FORT WAYNE – Adversity, and rising to it, was the guiding narrative for the Saint Francis Cougars this fall.
There were injuries. There was the accident on the way home from the Saint Francis (Ill.) game that took the life of a motorist. And there was an 11th conference title, a first outright conference title since 2009 and a 9-3 record in which two of the losses were against the No. 1 and 2 teams in the NAIA.
A look at what was and what comes next:
5 top returning players
Antoin Campbell, Jr., RB: Losing Campbell, a junior, three games in was a blow the offense never quite recovered from. Hell immediately become the Cougars go-to option upon his return next fall.
Cam Smith, So., WR: The sophomore led the Cougars with 55 catches for 889 yards and four touchdowns and was the teams top deep threat. His 889 yards led the Cougars in all-purpose yardage. Whoever emerges at quarterback next fall – likely Wes Hunsucker, who threw for five touchdowns and completed 50.9 percent of his passes in six games – will have an immediate No. 1 option.
Zach Bruce, So., DE: Bruce emerged as a terror on the defensive line, leading the team in sacks with eight and finishing second in tackles for loss with 11.
Kyle Mathewson, Jr., LB: A former running back, Mathewson emerged as the leader of a stellar linebacking corps, finishing second on the team in tackles with 84. He also had 7 1/2 tackles for loss and five sacks, second on the team behind Bruce.
Keith Harris, Jr., LB: The senior-to-be from Elmhurst led the team in tackles for loss with 14 1/2 , had four sacks and was third behind the departing Taylor Brown and Mathewson with 67 tackles. He, Mathewson, Bruce and defensive back Kory Stamps will be the anchors for a Cougars defense that figures to be one of the teams strengths next fall.
I think weve got some folks that its their time, Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley says. They need to step up and get ready to go.
4 key players leaving
Cam Edwards, OT: The 6-foot-5, 317-pounder from Bloomington had a historic year, becoming the first lineman in Mid-States Football Association Mideast League history to be named Offensive Player of the Year.
David Yoder, QB: Yoder proved so adept at coming off the bench in relief of injury-plagued fellow senior Josh Miller that he was three times named MSFA MEL Offensive Player of the Week and made the postseason all-conference second team. He leaves after a senior year in which he completed 59.3 percent of his passes for 1,659 yards and 15 touchdowns. Together, he and Miller will take 2,607 yards and 17 touchdowns with them.
Taylor Brown, DB: The Cougars leading tackler and a 2012 NAIA All-American, Brown made 85 tackles and intercepted three passes, and his ability to come up and stop the run will be sorely missed.
Kollin Carman, P: One of the best if not the best punters in the nation in 2013, Carman averaged 44.9 yards per punt and 55.4 on kickoffs. Eighteen times he had punts of 50 yards or more, and 14 times he dropped the ball inside the 20. A field position weapon the Cougars will have to do without now.
You lose (Aaron) Knight on offense, you lose Cam Edwards, he was a great offensive lineman, Donley says. Defensively, you lose Taylor Brown, (nose tackle) Matt Carden is a significant loss. Quarterback, you lose two seniors, (but) got one coming back I think will be pretty good. The recruiting is going to be pretty significant in that area.
3 positions of strength
Running back: Should be one of the Cougars deepest positions with Campbell returning to a stable that includes Jason Nicodemus (450 yards and three TDs), Jalen Campbell (308 yards and six TDs), Garrett Harvey (248 yards and three TDs) and Aaron Harris (151 yards and three TDs).
Wide receiver: Aaron Knight and his 50 catches are gone, but in Cam Smith, Matt Noll, Akeim Kelsaw, Seth Coate, Cody Appenzeller and Seth Stuart, the Cougars have six players who caught at least 11 passes this season. Together, they were responsible for 166 of the Cougars 251 receptions.
Linebacker: Start with Mathewson and Harris, who accounted for 151 tackles, nine sacks, and 22 tackles for loss. Add Koree Terrell (37 tackles, three tackles for loss), Mike Brevard (22 tackles) ad Steve Kiermaier (21 tackles). It all adds up to a major plus.
2 major weaknesses
Kicking game: With Carman and record-setting placekicker Emerson Ueber gone, this will be a major reconstruct. Ueber was the teams leading scorer with 79 points, and he missed just one extra point and two field-goal attempts all season.
Offensive line: The senior anchors, Edwards and center Zach Greiner, depart, which means the Cougars will be fairly young up front. With the exception of senior-to-be Kegan Morris, the linemen who saw action this season were all sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen.
1 main question for 2014
Can the Cougars stay healthy? Key injuries contributed mightily to a season that always hinted at a lot more, and if 2014 is different, whats hinted at could well be a reality. The Cougars, Donley points out, had nine significant players undergo season-ending knee injuries – a fact that drove a lot of what happened in 2013.
We had to re-idenitfy who we were at midstream, Donley says. If Antoin hadnt got hurt, if Miller hadnt got hurt, Im guessing were undefeated right now and were playing at home this weekend in the semifinals.