By Rusty Rae • Of the News-Register • 

In ‘question mark bowl’ Wildcats seek answers

Rusty Rae/News-Register##
Spencer Choisser is the back-up at tailback to Spencer Payne for the Linfield Wildcats.
Rusty Rae/News-Register## Spencer Choisser is the back-up at tailback to Spencer Payne for the Linfield Wildcats.

The first game of the season is always the question mark bowl – for both teams. Linfield College head coach Joseph Smith thinks this year’s version of his Wildcat 11 could be pretty good. Just how good, he still doesn’t know. Saturday the wraps will come off the 2016 version of the team when it meets the Chapman University Panthers, a team which also poses many questions for the Wildcats. The game kicks off nppn Saturday at Maxwell Field.
Smith realizes he has some big shoes to fill on both offensively and defensively, if his team is going to make another deep run into the national play-offs. Most coaches in the conference seem to think the ‘Cats will repeat as conference champion. At Linfield, however, that feat is just one step toward its ultimate goal of playing for the NCAA DIII national title in Salem, Virginia in December.
Defensively, Linfield must replace the irreplaceable in defensive end Alex Hoff, the Northwest Conference’s defensive player of the year the past two seasons. Smith says the defense is thin but incredibly talented. “The defense can be smothering. Look at all the all-conference kids we have coming back. I think that we have first team all-conference kids at all five secondary positions. No one in the conference is better than any of those kids – that is hard to say,” he said. The same appears true of the linebacker crew, where there are returning all-conference players starting and as backups.
“We are strong at linebacker and secondary – that group is strong and explosive – they are going to make plays,” he said.
While the ‘Cats must replace Hoff, Smith said, “Up front, as that group gels and learns to play with one another, and when they are all in there and healthy, these will be some of the better players in the league at these positions. When those guys come together and learn to play at game speed, they have the chance to be very dangerous,” he predicted. New defensive ends are Jake Handran (6-4, 265) of Woodburn, and Marcus McGovern (6-1, 225) from Eugene. The starting tackles are Ty Farber (5-11, 250) of Wasilla, Alaska, and Zach Grate (6-0, 274).
However, Smith said that the offensive line is still the number one concern entering the first game. “Our offensive line has not been proven at this point. The defensive line has a whole lot of guys who have played there. The defense is going to come out at the gun like a pack of wild dogs – they have not been able to hit for a couple of weeks – when they are unleashed, they will resemble a pack of wild dogs flying around on that field,” he said.
While there is concern about how well the offensive line will develop, it isn’t as if the cupboard is bare. Anchoring the line is Stephen Nnabue (6-2, 280), an all-conference first teamer from last season. Next to him at left tackle is James Andrew (6-5, 280). At Center is Will Heck (6-2, 275), while the right side of the line is completed by Kela Grace (6-1, 285) and Ryne Fuhrmark (6-3, 275). Although they are still working to materialize into a solid group, this is a formidable group with high potential.
Offensively, the skills players returning may be some of the best in allof DIII football. Starting with quarterback Sam Riddle, the NWC offensive player of the year last season and a pre-season All-American candidate, who Smith believes is one of the best at his position (if not the best) in all of division three football.
Riddle has a robust arm and is also an above average runner, who brings both a shiftiness to the run game along with the ability to change gears to escape defensive players.
At running back, Spencer Payne, also an all-conference selection last year, returns for his senior season. Payne, from McMinnville, is, according to Smith, a more complete player in 2016. He has been able to harness his great talent with complete knowledge of the Linfield system, and Smith that his assignment mistakes have been reduced greatly. Backing up Payne are a bevy of running backs waiting in the wings. This includes Spencer Choisser, a 5-9, 205 pounder, who has drawn strong reviews in preseason camp.
Perhaps the real wealth of the Linfield offense is in the receiver corps, senior dominated with fast, experienced, and sure-handed wideouts. All three starting wide receivers are seniors and five of the six first and second team players in this group are experienced seniors. Starters are Zach Kuzens (6-0, 185), Eric Igbinoba (6-1, 195), and Reed Peterson (5-10, 177).
At tight end, two underclassmen have been enjoying a great preseason. They are Byron Greenlee (6-3, 220), a sophomore, and freshman J. C. Calo (6-1, 220).
The ‘Cats claim an experienced punter in Kevin McClean while the PAT, FG, and KO duties are still being decided between Cayman Conley a senior and newcomer transfer Willy Warne, listed as a freshman.
And while there remain a ton of questions to be answered about the ‘Cats, Smith notes that little is known about the Chapman team. They are not the team that Linfield has met the last two season due the loss of a number of key players lost to graduation.
“We know Chapman from playing them the last two years, but we don’t really know what they will bring to the field Saturday, so we will have to be ready for anything,” Smith said.
When the smoke clears on Saturday at Maxwell Field, Smith and the Wildcats hope there will be fewer question to be answered about this 2016 version of the team.