The 2015 season was one to remember for the McKendree University football program.
Led by record-setting quarterback Isaac Fisher, who was the Great Lakes Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year, McKendree enjoyed one of its finest seasons in history, finishing 8-2 and placing second in the league standings.
And while Fisher and the Bearcats did elevate the program to a new level, there is still work to be done, according to head coach Mike Babcock.
Babcock begins his fourth year with a 17-14 record at McKendree.
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“We had a great year in 2015 and I think it meant a lot to the seniors who left feeling they had helped take the program to a new level. But to be honest with you, when we came back in January, we had pretty much put last season behind us,” Babcock said. “For as much as we accomplished last year, there are still other goals that we fell short of that we want to reach.
“When you think about it, if we could take back two minutes against Indianapolis and two minutes against Missouri S &T, that’s four minutes out of 365 days in a year. But it’s also four minutes from reaching our goals of making the NCAA Division II playoffs. It’s also four minutes away from winning a conference championship. This year we want to take what we did a year ago and go up another level.”
The journey towards the Division II playoffs begins at 6 p.m. Thursday when McKendree opens its 2016 season by hosting Angelo State (Tx.) University at cozy Leeman Field. The nonconference game is the first of three for the Bearcats, who will host West Liberty (West Va.) University on Sept. 10 and then travel to Des Moines, Iowa, to take on Drake University on Sept. 17.
The Bearcats, who were 6-2 in the GLVC a year ago, open league play on Sept 24 when they host the William Jewell University Cardinals.
But the Bearcats’ first order of business is Angelo State. A member of the rugged Lone Star Conference, the Rams finished 7-4 a year ago. The Rams also received votes in the preseason NCAA Division II poll.
“Watching them on film, Angelo State, with the exception of Indianapolis, is the most playoff ready team that we will play,” Babcock said, “They play in a tough conference in the Lone Star Conference and one that I think had two playoff teams a year ago. They were not one of those teams.
“They have a lot of speed on the perimeter both with their defensive backs and their wide receivers. And they are big on both the offensive and defensive lines. They must grow them big down in Texas. It’s a real test for us because this is a very good football team we will play on Thursday.”
Replacing Fisher on offense won’t be an easy task for the Bearcats. But with what is expected to be a strong defensive unit led by a pair of potential All-Americans, the outlook in Bearcats nation is once again promising this season.
Baar, Wentland to lead McKendree defense
In senior defensive lineman Lucky Baar and senior middle linebacker A.J. Wentland, McKendree has two of the top Division II players in the nation to lead what should be the premier defensive unit in the always competitive GLVC.
An All-American as a sophomore two years ago and a first team all-GLVC player a year ago, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Baar will anchor an experienced defensive line.
“First of all, Lucky is just a great young man who has just a tremendous work ethic, both on the football field and in the classroom,” Babcock said. “He’s a computer science major and in about five years he’ll probably be making more than you and I combined.
“Lucky is a student of his position in his dedication to detail when it comes to his technique. Hopefully that work ethic carries over to some of our younger players when it’s their time in a year or two.”
Also up front is senior Tyler House (6-1, 310) and former Belleville West standout Marquis Cherry (6-0, 280) and sophomore Jeff Brown (6-1, 335). Brown was a standout at Belleville East. Juniors Tobias Cook (6-2, 255) and Darion Simmons (6-2, 255) will also see time at the defensive end spots, opposite Baar, Babcock said.
Cook began his McKendree career as a tight end two years ago.
Wentland returns for his senior season and, like last year. he should be one of the premier Division II players in the nation — at any position. Strong, quick, fast and relentless, the former Machesney Park-Harlem High School standout is looking, along with Baar, to lead the Bearcats defense. Wentland will also be looking for impress NFL scouts who are sure to have the 6-3, 225-pound linebacker on the watch list.
“I think he’s got a chance to play on Sunday afternoons next year,” Babcock said when asked about Wentland’s NFL chances. “They’re going to be looking at things like does he play hard on every play and that’s something AJ does on every play. We’re looking for AJ and I know he’s looking for a big senior season. You’ve got to be a little, but yes, I think he’s got a chance to play at the next level.”
Junior Austin Weltha (5-10, 220) is a vocal leader for the Bearcats and will be a mainstay at linebacker while others who will be keys include Brandon Moody (6-2, 220) and juniors Kyle Kirkpatrick (6-1, 210) and Carter Vance (6-1, 190).
Another standout on the defensive unit is senior cornerback Jabaree Winston (6-3, 200). Winston is a four-year starter at cornerback for McKendree and will combine with junior Nate Powell (6-2, 185). Backups include Jared Roulds-Griffin and Jordan Osborne.
Rounding out the defensive backfield are safeties Weston Brown (5-10, 190) and Derrick Curry (6-0, 180). Freshmen Blake Benoist and Jsason Bennett will also see playing time at safety.
“I like our defensive unit. We’ve got a lot of experience back and we’ve got good depth,” Babcock said. “It’s a long 11 weeks and you are going to have injuries and guys who get banged up. That’s the nature of football. We’ve maybe got four or five freshmen who could see some playing time, more so on special teams. They’ve got to be ready in case we have players go down and for the next couple of years after we lose some guys after this season.”
The changing of the guard at quarterback
The Bearcats career leader in almost every offensive category, Fisher will be tough, if not impossible to replace. But the offensive cupboard is hardly bare in McKendree land this season.
“I don’t think you can replace an Isaac Fisher for what he meant to this football program the last four years, but the good news is that I think we’ve been able to pick up where we left off in that we’ve got a group of wide receivers back who know their pass routes,” Babcock said. “The offensive line looks solid and overall, I like where we are. It’s been a good camp.”
Taking the reigns of the Bearcats offense will Brendan Fred, a DuQuoin graduate. The 6-3, 215 pound Fred begins his junior season as the offense’s leader after seeing spot duty a year ago. Junior Elcee Burke (6-1, 210) could also see playing time against Angelo State.
“I think you’ll see both get playing time. Will it be every other series, probably not. But we have confidence that we have two quarterbacks who can run the offense and help us move the football,” Babcock said. “I’ve been very impressed with Brendan in his ability to adjust to the speed of the game. Before where his timing off and he wasn’t able to hit his receivers, he’s doing a better job of that now.
“Elcee is probably one our better athletes and has very good arm strength. I look for both of them to play.”
Another element going in the Bearcats favor is at wide receiver where they return four quality pass catching threats in senior Sean Dowling and juniors Darius Crochrell, Dustin Walls and Tyler Brewer.
Returing for his second season as the Bearcats running back will be former Cahokia standout Shayeen Edwards (5-8, 180). Edwards may be counted on more heavily early until the Fred and Burke get more comfortable with the roles at quarterback.
Junior Myles Hammonds (6-0, 200) will also see time at running back.
But like any offense, the key will be up front for the Bearcats. The unquestioned leader of the Bearcats’ offensive line is senior and former Mater Dei standout Clint Ratermann (6-2, 260), who will be one of the top centers in the GLVC. But other than Ratermann, the Bearcats will be young.
Columbia graduate Cole Foster (6-5, 290), a sophomore and redshirt freshman Joel VanAllen (6-4, 300) will be the starters at the tackle spots, while sophomores Jake King (6-3, 285) and Justus Smith (6-4, 300) will be the guards.