ADA — In 2015, Ohio Northern University reached the playoffs for the first time in six years and Polar Bear head coach Dean Paul is looking to build on that momentum this year.
“I think there is momentum that you try to build from year to year. You try to take the positives and build on that,” said Paul, who is entering his 13th year at the helm of the Polar Bears. “There were a lot of positives to build on from last year. But I think at the same time what we talk about is that each team has a one year life span. Whether it was great or a less than up to expectations type season either way, we want to build on the positives but understand there are new challenges and new opportunities.”
ONU returns 31 lettermen and 13 starters from last year’s team that finished second in the Ohio Athletic Conference with a 7-2 mark and a 8-2 regular overall season.
One of the main challenges ONU faces is rebuilding the offensive line where the Polar Bears return two starters. Anchoring the line will be senior Sam Shook who started all 12 games last year at right tackle. However, Shook’s status is uncertain after being hurt in the preseason.
Sophomore Kyle Gonterman, a Wapakoneta graduate, who started the last five games of 2015, is back at right guard.
“I think the key is the offensive line,” Paul said. “We have just one returning (full-time) starter in the mix, so we are a little thin there so the key will be how that group comes together.”
Will Freed returns at quarterback but the Polar Bears lost All-America performer Devin Price and 2015 leading rusher and all-region selection Justin Magazine.
Freed started six games last year and Paul said he has matured and is looking sharp in the preseason. Freed threw for 1,594 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016.
Freed will be joined in the backfield by newcomer Christian Williams from Anna High School.
“He has emerged as real good answer for us after graduating an all-conference running back.” Paul said.
Back to make an impact in the receiving corps is senior all-conference selection Reed Allen who caught 30 passes for 599 yards. The versatile Allen also did a lot of damage as a returner. In 2015 he was recognized as a first-team All-OAC and Team D3football.com All-North Region receiver and kick returner.
Also back is senior all-OAC selection Logan Ray, who caught 13 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns.
“At receiver we are very young but athletic,” Paul said. “We could start as many as six or more sophomores.”
Paul said during the preseason the team has looked athletic and explosive, however, they have had trouble taking care of the football. He added that this is something they will have to eliminate if they are going to stay in games.
Defensively, the front seven returns the majority of its personnel, including Wapakoneta product Zach Schmerge who was an all-conference and all-region selection at linebacker. Also back on the defensive line is tackle Mike Cunningham, a four-year letterwinner, and Scott Rapps, who moved from end to tackle this year. Other Polar Bears looking for playing time at linebacker are Nathan Kaszel, junior Zach Meronoff and sophomore Kyle Rowe.
In addition to Schmerge who led the team in tackles with 111, will be Cody Cox and Trent Stout at linebacker. On the line, junior Jason Hundley, senior Nate Bracy, junior Mark Aguilar and sophomore Justin Cromwell all saw playing time last year.
Senior All-OAC safety Dan Eller, a three-year starter, is the lone returning starter in the defensive backfield.
“We have a lot of experience up front and we are going to need that because we lost three of our four starters to graduation,” Paul said. “That is an area where we are trying to develop experience and develop depth. That will be our biggest question mark on defense.”
One area that Paul diligently works on is the special teams and this year he has four-year starter and all-OAC punter Kyle Bergman back.
“Overall the kicking game is really solid but we need to convert our field goals and extra points,” Paul said.
Paul said he thinks if the team can play great defense and apply pressure on the defense and if the offensive line can come together as a unit, sooner rather than later, the Polar Bears can make a return trip back to the playoffs.
“Every year we have high expectations and high expectations for us is that we are going to compete in one of the top two conferences in Division III,” Paul said. “We are a nationally ranked program that can compete and battle for the national playoffs.”
The Polar Bears open their season Sept. 10 at Utica and their first home game is Oct. 1 against Mount Union.
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468 or on twitter at @JoseNogueras1