Being targeted is not a burden for the Franklin College football team.
Quite the opposite.
Winners of five straight Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championships, the Grizzlies enjoy the thrill of the hunt — even if they are the hunted.
It only heightens their survival instinct.
“It keeps us going,” said junior running back Kole Stogner, a former standout at Greenwood Community High School. “We know that everybody is targeting us, and they want to beat us, so we don’t take games for granted.
“They know that these past few years we’ve been the top dog, and they definitely want to take us out.”
For the better part of a decade, few have succeeded.
An NCAA Division III power, Franklin has won seven HCAC championships in the past eight years. It has gone 62-19 the past seven seasons and annually appears in the top 25 of Division III polls.
This year is no exception.
Heading into Saturday’s regular-season opener against visiting Illinois Wesleyan, the Grizzlies are ranked 23rd in the Lindy’s Sports and The Sporting News preseason polls. They also received votes in the preseason D3football.com Top 25 and were the voted the preseason by league coaches to win the HCAC title.
Buoying Franklin’s poll presence is the return of 16 starters — six on offense, eight on defense and two special teams players — from last year’s 8-3 team. Top returners include All-American senior offensive lineman Austin Carlton, and last year’s leading tackler Jeremiah Windell, a senior linebacker.
Offensively, Franklin’s other top returners are split end Mason Deal; senior wing back Kendal Butler; senior tight end Dylan Jenney; and Stogner, a thrid-team All-North Region special teams selection last year who also had a team-leading 4.7 yards per carry rushing average.
Head coach Mike Leonard, in his 13th season with the Grizzlies, likes what he sees in the offense.
“All of our guys who have potential to touch the ball are really solid,” Leonard said. “We’re very confident in the quality of depth we have. There’s a lot of competition going on.”
Sophomore Chase Burton won the competition for the starting quarterback job vacated by 2015 graduate Grant Welp, one of the nation’s top passers last season.
Although Burton saw limited action as a freshman, Leonard is confident the position will be in good hands for the next three years.
“He throws a rally nice ball. He’s got a little bit of play-making ability where he can extend plays, but he’s inexperienced,” Leonard said. “He hasn’t had a whole lot of Saturday afternoon experience, so we’re going to have to take the bad with some of the good that he can do. A lot of great potential in him.
“I just want him to develop over time. He’s a sophomore, so he’s got plenty of time left to develop.”
Defensively, the Grizzlies return eight of last year’s top 10 tacklers, including junior cornerback Taylor Christensen and senior lineman Nate Bryan. Christensen had a team-leading four interceptions, and Bryan had a team-high 10 tackles for loss.
“Very athletic group. Maybe one of the most athletic defensive we’ve had in quite a while,” Leonard said. “It’s the second year of Brian Harbin being the defensive coordinator, so there’s a lot better understanding of it all now by this group.
“The buy-in is good on all facets.”
With the season-opener on the horizon, all that’s left for the Grizzlies to do is live up to the preseason expectations that once again make them targets.
“It’s fun. It’s fun to see if we can play at a high level each and every game without us just showing up and thinking we can win, because that’s when it bites you in the rear,” Leonard said. “We’ll find out a lot about ourselves definitely here in Week 1 against Illinois Wesleyan, who we got beat by last year.
“So we consider ourselves the underdogs here in training camp.”
Perhaps. But from at least one player’s perspective, the Grizzlies’ haven’t sported the look of underdogs in preseason practice.
“I feel like this is going to be a great year,” Stogner said. “Just based on camp, I’m feeling really good about the season. I feel really good about what we can accomplish.
“People are ready to step up, and that’s what we need.”
Sept. 5;Illinois Wesleyan;1:30 p.m.
Sept. 12;at Butler;6:30 p.m.
Sept. 19;Anderson;6 p.m.
Sept. 26;at Bluffton;1:30 p.m.
Oct. 3;Manchester;1:30 p.m.
Oct. 10;at Earlham;2:30 p.m.
Oct. 17;*Mount St. Joseph;1:30 p.m.
Oct. 24;at Rose-Hulman;1:30 p.m.
Nov. 7;**Defiance;1:30 p.m.
Nov. 14;***at Hanover;1:30 p.m.
***Victory Bell Classic
HCAC PRESEASON POLL
Team (first-place votes);Points
Mount St. Joseph (2);71