MONMOUTH, Ill. – “You can’t live in the past, but you can learn from it.”
Now in his third season leading the Monmouth College football program, coach Chad Braun turned philosophical as his team enters the 2017 campaign as the defending Midwest Conference champions. The Scots rolled to a 10-0 regular season one year ago, earning their fifth league crown since 2005 and their 18th overall. Monmouth led the nation during their championship season when quarterback Tanner Matlick turned in a program-record 190.45 pass efficiency rating and the defense held opponents to just 9.5 points per game.
“It’s a new year and a new team,” said Braun. “We won’t focus on last year’s team. The seniors have graduated. The focus has to be on the process. The mentality has to be to keep improving every day, every year. We did that last year and it turned out to be a pretty successful season.”
Improvement in the running game may be a tall order with the return of last year’s top ground gainer, 1,000-yard rusher and all-conference selection DeAndre Wright (DeKalb, Ill./Momence). The 5-foot-7 junior averaged over seven yards per carry in 2016 with a team-high 15 touchdowns, all but one on the ground.
“DeAndre is a special back, for sure,” said Braun. “He’s got a tremendous work ethic and practices hard every day. He takes it personally. He’s made the commitment to be the best he can be.”
Another junior – Josh Talley (Chatham, Ill./Glenwood) – will also get the ball out of the backfield. Talley has been “waiting in the wings” and is ready to make his mark. The Scots also have a deep stable of backs, including freshmen Chris Hammonds (Spring Valley, Ill./Hall), Shawn Charles (Opelousas, La./Opelousas), Drew Hill (Daviston, Ala./Horseshoe Bend) and Alec Cooley (Clinton, Ill./Clinton), who could come in on a moment’s notice.
With the graduation of Matlick, Braun is looking at a trio of quarterbacks battling for time, led by Hayden Nelson (South Elgin, Ill./South Elgin). The junior saw limited time last season as the backup and may be ready to move to the starter role, but is being challenged by a pair of sophomores – Joshua McKenzie (Richwood, Texas/Brazoswood) and Sam Neumeier (O’Fallon, Mo./Francis Howell).
“Hayden is a different type quarterback than Tanner,” said Braun. “They’re both dual-threat guys with their arms and legs. Tanner was more of a power-type runner while Hayden is a quicker, make-you-miss guy. Hayden has taken the lead for the starting job, but really, it’s been an open competition. We feel good about whoever we put under center.”
Braun also has a good feeling with his receiving corps which returns two of the top three yardage receivers from a year ago. All-conference junior wide-out Yansay Williams (Normal, Ill./West) and sophomore Jacolby Maxwell (Plainfield, Ill./Aurora Christian) combined for more than 1,200 yards and 15 TDs last season. Maxwell – who hauled in 13 passes for a program-record 251 yards in last year’s NCAA playoff game – and Williams, with his 20 yard-per-catch average, are described as “explosive” receivers.
“Those two are special,” said Braun of his returning tandem. “Yansay had a tremendous off-season. He’s come back bigger, faster and stronger. Jacolby is a great route-runner and had an incredible game for us last postseason. Wes Anderson (Heyworth, Ill./Heyworth) is another returner who has done some good things for us in practice and should get some playing time. Plus, we’ve also got a slew of young guys fighting for those other spots.”
The battle for positions is also strong along the offensive line, where the Scots return all-conference center Devon Brooks (Orange Park, Fla./Orange Park) and Logan Thiele (Pittsfield, Ill./Pittsfield). Sophomore Brady Boyd (Bartonville, Ill./Limestone) appears to have the early inside track on one of the line spots, but the Scots have a plethora of talented trenchmen from which to choose. Among the newbies battling for a spot is sophomore Joe Krall (New Berlin, Ill./New Berlin) – a defensive lineman a year ago who has beefed up his frame and will be among the contenders after moving to the O-line. Freshmen Isaiah Dukes (Ransom, Ill./Streator Township), Chase Thoni (College Grove, Tenn./Fred J. Page) and Joey Shanklin (Cypress, Texas/Cypress Ranch) give the Scots’ plenty of new size potential up front.
“We’ve got a little work to do with the offensive line, but Coach (Joe) Freitag is doing a good job getting them ready,” praised Braun. “Joe (Krall) has done a tremendous job making the conversion from defense to offense. The freshmen are really battling it out. It’s been a good competition.”
