By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

Wildcats reconvene for fall camp

Eli Biondine stayed in McMinnville for the summer, working out with his Linfield football teammates, and he liked what he saw.

The Mililani, Hawaii, native and St. Louis High School product – Biondine was a teammate of University of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota in high school – had 10 tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery for the Wildcats in 2013, playing in all 12 games. The opportunity for an expanded role at middle linebacker, vacated by NCAA Division III West Region Player of the Year Dominique Forrest upon his graduation, and additional playing time on special teams is within his grasp.

“It’s good to work out at home and see the family and what-not,” Biondine said. “It’s a little more business being up here and working out with the guys and being around the guys that I see on the field every day.”

Linfield is all business at the beginning of its 2014 campaign, which officially kicks off at 7 p.m. Sept. 13 against Chapman University in Orange, Calif. The Wildcats’ goals are clear: a fifth national championship, a sixth consecutive Northwest Conference championship, and a 59th consecutive winning season.

“I see a team that has some holes to fill but a team that can definitely fill those holes,” Wildcats offensive lineman Steven Schulz said. “We’re definitely always working toward the national championship, but we’re definitely taking it one game at a time.”

Clean bill of health

Linfield will welcome back more players to Maxwell Field than it will see missing out on the start of fall camp.

Senior defensive end Brynnan Hyland has returned from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in a 2013 practice. The Eugene native, an All-American in 2012, was put on the preseason All-America second team.

“He’s a pretty special football player,” Linfield coach Joseph Smith said. “Brynnan Hyland, even if he’s 95 percent, is going to be better than most people’s 100 percent.”

Sophomore defensive end Marq Randall has also been cleared to play after suffering an injury during the summer that cost him his 2013 season.

Running back Spencer Payne is expected to miss at least the first week of fall practices after suffering a broken left foot in the offseason. Payne, a McMinnville High School graduate, carried the ball 27 times for 238 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, playing 11 games.

“We’ll get Spencer back at some point,” Smith said. “When we do, it’ll be a significant lift.”

Quarterback competition

In an annual rite of fall camp, Linfield will once again be in the throes of a quarterback controversy.

Northwest Conference Offensive Player of the Year Josh Yoder has graduated, and four quarterbacks return from the 2013 roster. Senior Matt Yarbrough, a native of Tualatin, was Yoder’s primary backup last season; junior Tom Knecht and sophomore Sam Riddle are also expected to vie for the job.

“You don’t have to change the offense if one particular quarterback is in,” Smith said.

Yarbrough participated in nine games in 2013, completing nine of 13 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 317 yards and six touchdowns, the fourth-most among Linfield players.

Knecht played in five games last season; Riddle saw time in two contests.

“It’s fun and it’s competitive and it’s stressful,” Yarbrough said. “But it’s part of the game. I think Tom and I are great friends; Sam also. We’re just looking forward to getting after it a little bit and helping each other out in the process.”

Strength and numbers

Looking for the strength of Linfield’s offense in 2014? Look along the line of scrimmage.

Nine of the top 10 offensive linemen on last season’s two-deep return for the Wildcats, with Jesse Archambault at right tackle the only graduation. Juniors Thaddeus Cox and Alex Richardson are expected to get first crack at the starting spot along with senior Jacob Hanke, who missed all of 2013.

Further from the line, five of the top six wide receivers on the Wildcats’ depth chart return. Senior Charlie Poppen earned first-team all-NWC honors in 2013, and junior Brian Balsiger received second-team all-conference honors. Six-foot-six senior Colin Nelson returns as the third starter.

“We were amazing players in our receiving corps in ’05, ’04,” Smith said. “I don’t know if we’re individually as good as some of those guys, but we are collectively so deep we may have four of the top five receivers in the conference.”

At tight end, the Wildcats lost Jacob Priester to graduation and Westly Meng to a position change. Senior wide receiver Levi Altringer, who did not catch a pass in 2013, has been converted to tight end to give Linfield another experienced player at the position.

Whither the freshmen?

Linebacker is a position in flux, with the graduation of Forrest, Tyler Robitaille (both of whom are now Wildcat assistant coaches), Tim Edmonds and Louie Colasurdo. It is also the position that Smith identified as most likely to see a true freshman playing early in the season.

The Wildcats signed 11 linebackers as part of the 2014 recruiting class.

In addition to the freshmen, senior Mike Nardoni has moved from the rover position to inside linebacker. Meng shifted over from tight end, where the former Oregon State walk-on caught 19 passes for 234 yards in 2013.

“He was a very talented linebacker in high school,” Smith said. “I expect him to be a force for us inside.”

Coaching shuffle

When running backs coach Gary Thorson accepted a head coaching position at Sisters High School, Smith was forced to fill a hole in his coaching staff.

Greg McAnally will coach running backs for the Wildcats this season, and Brodie Unger – newly hired from Dayton High School – will coach Linfield’s tight ends. Robitaille will be in charge of safeties, with Brandon Hazenberg coaching cornerbacks. Forrest will join Phil Rombach in coaching linebackers.

Former Linfield assistant coach J.P. Meng, the father of Westly Meng, has returned to the sideline and will coach the Wildcats’ outside linebackers in 2014.

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