Returning Cast Fuels Butler Football Optimism

Butler posted its highest victory total and its first winning record in more than a decade last season.  With a majority of starters returning from that breakthrough squad, the Bulldogs are looking for another step forward in 2009.

Head coach Jeff Voris has 36 lettermen, including 14 starters (seven on offense, seven on defense) back this season.  Included in that group is a record-setting passing tandem, the league’s leader in quarterback sacks and a former league scoring champ.

Voris can call on his top two tacklers from a year ago, four of his top five rushers and three of his top four receivers.  And the Bulldogs boast seven All-PFL performers.

“We’re really experienced on both sides of the ball,” noted Butler’s head coach, who will lead his team into its season-opener at home against Albion on Saturday, Sept. 5.  “We lost some key players, but we’ve had so many guys play and see action in key situations that we really can put experienced players at almost every position.”

The Bulldogs compiled a 6-5 record and tied for fourth place in the Pioneer Football League in 2008.  The six wins tied the second-highest total at Butler since 1993, when the Bulldogs moved from the NCAA Division II to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).  And the winning mark was Butler’s first since 1997, when the Bulldogs finished with a 6-4 record.

Among the returnees from last year’s successful squad are quarterback Matt Kobli and wide receiver Dan Bohrer.  Kobli set a school-record with 23 touchdown passes and a record 11 of them wound up in the hands of Bohrer.  The two hooked up for nearly a thousand yards in offense.

Also back are defensive end Grant Hunter, who topped the PFL in quarterback sacks with 14 a year ago, linebacker Derek Guggenberger, who’s led the Bulldogs in tackles for two straight seasons, and running back Scott Gray, who missed much of last season with injury but led the PFL in scoring two years ago.
 
Offense

It’s not a secret, the Bulldogs will throw the ball.  Kobli and Bohrer are bidding to become the most prolific passing duo in Butler history, and there’s depth both at quarterback and in the receiving corps.

Kobli turned in a banner campaign in his first full season as a Butler starter.  The 6-3, 220-pound signal caller led the PFL in total offense (273.3 ypg) and ranked third in the league in passing efficiency.  He passed for 2,518 yards, while completing better than 66% of his passes.  He also finished as Butler’s second-leading rusher with 493 yards.  Kobli was named Butler’s Offensive MVP, and he earned honorable mention all-league honors.

Bohrer, one of two senior captains for the Bulldogs, became just the second player in Butler history to record more than 70 receptions in a season and just the third Bulldog with more than 900 receiving yards.  His 71 catches and his 971 receiving yards were the second-most in the PFL in 2009.  His performance earned him second team All-PFL recognition.

“Matt is a special talent, and he can impact a game in a variety of ways,” noted Voris of his junior quarterback.  “And Danny is our leader on offense.  We won’t shy away from getting him the ball.”

Bohrer won’t be the only target for Butler’s quarterbacks this fall.  Five other returnees had at least 10 catches last year and four of them had more than 100 receiving yards.  Junior Eddie McHale finished as the team’s third-leading receiver with 30 catches for 366 yards and six touchdowns, while sophomore Zach Watkins added 28 catches for 329 yards.  Other top returning pass catchers are sophomores Stuart Harvey and Jordan Koopman.

A pair of second-year players, sophomore Andrew Huck and redshirt freshman Calvin Blair, are the top returning back-ups at quarterback.  Huck saw action in six games last season.

The Bulldogs lost last year’s top rusher, Dionte Wiggins, but running back may have been the team’s deepest position.  Gray led the team in rushing two years ago, when he scored a league-leading 15 touchdowns.  He’s the top returning tailback this season, but he’ll be pushed by redshirt sophomore Ryan Hitchcock and senior Ricky Trujillo.  Hitchcock rushed for 342 yards and five touchdowns last fall, while Trujillo added a pair of rushing TDs.

“We have several players who are solid PFL backs, and with the depth has come competition.  We may play more than one back at the same time,” said Voris, who pointed out that the Bulldogs have regained an offensive balance since going to the spread offense last year.

All of Butler’s skill players will be operating behind a veteran offensive line.  Four of the five starters from last year’s offensive line are back this season, led by All-PFL guard Donny Gilmore, a starter in 22 consecutive games.  Also back from last year’s front five are senior tackle Brian Crable, junior tackle Mike Staniewicz and sophomore guard Pete Mattingly.  Crable has started 21 straight games, while Staniewicz has started 21 of the last 22 Butler games.  Junior center Ryan Secrist, who started Butler’s first five games last year, also returns.  Redshirt freshman Carter Walley and former fullback William Bork are the top tight end prospects.

Defense

Hunter, Guggenberger and senior safety Spencer Summerville anchor a defensive group that has improved steadily over the past three seasons.

“We’ve grown as a unit defensively,” said Voris.  “We lost some guys up front from last year’s team, but we played so many guys that we still have experience there and we’re still strong across the board.”

Hunter emerged as a force in his first season with the Bulldogs.  His 14 sacks tied the second-highest total ever by a Butler player, trailing only the school-record 17 by Scott Cook in 1983.  And he finished second in the PFL in total tackles for loss with 18.  Guggenberger, Butler’s middle linebacker, tied for sixth in the league in tackles with 85, and he enters his final season with 153 career stops.  Summerville, one of two team captains this season, finished second on the squad and 15th in the PFL in tackles with 66.  All three players earned All-PFL recognition last season.

Hunter will be flanked on the defensive line by several experienced returnees.  Senior Pete Xander and sophomore Ross Teare shared the nose guard position last year and will likely do the same this season.  Both saw action in all 11 games.  The same situation exists at the other defensive end spot, where juniors Rob Cosler and Jeff Poss each saw action in all 11 games.  The defensive tackle spot will be manned by senior Tyler Skaggs and sophomore Larry Thomas.

Junior Derek Bradford played in all 11 games and finished fifth on the team in tackles last season, and he’s part of a solid group of returnees at linebacker.  Also back are senior Brian Adika, junior Nick Comotto and redshirt sophomore Nick Caldicott, all of whom saw action last season.  And they’re joined by Andrew Cottrell, a skilled transfer from Grand Valley State who Voris says “plays the game the right way.”

The defensive secondary features a pair of returning starters at cornerback, juniors  Tadd Dombart and Jacob Fritz.  Dombart tied for sixth on the team in tackles (42) and shared the team lead in pass interceptions with two.  Fritz was eighth in tackles (40).  A pair of redshirt sophomores, Mark Giacomantonio and Logan Sullivan, will contend for the free safety position.  Both played in all 11 games a year ago.  Voris also can call on sophomores Jack McKenna, Andy Dauch and Thorn Murphy, each of whom saw action in the defensive secondary last season.     

Special Teams

The Bulldogs have a couple of gaping holes to fill on special teams.  Gone from last year’s squad are placekicker and second-leading scorer Jordan Quiroz and punter Rob Blevins.

Redshirt freshman Michael Wilson came out of spring drills as the team’s top punter, while sophomore David Lang emerged as the top candidate at placekicker.  Lang handled team kickoff duties a year ago.  Dombart, who led the PFL in punt return average (16.9) last season, heads up the punt return unit, while Koopman and Summerville were the squad’s top kick returners in 2009.  Newcomers could play a key role on Butler’s special teams.