by Daniel Whitehead
BUENA VISTA, Va.—Southern Virginia University head football coach DeLane Fitzgerald has the annual challenge of finding the top players who will provide his team with the best opportunity for victory.
With the goal of assembling the most competitive and experienced team possible, Fitzgerald believes his 2013 squad is the most seasoned he has fielded during his five years as Southern Virginia's football coach.
"It's the best core 25 players we have returning in the history of our program," he said. "Between graduation and church missions every year, we have a lot of turnover. In that turnover, you frequently lose many of your best players. This coming year we're not losing our best players."
With the majority of returners having either starting or significant game experience, a heightened level of excitement surrounds the 2013 team as it heads into its final year of independence.
"We expect to be good on offense, great on defense, and we always expect our special teams to be great," Fitzgerald said. "Enthusiasm is abound right now. Since we play the best teams early on, it's crucial that we are excited so we get the season off on the right foot."
A team can only score points if it has a strong leader to take it down the field and commandeer the offense.
Unsettled on a starting quarterback, Fitzgerald will look to last year's starters Andy Jones (Salt Lake City) and Bruce Eisenhower (Phoenix) to lead the way and prove their mettle during fall camp heading into the season opener against Methodist. Other quarterbacks vying for the starting spot include David Winslow (Ventura, Calif.) and Shawn Honeycutt (Dodge County, Ga.).
"No matter who is guiding the offense, we expect our quarterbacks to control the tempo of the game and don't turn the ball over," Fitzgerald said. "Don't make mistakes that get us beat. When the opportunity to make a play arises, make the play. We expect our quarterback to control the tempo of the ballgame, be a leader out of the huddle, and make the right reads at the line of scrimmage.
Whoever is chosen to lead the offense, he will have a solid stable of blockers to make room for the backs or give time to throw the ball downfield.
Two-year starters Jonathan Curtis (Appomattox, Va.) and Stephen Jensen (Wake Forest, N.C.) return as juniors, while left tackle Jake Behan (Carterville, Ill.) is expected to resume starting duties after playing as a true freshman last year. Tyler Mysyk (Calgary, AB) and Tyler Condiff (Spring, Texas) return as starting guards.
"Tyler Mysyk is the best of the bunch," Fitzgerald said. "He's not a vocal leader but a good player. Tyler Condiff has done things the right way during his time here and is ready for a great ride off into the sunset.
"Together they give us our best guard combination we've had in school history. They're a great tandem and we're excited about them."
The Knights will be strong in the backfield led by Jamal Coates (Conover, N.C.), who gained 402 rushing yards last season on 115 carries and scored three touchdowns for the year. Tod Workman (Springerville, Ariz.) is a solid backup at fullback as he rushed for 184 yards and a touchdown during the 2012 season. Also a weapon on special teams, Workman garnered 10 tackles last season.
"Tod was getting double-teamed by the end of the year on special teams coverage," Fitzgerald said. "He's just a workhorse that likes to go out and get the job done."
With an excellent bevy of receivers, Knight quarterbacks will be able to distribute the ball well to Chris Harper (Lynchburg, Va.), Michael Kilstrom (Upper Arlington, Ohio), Michael Goering (Agency, Iowa) and Kenyatta Ruai (Salt Lake City). Harper, a junior, received a medical redshirt last season and is a valuable possession receiver, while Kilstrom returns after starting all games last year and earning a huge touchdown grab in the win at Alfred State.
Goering, a returned missionary, was able to get back into playing shape last season and looks to make a huge impact on the corps in 2013, while Ruai has an enormous upside and looks to be an effective special teams participant.
Coach Fitzgerald smiles when he thinks about the potential of his defense to achieve marvelous things in 2013.
Junior linebacker Robert Robbins (Glendale, Ariz.) led the team in solo tackles in 2012 with 44 to go with a team-best 56 assisted tackles. He had six tackles for loss, one interception and recovered three fumbles to go along with a blocked kick. He was twice named a USCAA Defensive Player of the Week last season.
Linebacker Dakoda Winsor (Richland, Wash.) was second on the team in both solo tackles and assisted with 43 apiece for a combined 86 tackles in 2012. He had 6.5 tackles for loss while earning two interceptions he returned for a combined 27 yards. He forced and recovered one fumble in 2012 and was named the USCAA Defensive Player of the Week following his effort against NC Wesleyan in which he recorded 12 tackles and a fourth-quarter interception to seal a 24-14 Southern Virginia win.
Colter Evans (Wayan, Idaho), a senior linebacker, had 32 solo and 37 assisted tackles in 2012 for a combined 69 tackles, averaging 6.3 per game. He recorded both an interception and fumble recovery on the year to head into his final season in 2013.
Senior defensive back Jake Palmer (Highland, Utah) achieved 29 solo tackles and 11 assisted tackles for 40 total last season. Directing the team's secondary, he had two interceptions for 17 return yards and tallied seven pass breakups and nine deflected passes during the year.
"We have three returning linebackers with All-America potential," he said. "We'll go as our linebackers go, and then Palmer does a great job organizing things for us in the secondary.
"Two or three times at practice, you'll catch Jake with a freshman explaining how we want something done and the way coverage should be played."
Junior defensive back Matt Gregory had 42 solo tackles last season, averaging 7.6 tackles per game, and had two picks and a fumble recovery for the year.
Fitzgerald is also excited for Snow College transfer defensive end Keaton Epps (Wake Forest, N.C.), who was enrolled for spring ball and caught on quickly to the system.
"We're going to be fast and Keaton is really going to help us," Fitzgerald said. "We'll be young in some spots, but Keaton will anchor the defensive line and we expect to be faster than we've ever been."
Not to be forgotten is the ever-important special teams unit, which should once again be strong for Southern Virginia in 2013.
"Davis Cragun (Layton, Utah) is our kicker and will do kickoffs and field goals," Fitzgerald said. "He'll be the first in school history that can kick it out of the end zone. We've had to do a lot of directional kicking in the past, so we expect him to be a huge plus for us and put a bunch of kicks behind the end zone."
Palmer and Winsor will resume responsibilities returning kicks and punts.
"Jake is elusive and tough to get hands on, so he did a great job for us last year," Fitzgerald said. "Winsor is also a great returner and will always be remembered for the kickoff return for a touchdown he had two years ago against Ave Maria. We're confident our returners will once again do a tremendous job for us in getting good field position."