QB Callahan’s gone but Wesley looks solid again

Wesley senior running back Jamar Baynard set the school record with 2,037 yards last fall. (Delaware State News file photo)

Wesley senior running back Jamar Baynard set the school record with 2,037 yards last fall. (Delaware State News file photo)

DOVER — Wesley College hasn’t made 11 straight NCAA Division III playoff appearances without having to do some rebuilding now and then.

And, really, it’s not like the expectations for the Wolverines are low this season.

They are ranked seventh in the D3football.com preseason poll.

Mike Drass, in his 24th year as head coach, expects his Wolverines will find a way to get the job done again this year. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Mike Drass, in his 24th year as head coach, expects his Wolverines will find a way to get the job done again this year. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

But for a program that’s reached at least the national quarterfinals in 10 of the last 11 seasons, the perception from the small-college world is that Wesley has a little more work to do than usual this fall.

Still, when the Wolverines open the season on Friday by hosting Delaware Valley at 6 p.m., 24th-year coach Mike Drass expects his team will find a way to get the job done this year.

“You’re knocking on wood, because we’ve done it in the past,” said Drass, whose team finished 11-2 after losing in the NCAA quarterfinals last fall. “Coach (Chip) Knapp’s track record in that field is unbelievable. … I feel confident we’re going to be fine.”

Of course, much of people’s perception of Wesley right now is the fact that it graduated star quarterback Joe Callahan, last year’s Gagliardi Trophy winner as the top player in Division III.

Callahan, now with the Green Bay Packers, was the Wolverines’ starter the past three seasons.

Drass said he and Knapp, Wesley’s long-time offensive coordinator, have confidence in both Nick Falkenberg and Dan Kesack. After a couple weeks of preseason practice, though, they were still waiting for one of the junior QBs to take control of the starting job.

All-American Bryce Shade (Sr., 5-8, 180) enters 2016 second on the school's all-time list in receptions (154), fourth in receiving yards (2,284) and fifth in TD receptions (26). (Delaware State News file photo)

All-American Bryce Shade (Sr., 5-8, 180) enters 2016 second on the school’s all-time list in receptions (154), fourth in receiving yards (2,284) and fifth in TD receptions (26). (Delaware State News file photo)

“As good as they’ve been, neither has knocked the other off their course,” said Drass. “That’s probably a good thing, because they’re both making progress.

“The one thing that Coach Knapp has said is we have confidence that both guys can lead us to wins.”

A year ago, the Wolverines had the top offense in Division III at 592.2 yards per game. They were also seventh in scoring at 46.8 points.

While Callahan was a huge part of that success, a numer of Wesley’s other top offensive players are back. Senior running back Jamar Baynard set the school record with 2,037 yards last fall with senior receiver Bryce Shade right behind him at 2,013 yards in an All-American season.

One unexpected loss for the Wolverines came when senior receiver James Okike became academically inelligible for the season. Drass still hopes that Okike, who had a team-high 19 touchdown catches last season, will return to the team next fall.

With several starting offensive linemen also returning, Drass has confidence in Knapp’s ability to adapt the offense to the personnel.

Former Caesar Rodney QB Alex Kemp (So., 5-11, 165) emerged as a quality receiver with eight scoring catches last fall. (Delaware State News file photo)

Former Caesar Rodney QB Alex Kemp (So., 5-11, 165) emerged as a quality receiver with eight scoring catches last fall. (Delaware State News file photo)

“We have morphed into our talent time and time again,” said Drass.

Defensively, the Wolverines return their top three tacklers in linebacker Samer Manna, cornerback Andre Connally and defensive end Roderick Caine.

On the other hand, Wesley will be plugging in some new players on the defensive line and at safety.

This will be the Wolverines’ second season as a member of the New Jersey Athletic Conference. Wesley had to share the league title last year after getting knocked off by rival Salisbury.

This season the Wolverines are picked to finish second behind the Sea Gulls in the NJAC.

“Our goal is to win it,” said Drass. “We have to treat each game like it’s a playoff game. We talk about that all the time. You’ve got to advance in the regular season if you want to advance in the postseason.”

Somehow, for the past decade, Wesley has found a way to conquer its challenges, more often than not. The Wolverines are 125-20 — with 11 of those losses coming in the playoffs — since 2005.

So, question marks or not, Drass said there’s a certain confidence around this year’s squad.

“Even though we don’t have Joe Callahan and we had some unbelievable seniors graduate last year, we had a number of guys who gained valuable experience,” he said. “They’re helping this team transition into 2016 with a lot of confidence and pretty good ability. That’s been an eye-opener a little bit.”

