ANGOLA – Lamar Carswell is no longer zipping every which way on the Trine football field. Jeffery Barnett is no longer dogging opposing cornerbacks. Gone, too, are Marcus Winters, the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association's two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and formidable tight end Elijah Klepper.
That would seem a lot for any team to lose. But Trine coach Troy Abbs, looking at his depth chart in his office last week, wasn't worried.
Coming off a 10-1 season, Trine was picked by coaches to finish second in the conference. More importantly, Abbs has confidence the program has been prepared to move forward since graduation day and that he was seeing the planning come to fruition on the practice field.
That's especially true on offense, where so many familiar names are gone from a squad that was top 50 in the nation in seven categories.
“Offensively, we return our quarterback and four of the five offensive linemen that started and paved the way for college football's – not the NCAA's or Division I's – college football's leading rusher (Carswell),” Abbs said. “We return two receivers that had (about) 100 yards receiving in at least one game last year. So I'm enthused overall.”
Behind the Noah Routson-led offensive line will be quarterback Brandon Winters, who last year completed 57 of 95 passes for 1,056 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions, along with 363 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“He's done a great job leading our guys in the offseason. We've had a little competition, but he's just a little ahead of everybody right now,” said Abbs, whose team opens the season today at Manchester.
The run game will include freshman Kaiden Harshberger from East Noble, while the leading returning receivers are Seth Boggs and Jacob Chesney. Kicker Lucas Garza, a Wawasee product, is Trine's all-time leader in extra points made (163) and is sixth on the Thunder's all-time scoring list (193 points).
Five defensive starters return among 17 players who had significant playing time last year, when Trine qualified for the NCAA Division III Tournament.
That defense includes linebacker Simeon Washington, who led the team in total (89) and solo (41) tackles and sacks (4.5), and lineman Mason McFarland (20 solo tackles, 43 combined and 2.5 sacks) for a team that ranked 11th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (147.5).
Despite losing 31-7 to St. Norbert in the postseason, expectations remain high for Trine after back-to-back undefeated regular seasons and MIAA championships.
“We definitely have the bull's-eye on our backs, having won the conference championship the last two years,” said linebacker Joseph Steigmeyer, a Bishop Dwenger graduate. “It's given us seniors a lot of experience and we know what we need to do to get there, so if we can do those things done then we can (win it) again.”
Hope is the preseason favorite to win the MIAA, but Trine knows people expect it to compete yet again.
“At the end of the day, you go out and try to get better every day,” Abbs said.
“Then, when it's game time, you turn your guys loose and hope that they do what they've learned during practice, meetings and preseason camp, and away we go. I haven't blocked anybody, tackled anybody or thrown or caught a pass in more than 24 years, so it comes down to the guys and what they do when the lights are turned on.”
Today: at Manchester, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 14: at Bluffton, 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 21: Concordia Wisconsin, 1 p.m.
Oct. 5: Hope, 1 p.m.
Oct. 12: at Alma, 6 p.m.
Oct. 19: Olivet, 1 p.m.
Oct. 26: Finlandia, 1 p.m.
Nov. 2: at Albion, 1 p.m.
Nov. 9: at Adrian, 1 p.m.
Nov. 16: Kalamazoo, 1 p.m.