It can be lonely at the top.
Those words could certainly apply to Colorado State-Pueblo as they prepare to defend their 2014 D2 football national championship. Retaining the crown won’t be an easy task, and nobody is more aware of that than CSU-Pueblo head coach John Wristen. HERO Sports takes an exclusive look at how the Thunderwolves are reloading for the 2015 campaign.
The Thunderwolves will have to defend their title without Chris Bonner, the senior quarterback who was an integral part of the 2014 title team.
“We’ve got to develop our quarterback and settle on our quarterback and to develop his consistency throughout the year,” Wristen said.
Senior Malcolm Ruben and sophomore A.J. Thompson are expected to battle for the starting job. Rubin appeared in eight games last season, throwing 12 passes, completing seven, mostly in late-game situations.
The running attack is in good hands however, with the dynamic duo of senior Cam McDondle (333 carries, 2,014 yards, 16 TDs) and J.B. Matthews (96 carries, 449 yards, 3 TDs) returning.
“[McDondle and Matthews] as good as anybody in the country,” Wristen said. “We’re glad to have them on the same team.”
The Thunderwolves also return some key receivers from last year’s squad, including senior Kieren Duncan who led the team in catches (45) and receiving yards (712) despite missing four games last season. Seniors Jarred Radebaugh (34-373-6) and Daniel Wise (22-425-3) are also projected to return.
Wristen also saw some promise out of sophomore tight end Zach Boyd, who caught 23 passes and scored three touchdowns last season.
“Zach played a lot as our ‘movement’ tight end.” Wristen said. “He had an outstanding spring.”
Pueblo’s offensive line will be a key element to whatever success the Thunderwolves find in 2015, despite the losses of Zack Martinez and Gary Dixon to graduation.
“We’ve got to replace our center, and I’ve liked the competition (for starting center) between (sophomores) Corbin Feenstra (and) Spencer Nathe and (junior) Chance Rodriguez,” Wristen said, noting that Rodriguez started the last eight games at left guard “and really came on” late in the season.
While Wristen said Pueblo’s front seven, “will be as good as we’ve had,” the Thunderwolves will have a lot of holes to fill in the secondary.
Wristen described senior DE Morgan Fox “as one heck of a player … he’s demonstrated that for three years.” Fox is part of an defensive line with features “a stud in the middle” in senior NG Tony Campton.
Wristen also expects big things this season from an experienced group of linebackers.
“Having two outstanding outside linebackers in Ben Estica and Seth Brown is really going to help,” Wristen said, as will a pair of senior inside linebackers in Joe Rosenbrock and Kevin Cuff.
“You’ve got a lot of guys who’ve played a lot of football right there on our front seven,” Wristen said.
While the secondary is relatively young, Wristen is liking what he’s seeing out of this group.
“We’ve got to continue to develop our secondary like we did through spring ball,” Wristen said. “We have to replace a lot of guys in the secondary, and I’m really happy the young guys” are showing promise. Wristen singled out sophomore cornerback Darius Williams as a player who looks to have an impact this season.
One often overlooked element of football is special teams. While Wristen noted that kicker Greg O’Donnell is returning for his senior year and that Jake Ludwig “is as good as any long snapper that I’ve had,” one concern is replacing punter Ken Kester, who recorded 32 punts inside the opponent’s 20 yard line last season, who will sit out this season due to eligibility issues. Junior Louie Neil, however, does have some game experience, having recorded 14 punts last season (averaging 44.7 yards).
With several returning players moving into the starting lineup, repeating at national champions will not be easy. But, it’s a challenge that Wristen and his staff are ready to tackle.
“We’re very excited about the 2015 season,” Wristen said. “It’s not fair to compare the 2014 team to this 2015 team. We’ve got to figure out how to do it the 2015 way.”