Story by Austin Cannon
A 6-5 record is considered good, maybe even great, for some college football teams, but not the Drake Bulldogs.
After winning back-to-back Pioneer Football League championships in 2011 and 2012, the Bulldogs regressed in 2013, finishing fifth in the conference.
“6-5 last year, and people were saying, ‘You know, that’s a pretty good year,’ and to us it really wasn’t,” said starting quarterback Andy Rice.
The 2014 goal is simple: Disregard last year’s stumble, win the conference to earn the automatic slot in the Football Championship Series playoffs.
“Expectations are extremely high,” said linebacker John Hugunin. “We want to play our best football, wherever that puts us, which we feel would be at the top of the conference and into the playoffs.”
Drake could be in a good position to do it, too. On offense, Rice returns with a year of experience at starting quarterback.
To first-year head coach Rick Fox, Rice’s steady play and experience will be vital to the Bulldogs’ chances this fall.
“Last year, about halfway through the season, you could see him just start to feel comfortable in there and comfortable making his checks and managing the game and doing those kind of things,” Fox said. “And for us to be successful, we need him to pick up where he left off.”
Rice, who threw for 2,801 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2013, will have a number of weapons at his disposal, including a crowded stable of running backs. Last year’s two leading rushers, Gary Scott Jr. and Conley Wilkins, both return along with T.J. James, who’s expected to make an impact after missing all of 2013.
After losing Nick Rosa, a 2013 All-PFL wideout, to graduation, seniors Grahm Butler and Jacob Dines will have to make up for the lost production. Also returning is All-PFL tight end Eric Saubert. The junior notched 57 receptions for 549 yards last season, and Fox expects him to have another big year.
The offensive line returns several of last year’s starters, including preseason All-PFL selection Troy Whitmer, who was impressed with the offense during fall camp.
“This is my fifth camp, so this is probably one of the best offensive shows I think I’ve seen since I’ve been a starter or even since I’ve been at Drake,” Whitmer, a fifth-year senior, said. “We’re returning 10 starters, so our offense has improved a lot and people are taking advantage of their experience.”
After a shaky beginning of 2013, the offense began to figure things out halfway through the season.
“We didn’t execute very well the first half of the season. Second half, we played a lot better, and we’ve got to pick up where we left off in that way,” Fox said. “We’ve got to take care of the football.”
Whereas the offense has to build off its late-season improvement, the Bulldog defense will aim to replicate an outstanding 2013 season.
The Bulldogs led the PFL in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense last year.
Returning from that defense are two All-PFL players in Hugunin and defensive end Matt Acree. Hugunin led the PFL in tackles with 113 and is considered one of the top defenders in the conference. Acree recorded five sacks and will lead the deep defensive line in 2014.
Brad Duwe and Bob Quilico return to the Bulldog secondary. Both earned All-PFL honors last season and will look to step into the departed Mike Ratelle’s leadership role in the defensive backfield.
“I just see a lot of talented guys,” Fox said about the entire defense. “We expect to have a great year.”
After implementing a new defensive system, Fox admitted that it might be difficult for the unit to match last year’s stellar production.
“Now, they have a challenge because they’re learning a new defense, new coaches and those kind of things, and I think they’re doing a great job, but that’s their challenge, to play at that kind of a level again in a new system,” Fox said.
On special teams, Drake will carry three kickers. Sophomore Ben Tesson took the majority of the field goals last year while Cam Bohnert took punts and Spencer Lee handled kickoff duties. All three will compete for placekicking opportunities in 2014.
As for the guys on the opposite sideline, Drake will open its season tomorrow night against defending NAIA champion and crosstown foe Grand View. The Vikings earned their first-ever victory over Drake last season, 21-16.
The Bulldogs will play two other nonconference games, hosting Truman State and visiting Western Illinois. As for PFL opponents, the Bulldogs will host Marist, Davidson, defending PFL champion Butler and preseason favorite San Diego. Drake will travel to Jacksonville, Valparaiso, Dayton and finish the season at Stetson.