The future looks bright for Wolverines

 

Wesley football-Joe Callahan by .

Joe Callahan will not be with next year’s Wolverine squad.

DOVER — Mike Drass is only human, of course.

So as the Wesley College football coach made the bus ride home for the 11th straight season after a playoff loss, he couldn’t help but have some regrets.

Drass ran through all the plays that might have made things different in the 11th-ranked Wolverines’ 56-35 loss to Mount Union in the NCAA Division III quarterfinals in Ohio on Saturday.

“I can handle losing,” said Drass, who just finished his 23rd season as Wesley’s head coach. “But I hate losing when we could have won. Last year, we lost (70-21), we shook their hands and said, ‘We’ll be back.’ We felt like they were just the better team.

“This year we lost, and they were the better team — they won fair and square — but, boy, we didn’t leave everything out on the field. Like I said to our guys, what happens if we don’t turn the ball over? What happens if we score?

“You look at the Hopkins game,” said Drass, referring to Wesley’s 42-37 second-round victory over Johns Hopkins. “Hopkins is sitting there a week ago feeling like we’re feeling right now.”

But Drass also realizes there are probably a few hundred Division III programs that would gladly trade places with the Wolverines.

Wesley, Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor are the only small-college programs to make the NCAA playoffs each of the last 11 seasons. In that 11-year span, the Wolverines have reached the national semifinals six times and the quarterfinals four times.

They are an impressive 125-20 since 2005 with just nine regular-season losses. And their 11 playoffs losses have come against only three different programs — Mount Union (5), Mary Hardin-Baylor (3) and Wisconsin-Whitewater (3).

So even if Wesley hasn’t reached the national championship game, that’s still a pretty impressive run by just about anybody’s standards.

“This isn’t the NFL, winning the Super Bowl isn’t defining us,” said Drass. “This is Division III football. Do we want to win a national championship? Yes. That’s our goal.

“But this year hasn’t been a failure because we didn’t win the national title. … This was a great season and I’m very proud of this team. We won two playoff games and made a heck of a game out of it with Mount Union. When you get down to those final eight teams, that’s a huge accomplishment. Just Wesley, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Mount Union, in the last 11 years, are the only teams that can say they’ve been in the ‘Big Dance,’ Is that not enough? I don’t know.”

So the expectations will be the same for next season.

But, while Wesley has replaced plenty of great players before, quarterback Joe Callahan may be as good a player as the Wolverines have ever had to replace.

A finalist for Division III’s Gagliardi Trophy, Callahan became just the second player in the history of college football to throw for 5,000 yards (5,063) and 55 touchdowns in one season. The only other QB to accomplish the feat was former Hawaii star Colt Brennan, who played briefly in the NFL.

Callahan’s stats in just three games against Mount Union alone are pretty staggering. In those three contests, he completed 108-of-174 passes for 1,452 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

The Wolverines also scored 115 points in the three games at Mount Union. This year, they scored 35 points against a Purple Raiders’ squad that had surrendered a total of just 64 points in its first 12 contests.

Whoever takes over at quarterback next season, should still have much of Wesley’s high-scoring offense to work with. Callahan, tight end Kyle George, tackle Temi Adebayo and guards Devin Filliben and Matt Schmidt were the only seniors who started on offense on Saturday.

Running back Jamar Baynard (1,381 rushing yards, 17 TDs) and receivers Bryce Shade (83 catches, 1,427 yards, 17 TDs), James Okike (79-1,426, 19 TDs) and Alex Kemp (44-653, 8 TDs) are all coming back.

But the battle for the starting QB job is completely wide open right now. Sophomores Nick Falkenberg and Dan Kesack along with freshman Ben Campbell are all possibilities, as is Kemp, who just moved to receiver from QB this season.

Drass has said he also isn’t opposed to considering taking a transfer at the position.

“We wouldn’t say ‘no’ to anybody,” said Drass. “We’re going to let guys compete for it.

“We’re not going to go from No. 1 (in total offense) to No. 247. We think Joe is the best player in the country but we’ve got some guys here. Joe said it to Falkenberg and Kesack walking off the field, ‘Now you guys have got the keys to a Rolls Royce, don’t mess it up.’”

It’s the same thing on defense, where defensive tackles Brenton Barnes, Dan LaGuerre and safety Craig Pettit were the only seniors who started on defense on Saturday. Six of Wesley’s top nine tacklers are due back, led by leading tackle Samer Manna, a sophomore linebacker who had a team-high 127 stops.

“The guys on defense are only going to get better,” said Drass. ‘We had a very young defense this year. I’m proud of them.

“We came out after halftime (at Mount Union) and it’s not easy when you’re down like that to look guys in the eye and say, ‘We need more out of you.’ But they gave it to us. … We turned the tide in that game and I don’t know if a lot of teams in the country could have done that.”

Sports editor Andy Walter
can be reached at 741-8227
or walter@newszap.com.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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