As Division III college football goes, there aren’t many surer things heading into the season than the Franklin College offense.
The Grizzlies have put up some huge numbers the past two years behind quarterback Chase Burton and company, and it’s highly likely that they’ll do the same this fall. How far they get in 2017, though, will depend largely upon the performance of the Franklin defense.
That group is very much an unknown quantity heading into Saturday’s opener at Thomas More. Six of the team’s top seven tacklers from last year are no longer around, and head coach Mike Leonard isn’t completely sure yet who will step in to replace them all.
“There’s a lot of guys that have the potential to play on defense and fill these holes,” Leonard said, “and it’s an inexact science trying to figure out who gets plugged in where.”
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That process was complicated by the loss of senior linebacker Jared Wesley, Franklin’s leading tackler last season. Wesley suffered a neck injury last week and will be out for the year.
With Wesley sidelined, senior strong safety Ryan Conner is the Grizzlies’ top returning defensive performer; he had 44 tackles and a team-high three interceptions a year ago. Conner is joined by a handful of other seniors who saw significant action in 2016, including All-HCAC defensive ends Zach Turner and Grant Bryan and linebacker Jay McClain. Turner led Franklin in quarterback sacks with 5½.
Leonard is hopeful that a few of the many unfamiliar faces on the roster will become familiar before too long.
“It’s the same way every year,” he said. “There’s guys that are third string or fourth string that, by the end of the year, they’ll be playing a lot. It’s just the guys that will not get discouraged with that early and just keep staying the course day by day; invariably, on every team, it happens.”
Fortunately for Leonard and defensive coordinator Mel Mills, the Grizzlies’ prolific offense provides a little margin for error in terms of getting the defensive lineup figured out. There isn’t quite as much pressure on the unit to be locked in right away with the offense likely to average close to 40 points again.
Being able to go up against that offense in practice, though, should also help speed up the process.
“We’re going against one of the nation’s best offenses,” Leonard said, “so hopefully we can hang in there against other teams.”
Hanging in hasn’t been a problem in recent years against the rest of the HCAC; the Grizzlies have won 24 of their past 25 conference games. The one loss, though — a 23-22 setback against Rose-Hulman last Oct. 22 — cost Franklin an outright league title and likely an NCAA playoff spot.
That defeat has “absolutely” left a sour taste in the team’s mouth this past offseason.
“We just realized you can’t let anything slip away,” Leonard said. “You can’t overlook anything.”
The 2017 Franklin College football schedule:
Saturday;at Thomas More;1 p.m.
Sept. 9;Butler;6 p.m.
Sept. 16;Defiance;1:30 p.m.
Sept. 23;at Bluffton;1:30 p.m.
Sept. 30;Manchester;1:30 p.m.
Oct. 7;at Earlham;1:30 p.m.
Oct. 21;at Rose-Hulman;1:30 p.m.
Oct. 28;Mount St. Joseph;1:30 p.m.
Nov. 4;Anderson;1:30 p.m.
Nov. 11;at Hanover;1:30 p.m.
Head coach: Mike Leonard (15th season)
Last year: 8-2 overall (7-1 in Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference)
Projected starters: Offense — WR Deontez Alexander, Sr.; WR Lee Wroblewski, Sr.; WR Tanner Wroblewski, Sr.; TE Kole Butler, Sr.; LT Samm Hayes, Sr.; LG Paul Eisberg, Sr.; C Landon Johnson, Sr.; RG Austin Woiteshek, Jr.; RT Darius Dixon, Sr.; QB Chase Burton, Sr.; RB Jordan Brown, Sr.
Defense — DE Nathan Adams, Sr.; DT John Finley, Sr.; DT Tyler Reed, So.; DE Zach Turner, Sr.; LB Logan Hale, Sr.; LB Austin Fleming, Sr.; LB Jay McClain, Sr.; CB Tyrone Thomas III, Jr.; CB David Masayile, Jr.; SS Ryan Conner, Sr.; FS Trace Rooks, Sr.
Special teams — K/P Stephen Colligan, Sr.; KR/PR Brad Bonomini, Jr.; LS Logan Feigel, Jr.
Outlook: A one-point home loss to Rose-Hulman cost the Grizzlies an outright HCAC title — and likely an NCAA Division III playoff berth — last season. With most of the starters back from one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, including a potential All-American in Burton, Leonard hopes to restore order this season. Whether that happens will depend largely on whether an inexperienced defense can hold opponents in check at the most important moments.
Leonard says: “I really do like the thought of finding out what we’re made of through some adversity. I want to see how our guys react, and I hope that we can overcome and win — because it’s a lot more fun to win. But I know we’re going to have adversity in those first two games.”
A brief look at Franklin College’s other fall sports teams:
The Grizzlies have gone 8-1 in HCAC play each of the last two seasons and are the preseason co-favorites along with Hanover.
Junior Maddie Fleet (25 goals, 17 assists), the league’s top offensive player and the nation’s top scorer in Division III last year, returns to spearhead a potent offense along with senior Clare Lenart and sophomore Taylor McDaniel.
Senior midfielders Kelsey Brunsman and Jillian Lawrence are back, as is sophomore goalie Lexi Short, an All-HCAC performer as a rookie.
Franklin kicks off the season at home Friday against Olivet.
First-year coach Cody Graman tries to rebuild after Franklin stumbled through a disappointing 3-10-4 campaign last fall.
Junior Luke Oliver, the team’s leading scorer, is back, as are senior midfielder Mason Krupa and senior goaltender Garrett Belden.
The Grizzlies open with a Friday home match against Wabash.
The Grizzlies were 15-12 last year, their third straight winning season, and hopes are high with five starters returning.
Senior middle Amanda Lelivelt was an All-HCAC pick in 2016, and senior Brooke Harvey and sophomore Kennedy Surface return on the outside. The back row will be led by junior libero Libby Stahl. Franklin does need to find a new setter, with sophomore Nico Morris the most likely candidate.
The regular season begins this weekend with a trip to New England for the Brandeis Invitational.
The sophomore jinx hit last year for the Grizzlies, who finished a disappointing 8-9 last season but return a deep and experienced group of juniors.
Karen Dringenburg, Rachel Rose and Holyn Eldridge should again be mainstays at the top of the Franklin lineup when the team begins its season Saturday with matches against Midway and Manchester.
New coach Brandon Dworak inherits a pair of veteran teams this fall.
Sophomore Clayton Brumfield, the HCAC Freshman of the Year in 2016, heads up a men’s team with four of its top runners returning. Seniors Rachel Bowden, Casey Tranter and Alexis Weidner lead an experienced women’s team.
Franklin hosts the Sodexo Invitational in Shelbyville on Saturday.