BLUFFTON — After producing back-to-back 6-4 seasons at Bluffton, head coach Denny Dorrel is ready to take the Beavers to the next level.
“We’ve been on an upper climb each and every season and last year we were eight points away from being 9-1,” Dorrel said. “We’ve just got to learn how to close out close games and win the ones we are supposed to and we should have a great season.”
Dorrel added that coming into preseason the focus has been developing the team’s level of toughness especially in close situations and determining who is going to be the guy that rises up and takes control in pressure-packed situations.
Dorrel is also stressing that players have to believe in accomplishing their goals and believe in themselves.
“When we step on the field we should have the belief that we are going to win the football game,” Dorrel said. “The first two years I think there was a wait-and-see on how good is that team and sometimes when you have that you play slow. You play stiff. Now we have to have a belief from the beginning we can beat this team so we can play fast from the start and don’t put ourselves in a hole.”
The Beavers return a veteran squad of 14 starters, seven on offense and seven on defense, that should help the Beavers’ push towards a Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference title and possibly a playoff berth.
One of the advantages of having an experienced squad said Dorrel is the ability to hone the skills that were developed in his first two years as the Beaver head coach.
“Every year that we have been here we have started a lot of freshmen and I think this year we are going to start one in the first game and in the past we have started six or seven,” Dorrel said. “It is not because our freshman class isn’t good but the level of experience on our team is coming through.”
The offense starts with the quarterback or in Bluffton’s case, quarterbacks. Dorrel will use two signal-callers, something he said worked last year, and will continue to do so this year. Back are senior quarterback Connor Sheehan, who completed 64 percent of his passes and threw for more than 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns before being sidelined in week seven with an injury.
Also taking snaps with the first team will be junior Colby Speice, a Paulding product, who threw for more than 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns.
“It’s pretty unique that they are pretty good friends,” Dorrel said. “They both do things differently which makes it harder to pick one because one does something so well that the other doesn’t do as well. They both bring something to the table. It worked for us last year and hopefully it will continue to work for us in the future.”
Heading up the receiving corps is junior Micah Roberson. The Ada graduate led the nation with a Bluffton record of 100 catches and more than 1,000 receiving yards.
However, the Beavers will need to develop additional receivers in order to give Bluffton more options for its quarterbacks now that Roberson has proven he is worthy of double coverage.
“We have a couple of players that are going to be really, really good but we have to see how they respond during game situations,” Dorrel said.
The Beavers duo ready to take on the ball carrying duties are senior running back Dustin Fisher, a St. Marys graduate, who ran for 518 yards and three touchdowns, along with Duante Carroll who ran for 261 yards and two touchdowns.
Up front the line is anchored by seniors Jamison Inskeep and Hayden Clark. Joining this pair will be sophomore Ian O’Donnell.
Dorrel admits there is still some question marks with some unproven talent on the offensive line but is confident these players are capable of getting the job done.
“We are very multiple,” Dorrel said. “We had the No. 1 rushing team in our conference last year but we also had the leading receiver in the nation. We want to be balanced. We want to be able to change tempos. We want to put defenses in awkward situations and put the ball in our playmakers’ hands and let them go one-on-one.”
Despite losing two-time HCAC defensive player of the year Ryan Aelker, the Beavers return a wealth of talent on the defensive side of the ball.
Senior Link LaRoche, a Hardin Northern product, returns on the defensive line. In 2015, LaRoche recorded five sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Also back on the line is Isaac Zickafoos who earned first-team, all HCAC honors as a freshman.
Thaddeus Phillips and Tyrone White return in the defensive backfield. White was credited with three interceptions and six breakups last season.
Outside linebacker Gino Spadaro is also back and the junior totaled 27 tackles, three breakups and a forced fumble.
“We are pressure-oriented defense,” Dorrel said. “Our defensive line is pretty athletic and creates some tackles for loss and go hit the quarterback. Probably in our three years this is our most athletic secondary we have had which hopefully combine that with a pretty good group up front should produce some positive results in our favor.”
Like the offense, the defense will also have some unproven talent on the line and in the linebacking corps, but Dorrel remains optimistic that they can fit right in and get the job done.
The Beavers open the season at home against Ohio Athletic Conference foe Wilmington at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468 or on twitter @JoseNogueras1