As the offense works in some new faces, the University of Saint Francis football will rely heavily on its defense for a shot at a repeat championship.
The Cougars won their first NAIA national championship a year ago, and face a similar challenge this year, competing with in-state rival Marian for a chance at the ultimate glory.
With senior quarterback Nick Ferrer and junior running back Justin Green back, the offense should be fine, but it's the Cougars' defense that should be the team's calling card in 2017.
They return senior playmaker Spencer Cowherd and junior linebackers Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten, along with senior sack expert Eric Hemmelgarn and defensive backs senior Lee Stewart III and junior Wilmer Cole.
The pieces are in place for another national-title run as Saint Francis faces its first season ever as defending champions.
While there are some spots to fill, notably at wide receiver and on the line, the Cougars have a jump on the rest of the NAIA with the return of senior quarterback Ferrer. Ferrer threw for 4,046 yards, 51 touchdowns and only nine interceptions last season. He enters his third season as a full-time starter and knows the system inside and out.
He'll operate behind a relatively new line, with senior left tackle Alex Woods and senior center Connor Holcomb returning from last year's regular starting combination. Senior Jaylen Gamble at left guard had plenty of experience last season. The right side is a work in progress.
Green returns to key the backfield after his 1,367-yard rushing season of 2016 that included 12 touchdowns. Senior inside receiver Sean Boswell (27 receptions, 288 yards, four TDs) brings experience and a rapport with Ferrer that will be helpful, but the big question is who steps up to fill the voids left by graduated wide receivers Seth Coate (83 receptions, 1,693 yards, 25 TDs), Montay McDowell and Akeim Kelsaw.
Sophomore Rocky James (14 receptions, 260 yards, three TDs) is the most experienced of the candidates, but it's a long list that includes a ton of freshmen who could push for playing time. Among the candidates for more playing time are sophomores Will Chrisman, Duke Blackwell and Dan Ricksy and junior Nate Carson. Some freshmen could also push for time.
While the Cougars will miss graduated defensive end and Lucas Sparks (23 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks), all areas of the defense have big-time playmakers. Hemmelgarn (11 sacks, 25.5 tackles for loss) terrorizes quarterbacks up front while linebackers Harnish (130 tackles) and Dunten (122 tackles) are solid in the middle. Harnish and Dunten were 1-2 on the team in tackles last season. Versatile linebacker/strong safety Cowherd knows what it takes to shut down opposing passing games and the secondary returns starters in cornerback Cole and safety Stewart.
Another big positive for the defense is the number of players who played significant roles off the bench last season and who should slide into prominent starting roles this year. Those include sophomore defensive end James Jamicich, junior hybrid linebacker/end Marcus Stepp and sophomore defensive backs Blake Schumacher and Ryan Johnson, with Stan Jackson stepping into the mix after missing last season with injury.
Sophomore punter Joe Knepper and sophomore place kicker Gavin Gardner will step into the kicking duties with big shoes to fill after the success of graduated Josh Spitnale and Ryan Nix.
SAINT FRANCIS COUGARS AT A GLANCE
Coach: Kevin Donley, 188-44 entering 20th season (302-129-1 overall)
Last year: 13-1, NAIA national champions, beat Baker 38-17 in title game
2016 per-game averages: 42.9 points scored, 18.4 points allowed.
Sept. 2 at Jamestown, 1 p.m.
Sept. 9 vs. Saint Francis (Ill.), noon
Sept. 16 at Saint Ambrose, 2 p.m.
Sept. 23 vs. Saint Xavier, 6 p.m.
Sept. 30 at Marian, 6 p.m.
Oct. 7 vs. Concordia, noon
Oct. 14 at Siena Heights, 7 p.m.
Oct. 21 at Missouri Baptist, 1 p.m.
Oct. 27 vs. Lindenwood-Belleville, noon
Nov. 4 vs. Taylor, noon