FRANKLIN, Ind. – Coming off a 2017 season that featured one of the most dangerous offenses in the country, there will be more than a few new playmakers for the Franklin College football team as the Grizzlies get set to break camp.
One year ago, Franklin led Division III in yards per game (564.5) and passing yards per game (407.1) while finishing third in the country in points scored with 48.6 per game. The challenge facing the Grizzlies in 2018 is how to replicate that success with nine starters lost to graduation.
For head coach Mike Leonard, it's the reality of college football with constant turnover among the personnel. The good news for the Grizzlies is they will have plenty of program veterans to lean on heading into the regular season, and those players have welcomed that responsibility with open arms.
"The mindset of our team is that we want to re-load for this year," Leonard noted. "We have a different team this year than last year but that's exciting for our team and our coaching staff. We're excited about the attitude of our team and it's been great watching guys grow into their new roles. We're starting to get an idea of who's going to what role and we're going to be tested early on when we put those pieces into place in-game."
The biggest change comes under center, where senior Spencer Fox and juniors Braden Smith, Evan Deig and Robbie Strader are all competing to fill the void left by three-year starter Chase Burton at quarterback. Smith served as the team's primary backup a year ago, throwing for 404 yards and completing 57.3 percent of his passes. Fox also saw time in a backup role a year ago, going 13-for-17 for 158 yards and a touchdown.
In the backfield, junior Jacob Earl is the top returning ball-carrier for the Grizzlies. The Tangier, Ind.-native finished with 526 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago, and is the leading candidate to replace First Team All-HCAC running back Jordan Brown, who led the team in rushing a year ago.
Fellow juniors Austin Grunden and Payton Healy will be battling with freshman Antonio Burks for touches out of the backfield, giving the Grizzlies plenty of options to line up behind their new signal caller.
The Grizzlies' pass catchers will also feature a new look after the team graduated 72 percent of the team's catches from a year ago. Senior Brad Bonomini and his 45 catches are tops among all returners, followed by 20 from fellow senior Ben Fleet. The two are joined by 16 other wideouts, creating a fierce competition for targets in training camp between a slew of newcomers and several returners hungry to make an impact.
The team will also feature a new starting tight end following the departures of Alex Smith and Kole Butler. Senior Devin Parrish is the lone program mainstay at the position and will be pushed by freshmen Christian English and Mickey Koczersut.
Up front, Franklin returns the only two starters on the offensive side of the ball in tackle Paul Eisberg and guard Matt Anderson. Although the Grizzlies graduated a trio of all-conference protectors, the team features returner in Andrew Longstreth, Austin Woiteshek, Colten Pipenger, Logan Wynn Tre Akers and Avery Bundy, as well as Michael Eisberg, who is making the switch from defensive line to offensive line.
That group of returners will be joined by 14 incoming freshmen, giving Franklin plenty of depth in the trenches.
The Grizzlies will have no shortage of bodies to turn to as they aim to replicate the success of last year. At the heart of it is a determined group of upper-classmen that are determined to make sure that even if the faces are different, the end result of a conference championship is the same outcome.
"We have 41 upper-classmen back and they've done a great job getting everyone up to speed on the way we do things in our program," Leonard added. "We're all in this together as players and coaches and we must play to our strengths. The tough thing is that finding those things out takes time."
For part two of the preview highlighting the defense and special teams, click here.