Wesley football

Here’s a look at the 2016 Wolverines, position-by-position:

OFFENSE

QUARTERBACK: Either Dan Kesack (Jr., 6-2, 200) or Nick Falkenberg (Jr. 6-2, 210) will take over as the starter after seeing only limited action in the first two seasons of their careers. The Wolverines have enough playmakers that they don’t need this year’s QB to be the dynamic passer that Joe Callahan was for the past three years. But they do need a quarterback who’s going to limit his mistakes and get the ball to the right people.

Wesley also likes what it’s seen from former Newark High standout Ben Campbell (So., 6-2, 200).

RUNNING BACK: Wesley will again put its running game in the capable hands of Jamar Baynard (Sr., 6-0, 210). The Middletown High grad’s value isn’t just in his ability to run between the tackles but also in his skill at catching the ball.

Baynard not only has 2,657 career rushing yards but also 119 receptions for 1,372 yards. He’s also scored 40 touchdowns, the fifth-highest total in school history.

Behind Baynard the Wolverines are untested, though, with newcomers E.J. Lee (Fr., 5-8, 175) and Elijah Minter (So., 5-11, 190) backing him up.

RECEIVER: All-American Bryce Shade (Sr., 5-8, 180) has earned a place among Wesley’s other great receivers. He goes into the season second on the school’s all-time list in receptions (154), fourth in receiving yards (2,284) and fifth in TD receptions (26).

Losing academic casualty James Okike and his 19 TD catches last year will hurt. But former Caesar Rodney High QB Alex Kemp (So., 5-11, 165) emerged as a quality receiver with eight scoring catches last fall while Dover’s Xavier Allen (Sr., 6-4, 190) and Robert Wiggs (Sr., 5-9, 160) are reliable veterans. Cappadonna Miller (So., 5-9, 155) and DeShawn Smith (Jr., 6-1, 175) will also contribute.

At tight end, Tory Robinson (Sr., 6-2, 245) steps up into the starting job after catching 12 passes for 164 yards last fall.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Tackle Matt Gono (Jr., 6-4, 290) is the Wolverines’ marquee lineman after earning D3football.com first-team All-East honors as a sophomore. Also, center Austin Eagle (Sr., 6-3, 280) was a second-team All-East pick and is a team captain this year.

Smyrna High grad Darren Helwig (Sr., 6-4, 290), a Delaware State transfer, steps into one of the starting tackle spots with Mujahid Manuel (So., 6-1, 290) and Blake Roberts (Jr., 5-11, 280) penciled in as the starting guards. Tackle Kristoff Reeves (6-6, 305) is the only other senior lineman on the two-deep depth chart with three of the five backup spots manned by freshmen.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE: End Isaiah Ingram (Jr., 6-2, 228) is Wesley’s most experienced defensive lineman after recording a team-high seven sacks  last fall. The Wolverines think Dover High grad Nick Glover (So., 6-1, 295) is ready to do some good things with Stephen Yorkman (Jr., 5-11, 260), Nmandi Njoku (Sr., 6-1, 265) and Cameron Miles (So., 5-10, 300) also part of the rotation at tackle.

Ray Mangold (Jr., 6-1, 245) is slated to start at the other defensive end spot while Laurel grad Beau James (Sr., 6-0, 230) gives Wesley another veteran at end.

LINEBACKER: The Wolverines are pretty excited about their talent at linebacker, led by leading tackler Samer Mana (Jr., 6-0, 222), who was a first-team All-East pick after collecting 127 tackles last year. Roderick Cain (Sr., 6-2, 215) moves to outside linebacker from defensive end, where he had 68 tackles last fall.

Ben Robinson (Sr., 5-11, 212), the other outside starter, and Lake Forest’s Mike Sabino (Jr., 6-2, 225), who will back up Mana, were both reliable starters last season.

SECONDARY: Wesley has two proven cornerbacks in Andre Connally (Sr., 5-11, 188) and Anthony Brinkley (Sr., 5-11, 180). Connally was a third-team All-East selection after intercepting five passes and finishing second on the team with 71 tackles a year ago.

The question is at safety where Wesley will have two new starters. Nick McDaniels (Sr., 5-9, 185) and Sussex Central’s Greg Taylor (Jr., 6-1, 185) are the top two players at free safety with Ryan Daniels (So., 5-111, 190) and Kadeem Neill (So., 6-0, 190) at strong safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Eric Speidel (Sr., 6-0, 180), the former ballboy turned placekicker, is back for his senior year. He’s made 150-of-152 PAT kicks in his unexpected career. Wesley, which punted only 31 times last fall, will have a new punter in Cooper Bentz (Fr., 5-9, 175).

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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