2012 Football Season Preview
ORANGE, Calif. - The 2011 football season got off to such a promising start for Chapman University. The Panthers enjoyed victories in four of their first five games and were headed for their first winning record in three years. They would finally get over the 4-5 records that dogged them the previous two seasons. And with a strong finish, Chapman could make a case – albeit a longshot case – as an at-large playoff contender.
Then things went awry. A banged-up Panther squad traveled to winless La Verne and was defeated, followed by losses each of the next three weeks to the top three teams in the SCIAC. Their winning season evaporated. They concluded the year on a four-game losing streak and with a bitter taste of things that could have, should have been.
Those memories are fresh in the minds of this year's Chapman squad, which embarks on its first championship eligible season in the SCIAC on Saturday with a non-conference game hosting the University of Puget Sound.
The players and coaching staff have "big" memories of the way things ended a year ago and enter this year with a chip on their shoulder.
"We were all very disappointed," says head coach Bob Owens, who begins his seventh season at Chapman with a breakeven record of 27-27 and just four wins shy of 50 for his career. "We have never ended up on a note like that where we lost that many games at the end. We don't ever expect anything like that to occur again."
A couple of things have changed already this season. For one, the Panthers have their eyes set on a conference championship for the first time in the program's 18-year history. That alone has provided Owens' squad with a boost of excitement and optimism throughout camp.
"We all knew that getting into the playoffs when you're an at-large team is very subjective," says Owens. "Now we just have to win the conference and we all understand that."
Certainly, winning the conference is easier said than done with the likes of No. 11-ranked Cal Lutheran and No. 14 Redlands standing in the way. However, in recent years the Panthers have played all of their SCIAC opponents tightly, giving them confidence heading into a new season.
Another thing that's changed is depth and experience, in particular on defense where Chapman returns eight of its 11 starters from a year ago, including five of its front seven.
"We think that whole front seven is very strong," says Owens, referring in part to a linebacker corps that features its top three tacklers from 2011: seniors Michael Mehlhaff (68 tackles, 36 solo, four QB sacks) and Kellen Matsuno (52 tackles, 29 solo) and junior Wade Minshew (63 tackles, 29 solo). Plus, junior Samir Hanna (31 tackles, two QB sacks) joins the starting four after playing in all nine games last year. "We think Hanna is going to have a very strong year and we think it's going to be a breakout year for Wade (Minshew)," says Owens.
And don't forget about the front line guys in the trenches; the defensive line which includes returning starters and seniors Kevin Anderson (35 tackles, 3.5 for loss) and Elliot Cooley (13 tackles). "There's a lot of experience and depth there."
Chapman will also have a new quarterback in 2012, although not the one they thought it would be in the offseason. Junior Michael Lahey, who has been a backup and big time playmaker in his first two years, is out for the year with a knee injury suffered during the third day of training camp. And so after a tough battle for the starting job, it comes down to sophomore Kean Stancil, who has been tabbed the starter against Puget Sound, and freshman Andrew Chavez.
"We thought a lot of weight would fall on Lahey's shoulders so when he went down there was some concern," says Owens, "but we've had two young guys step in and we really haven't missed a beat."
Owens describes Stancil of a more athletic back who can move his feet and work outside the pocket, while Chavez is more of a "big arm". "We're hoping that there's one guy who's going to get the lion's share of the snaps. We're hoping for that. But it's certainly got to play out."
The stronghold of the Chapman offense will be on the line, where four of the five starting linemen return and look to provide stability to an inexperienced passing game. The line will once again be anchored by senior LT D.J. Brandel and junior RG Justin LaLonde, who didn't allow a sack all season.
The Panthers also return their top receiver from 2011 in senior Kali'i Kunitomo, who led the team with 39 catches, 611 yards and seven touchdowns. A big play threat, Kunitomo is the veteran among a receiving corps that is "quick and versatile" according to Owens. Also expected to get their share of catches will be junior Robin Harris and senior Alex Wendling. "All three of those guys can catch and run."
Traditionally a pass-centric team under Owens, the Panthers ran for more yards (1,410) in 2011 than they had in any of the previous five seasons. And Chapman should do that well once again this year. Sophomore RB Jeremiah McKibbins and junior RB Austin Maranville may get a bulk of the carries, but Chapman also boasts depth that includes last year's top gainer senior Chad Milburn (555 yards, 5 TDs, two 100-yard games) and senior Al White (264 yards, 5 TDs in 2010) who are both coming back from injuries.
"McKibbins and Maranville will carry the load at the start, but we're going to look at Milburn and White and see how they fit in," says Owens. "We think we're going to run by committee. And Kyle White (170 yards, 2 TDs) doesn't get talked about a lot. But he's a guy that can catch out of the backfield, can run the ball, and can also just block you very hard. He is a real iron man."
Chapman will rely on that type of experience to build what it thinks can be a conference championship team in 2012 through leadership and high expectations.
"We have the opportunity to do two things," says Owens. "First of all to be called a conference champion, and then we'll have the opportunity to play for a national championship."
by Doug Aiken
Sports Information Director