Monmouth’s defense mirrors their offense to a degree, as both lost key components due to graduation. Three-time all-conference performer Matt Barnes – who set the single game (25) and season (133) tackle records – is gone from his middle linebacker spot, but Braun isn’t too worried about filling the void.
“We’ve got a lot of guys back on defense,” reported Braun. “We’ve got three of our starting four defensive backs returning and the majority of the line. Graduation hit us hard at the linebacking spot, but we feel like we’ve got capable kids ready to move in there.”
The charge is led up front by two-time all-league honoree and last season’s Midwest Conference Defensive Lineman of the Year Thomas Lesniewski (Algonquin, Ill./Marian Central). The junior has amassed 20 sacks – fifth on the Scots’ all-time list – in his first two seasons and will be joined by returners Lamar Watson (Pembroke Township, Ill./Momence) – an all-conference selection last season – and Zach Hoekstra (Frankfort, Ill./Lincoln-Way North).
“Thomas is one of the best we’ve ever had since I’ve been here,” said Braun who came to Monmouth in 2000. “We do have some holes to fill with the graduation of Ben Ketchum, Michael Smith and Logan Gigl.”
Levi Oliveto (Trinity, Fla./Mitchell) and Brad Buchner (Poplar Grove, Ill./North Boone) are a couple of veterans waging a battle for a spot with a group of hungry newcomers. Among the freshman, Aubrey Vaughan (Bourbonnais, Ill./Bradley-Bourbonnais) is expected to be “special down the road.”
Senior linebacker Kyle Schultz (Heyworth, Ill./Heyworth) – who earned all-conference status a season ago – slides into the hole vacated by Barnes’ graduation. Clark Gaden (Chatham, Ill./Glenwood) – a 6-2, 225-pound sophomore – is expected to join Schultz as a starting ‘backer.
Braun returns a wealth of experience in the secondary, where seniors Micam Smith (Annawan, Ill./Annawan), an all-MWC pick in 2016, D.J. Frank (Bloomington, Ill./Normal) and Ryne Daum (Toulon, Ill./Stark County) enter their final seasons.
While sophomore Nick Miyler (Galesburg, Ill./Galesburg) is working his way in as a third safety, the Scots are finding more options at the corners where sophomores Montrell Davis (Lowell, N.C./Victory Valley) and Isaiah Baerenklau (Elburn, Ill./Kaneland) and senior Easton Schaber (Bloomington, Ill./Normal) are slugging it out for action.
“We’ve got a healthy competition for limited positions on the defense,” smiled Braun. “We’re really talented and experienced in the secondary. We’ve got some talented freshmen who could see some time, maybe on special teams.”
Among the freshmen Braun is high on are twins Brandon Graeff and Connor Graeff (Murphysboro, Ill./Murphysboro).
“They’ve each done some special things in camp,” praised Braun of the siblings. “I feel they’ll be some great special teams players this year. Their futures are bright.”
Special teams could also be a bright spot as kicker Joey Biel (Spokane, Wash./Northwest Christian) returns for his sophomore campaign. The left-footer came within a yard of the field goal record last season, nailing a 50-yarder for his longest kick of his young career. He also averaged over 60 yards on his 89 kickoffs last season, landing 22 for touchbacks.
“Joey is a special kicker,” reported Braun of his now-sophomore who converted 59 of 62 PATs as a freshman. “We’re fortunate to have kid like Joey. He’s a weapon, both on field goals and kickoffs.”
Braun is hoping his kickoff unit gets plenty of reps again this season, but acknowledges the nonconference schedule won’t be a cakewalk. The Scots host Hope – which rebounded from a 44-3 season-opening loss to the Scots last year to finish the season 7-3 – and travel to Warburg before the MWC Bye Week on Week 3.
“We’ve got a really tough nonconference schedule,” said Braun. “You can’t look at that Hope score from last year. They’re a really good team and showed it in the weeks that followed. Wartburg is a tough atmosphere, and it’s a night game which makes it doubly tough.”
The Scots face a pair of MWC North Division teams after the league’s week off and then jump into their South schedule to determine the order of finish for the league’s Championship Week games on Nov. 11 when the South teams host their North equivalent. That leaves little margin for error for teams who have designs on winning the league title and the NCAA berth that goes with it.
“You can’t afford to stub your toe when it’s a five-game schedule to get to the championship game, but I like the format,” said Braun. “It’s unique – something different from most other conferences. It’s a great atmosphere for college football. Obviously, we’d like to play for the title, but we know we’ve got a lot of work to do in order to get to that point.”