Butler head coach Jeff Voris readily subscribes to the philosophy that "you have to walk, before you can run." The Bulldogs took several big strides forward last season and will be looking to build on that momentum in 2008.
The Bulldogs return 30 letterwinners, including 14 starters (eight on offense, six on defense). The returnees include Butler's leading rusher from 2007, the team's top three scorers from a year ago and the squad's top two tacklers. All five starters return on the offensive line and three of four regulars return on the defensive line.
More importantly, Voris, now in his third season, has a significant number of players who have played in his system. "We have a good group of guys who have experience and who understand what we're trying to do," noted Butler's head coach.
Voris guided Butler to a season-opening, four-game winning steak, last fall. That was Butler's longest win streak since 1994 and first unbeaten non-league record since 1983!
And while the second half of the season didn't match the first, there was no denying that the strong start had established a foundation for future success and was an accomplishment the Bulldogs could rally behind.
"There's no question that the off-season seemed a heck of a lot more like our first four games, than the last four," said Voris, who led Butler to a 4-7 record and helped the Bulldogs improve their win total for a second consecutive year. "The biggest thing that we focused on was the task at hand, and not worrying about things we couldn't control. That emphasis helped us get back the enthusiasm that we had at the start of last season."
When Voris surveys Butler's offense, it's not surprising that his thoughts turn to the running game.
"We understand that we're going to have to run the ball consistently to win games, and we feel like we have a chance to do that," stated the Butler coach. "Two of the three guys who carried the ball last year are back. And we have depth behind them. We have five or six guys who we think have a chance to play."
Voris will look to sophomore Scott Gray, one of the top returning running backs in the Pioneer Football League, to fuel Butler's running game. In his first season at Butler, Gray led the PFL in scoring and led the Bulldogs in rushing. He scored 15 touchdowns and posted the seventh-highest single season scoring total in Butler football history! Also back is junior Ricky Trujillo, who finished third on the team in rushing last season. The two rushing leaders will be pushed by several additional returnees, plus several promising newcomers.
Sophomore quarterback Matt Kobli, who started Butler's final two games in 2007 after two-year regular T. J. Brown was injured, also figures to boost the Bulldogs' running game. Despite limited playing time early in the season, the mobile Kobli wound up fourth on the squad in rushing. He also passed for 465 yards and completed 55% of his pass attempts.
"The opportunity for Matt to play last year really helped," noted Voris. "He had a great spring, and he continues to get better. He's a very good leader, and he does a great job with his teammates."
All of Butler's runners will benefit from an experienced offensive line, led by senior Rob Noel. A former defensive tackle, Noel moved to offense and started Butler's final seven games of 2006. He then started all 11 games last fall. Sophomore Donny Gilmore also started all 11 games in 2007, while junior Brian Crable started Butler's final 10 contests. Sophomore Mike Staniewicz started 10 of 11 games and sophomore Ryan Secrist moved into the Bulldogs' lineup at center for the final eight contests. Several additional returnees gained experience on the offensive line a year ago.
"The five guys up front have all gotten better," said Voris. "Not only are they bigger and stronger, but they've really developed their knowledge of defensive football and how people are trying to attack us and working as a unit."
Butler's offensive attack also will benefit from the return of tight ends Eric Notestine and Luke Johnson. The two shared Butler's starting tight end position last year, and they could be on the field together in a multiple tight ends set this year. The two combined for 13 receptions last season.
Graduation did take a toll on Butler's receiving corps, but junior Dan Bohrer is back after starting all 11 games last season. Bohrer finished as Butler's second-leading receiver with 34 catches for 389 yards, and he had one of Butler's five touchdown catches. Voris also can look to sophomore Eddie McHale, who played in 10 games last season, and senior Alex White, who returns after missing each of the past two seasons with injury. Several additional returning players have impressed the Butler coaching staff.
"We feel like we have some guys who can run and some young guys who have a chance to be pretty good."
Voris has to replace a pair of multiple all-league players, brothers Chris and Mike Marzotto, plus two veteran safeties. But the Bulldogs still have plenty of experience and talent back from last year's defensive unit, which ranked fourth in the PFL in both rushing defense and total defense.
Key among the returnees are a pair of linebackers, who led Butler in tackles last season. Junior Derek Guggenberger didn't start a game in 2007, but still wound up leading the Bulldogs in tackles with 68. He shared the team lead in quarterback sacks and wound up fourth on the squad in tackles for loss. Senior Mike Bennett, who has played in every game in his three years at Butler, led the team in tackles for loss (9) and finished second on the squad in total tackles (57).
"Mike (Bennett) and Derek (Guggenberger) give us a very solid presence at linebacker. Both are strong and athletic, and both understand our defensive philosophy," said Voris.
Sophomore Derek Bradford, who saw action in 10 games last year, emerged from spring drills as the leading candidate for Butler's third linebacker spot, but Voris also can call on a trio of returning letterwinners, senior Nick Clarkson, and juniors Brian Adika and Nick Comotto.
Four players with starting experience will anchor Butler's defensive line. Senior Derek Day, who played both end and tackle, and junior tackle Jared Branyon each started eight games last season, while junior tackle Peter Xander was in the starting lineup six times. Junior defensive end Chase Donner started Butler's final three games and wound up second on the team in tackles for loss. Several additional returnees will join with newcomers to give the Bulldogs solid depth in the defensive line.
"We have a lot of guys who have played on the defensive line, and our philosophy has always been to keep guys on the line fresh," said Voris. "We've got multiple guys with experience and guys who can step in at several positions."
And despite the graduation loss of safeties Alex Davis and Dale Murzyn, the Bulldogs have considerable returning experience in the defensive secondary. Seniors Ryan Schmidtz and Mark Kwiatkowski were Butler's starting cornerbacks for the first seven games of 2007, before injuries sidelined both. Sophomores Tadd Dombart and Jacob Fritz stepped into the lineup and both finished among Butler's leading tacklers on the season. Dombart further led the Bulldogs and tied for ninth in the PFL in pass interceptions with three. Junior Spencer Summerville, who finished eighth on the team in tackles in a reserve role last fall, figures to take over at one starting safety position, while sophomore Rob Blevins had a strong spring performance and is a leading candidate at the other safety spot.
Senior placekicker Jordan Quiroz finished second on the team in scoring and earned second team All-PFL recognition last fall. He ranked second in the league in field goals (0.90) and fourth in the circuit in kick scoring (5.3). The fourth-year kicker, who has hit on 92% of his career PAT kick attempts, enters his final season with a shot at cracking the "Top 10" on Butler's all-time football scoring list.
Blevins emerged from spring drills as the leading candidate to replace graduated Mike Morgan as the Bulldogs' punter, while Dombart and Summerville are back as Butler's top kick returners. Dombart led the Bulldogs and ranked third in the PFL in punt returns in 2007, while Summerville finished fifth in the PFL in kick returns.
The Bulldogs will open the 2008 season at Albion on Sept. 6. Butler's first home game will be against Franklin on Sept. 13.