartin said. “He did a nice job.”
Central began last year searching for answers at wide receiver but now brings back an established group. Schminke and junior Erik Knaack are returning starters while senior Hunter Robinson and junior Tylor Obermeyer both saw regular duty as well.
Knaack grabbed a team-high 47 catches for 801 yards and nine touchdowns.
“Erik kind of became a go-to guy for us,” McMartin said. “He’s got a knack for going up and battling for balls. He’s got good hands, runs good routes and is very competitive when it comes to attacking the football. He does a good job.”
Schminke had 22 receptions for 323 yards and four TDs.
“Tanner got a lot of experience,” McMartin said. “He’s a really good route runner. But he can also take the football on jet sweeps and short passes and make yards. He runs with the ball really well. He’s a good athlete and we feel can be an impact player for us.”
Robinson had seven catches for 61 yards and a touchdown and was also the team’s top punt returner.
“He’s a big, tall athletic player,” McMartin said. “He should have a great year.”
Obermeyer saw increasing action later in the year. He had 16 catches for 183 yards and a score.
“Tylor was equally important to us,” McMartin said. “He rotates with Tanner (Schminke) and Erik (Knaack) and gets on the field quite a bit.”
Sophomore Hayden Vroom (Pella, Pella Christian HS) flashed some potential in limited time.
“Hayden did a nice job for us as a freshman,” McMartin said. “He got in some games and got some quality reps but also developed a lot in our JV program.”
Junior Logan Huinker was on the field primarily as a holder on place kicks but expects to see more time as a wide receiver this year. Senior Brady Johnson (senior, Stanton) could also contribute.
Depending on the formation, the Dutch use either or both the tight end and S-back positions.
Ross Norem started at tight end last year and had 15 catches for 238 yards, none bigger than the dramatic winner in the back of the end zone in the closing seconds of a 17-15 triumph over Simpson, his lone score of the year.
“He made the switch from quarterback to tight end and does a great job,” McMartin said. “He made a lot of big catches for us throughout the year. He continues to block really well.”
Sophomores Aaron Roelfs and Billy Friis should play bigger roles at tight end as well.
“They’ve had a good off-season, got stronger and bigger and have done a good job of learning the offense,” McMartin said.
The look of the S-back position can vary.
“For us the S-back is a hybrid position with moving people around either at tight end or slot or wing or in the backfield,” McMartin said.
Caleb Schlatter was listed as the top S-back last year, although he didn’t typically start the game on the field. But he had 13 catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Norem can also play S-back.
Schlatter was hampered by injury late in the year, although he stayed on the field.
“Before his injury, he was really effective,” McMartin said. “Once he got hurt, we had to manage his reps and that kind of changed the trajectory of how his season finished. But he can do the job.
“We feel like we’ve got some depth there at S-back,” he said.
A key to the season and a preseason priority is finding an answer at running back. The Dutch graduated a trio of backs who handled the bulk of the carries last year and those three, along with three quarterbacks, were the team’s six rushing leaders.
Consequently, it’s not coach-speak when McMartin declares the position wide open.
The lone senior is Jordon Woods. He’s just 5-4 but shifty and elusive, McMartin said. Woods, who has also spent time at defensive back, had 17 carries for 93 yards in 2017 but none last year.
“He has some experience,” McMartin said.
A pair of sophomores, Jason Hopp and Eddie Doran, are back Keep an eye on Hopp. He had 13 rushes for 57 yards and turned some heads by returning a kickoff for a record-tying 99-yard touchdown.
“I think Jason Hopp can be a really good running back,” McMartin said. But he likes Central’s other options as well.
“They’re all different runners,” he said. “Jordon (Woods) is really good behind linemen and has a lot of good, quick cuts. Eddie (Doran) is more of a slasher and Jason (Hopp) is a power runner but can also do a good job of making people miss.”
Joey McIntyre joined the team in the spring and quickly forced his way into the picture.
“He looked good,” McMartin said. “He brings another element and more competition to the position. He’s going to challenge for playing time.”
But McMartin is also not ruling out giving a shot to a freshman as the Dutch have a promising group of incoming backs. The opportunity is there, he said.
“We could have a freshman or two make an impact, because of the needs at that position and the requirements of that position,” he said. “Some of it is going to come down to how well they pick it up and some of it is going to come down to instinct and how well they do they just make plays.”
The growth of the running game will be accelerated by a polished offensive line that returns four starters, led by second-team all-conference left tackle Cody Smith.
“It starts with Cody,” McMartin said. “He’s a big body who moves well. He’s strong and has a lot of experience. He understands the position and does a good job with it.”
Other starters back are center Jake Suggett, right guard Josh Mayhew and right tackle Travis Wagner.
Backing Smith is junior Griffin Sargent.
The early frontrunner for the vacant left guard spot is senior Ed Henning, challenged by junior Cooper Johnson and sophomore Ty England.
“Ed (Henning) has played for us as both a center and a guard,” McMartin said. “Going into his senior year, he’s got a great opportunity to get on the field. He’s gotten bigger and stronger and Cooper Johnson has also improved a lot in the off-season.”
Suggett is also a versatile player.
“He’s played both center and guard,” McMartin said. “He’s very smart and physical. He’s got good size and he moves well. He’s a quality football player.”
Sophomore Colton Anderson opens behind Suggett.
“Colton can also play guard,” McMartin said. “They both do a good job.”
Mayhew became a starter last year at right guard.
“He’s one of the hardest hitters on the football team,” McMartin said. “He’s strong. He’s really embraced a role as one of the leaders on our offensive line. He’s a student of the game.”
He’s pushed by senior Nick Yarkosky (Albia) and sophomore Nathan Daniels.
“Nick has really continued to work hard to get on the field,” McMartin said. “He had a really good off-season and has the potential to help us. Nathan (Daniels) will also be contending.”
At right tackle, Wagner is making strides.
“Travis is a tall, athletic football player,” McMartin said. “He’s gotten bigger.”
Challenging Wagner are senior Carter Smith, Cody Smith’s twin, and junior James Lamgo.
“They’ve all got size and continue to improve.”
Editor’s Note – Next week we preview the Central College defense and special teams.