Photo courtesy of Flyer News.
As construction continues to replace the grass at the Jerry Von Mohr Practice Field with artificial turf, the Dayton Flyers football team began fall camp Aug. 8 with excited expectations for their first game in 651 days against Robert Morris at home Sept. 4.
The turf practice field is expected to be finished in mid-September, and the switch is just a small part of the change the Flyers football team will experience in 2021. Taking the field for the first time in nearly two years in front of UD fans, facing the challenge of youth and inexperience in some key units on the roster, and the excitement that comes with any new season have the Flyers motivated going into fall camp.
“I know our players, our coaches, our fans are going into the 2021 season with a little more excitement and looking forward to the start of the season,” Flyers head coach Rick Chamberlin said in a media availability session Aug. 6. “We haven’t played in front of a crowd since our last game in 2019. And so that’ll be, I think, a little incentive for the players. What we’ll have to tell them is, don’t try to do too much, just do what you’ve been practicing. But what I’m really excited for is the Dayton community, that they get to be a part of a Flyer football game again.”
Players like senior running back Jake Chisholm and fifth-year senior safety Brandon Easterling, who are co-captains along with senior quarterback Jack Cook, have never experienced such a wide gap between games, which presents both challenges and benefits.
Rest has been the biggest positive to come from such a long time away from real, competitive games, along with time for added preparation for the 2021 season. But on the other side, the players have also been away from their “groove.”
“Probably the biggest challenge is just getting back into the groove of the season,” Chisholm said. “We haven’t felt that grind of a season in a couple of years, and I think that’s just something we’ll need to get adjusted to. I don’t think it will take much time to get adjusted to it again, but it’s just something, time-wise, you just got to get back into it, and I think we’ll be fine.”
For Flyers head coach Rick Chamberlin, time has been something that he thinks will pay off for the Flyers this season. After the fall season was cancelled, the Pioneer Football League played a spring season instead, which the Flyers opted-out of.
“I think just having a normal winter and spring, what the benefits were it helped give us time for development, both physically and as football players,” Chamberlin said. “Instead of just trying to cram everything in to play some games in the spring. That’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to make sure we ran our best, because we wanted the PFL championship in the fall of 2021.”
Chamberlin said he also thought the extra time has given ample opportunity for the young players who have yet to play in a game the needed time to develop more. The inexperience and lack of any games played by the team since Nov. 2019, the Flyers are predicted to finish fourth in the PFL preseason poll.
“Half of me didn’t really care because it’s a preseason poll,” Easterling said. “But then in the back of my mind, it ticks me off a little bit, along with the rest of the team. We have a really high standard here, and I don’t know if not having a season last year played an impact on that preseason grade, but we’re definitely ready to go.”
Easterling also said he thinks being out of sight, out of mind from not playing in the spring is the “exact reason” for the lower preseason expectations.
“But like I said, we’re definitely ready to prove that wrong.”
Of the team’s inexperience on the roster, the Flyers’ offensive line is the main focus, as the unit returns zero starters from 2019. All 13 players listed at an offensive line position (center, offensive guard/lineman/tackle) on the Flyers’ roster are classified as redshirt freshman or younger. For Chamberlin, that will be a point of focus to work on through fall camp. But the process will be helped with plenty of experience in the backfield, with Chisholm and Cook leading the way.
“I think (our experience) will be big, it’ll be really big,” Chisholm said. “Just to have two experienced guys back in that backfield to help out that offensive line, make sure they’re comfortable, and help guide them into those roles that they’re going to be filling, and I know they’ll pick it up quick. They proved their improvement from the winter, our practice back in the fall, and then into the spring their improvement was pretty dramatic.”
The Stats Perform FCS Preseason Third Team All-American and First Team All-PFL selection expects the offensive line’s improvement to be “even better” through fall camp, and that he and the quarterback on the Stats Perform Walter Payton Watch List to help lead the lineman and “fit their mold.”
“I think they’ll be ready,” Chisholm said.
The receiver and tight end positions are also young and inexperienced, with Chisholm being the only returning player to receive more than 10 passes in 2019. Losses of current New Orleans Saints tight end Adam Trautman, and dependable receivers like Ryan Skibinski, Kyle Butz, and Markus Hurd will also be a major challenge for Cook to overcome. After passing for 2,697 yards and a Flyer record 33 touchdowns, Cook will need to find new targets in the 2021 season. Redshirt freshman Cole Dow passed for one touchdown (to true freshman Joe Swanson) and ran for another in the Flyers’ exhibition game against Ashland at Welcome Stadium April 17.
Alongside Cook in the backfield, Chisholm is the leading man, returning from a season with 112.9 yards per game on the ground and 230 yards and 3 touchdowns on 23 receptions. Chisholm is backed up by two redshirt freshmen (Brian Doneghy, Jr. and Michael Neel) and four true freshmen.
On defense, Easterling will be the experienced leader for a group that faced the similar challenges of youth and inexperience in 2019, but now returns as a solid cast of players.
The defensive line will have to replace ends Brennan Burdo and Michael Newbold, with redshirt sophomores Joe Durham and Mason Stauffer being the only players returning with playing experience. In the middle of the line, the Flyers return both starters, junior Mike Stodola and redshirt sophomore Kyle Finnick, but are backed up by just one game of playing experience (redshirt sophomore Jake Lyons). Stodola and Finnick combined for 49 total tackles, 6 for loss, and 4.5 sacks in 2019, and will be important pieces for the Flyers run-stopping and quarterback pressuring this season.
At linebacker, the Flyers bring back one starter in Grant Dyer (redshirt sophomore), but lose Anthony Best to graduation. Dyer finished second on the team in total tackles (67) and tied-second in tackles for loss (4.5). The Flyers will likely turn to Dyer’s back-up in 2019, redshirt sophomore Danny Meehan, to play at the second linebacker spot, but could turn to senior Shane Ferrick. Behind Dyer, Meehan and Ferrick, the Flyers are fairly deep, with five players in reserve.
At the hybrid Flyer (or $$) position, the Flyers have the third-leading tackler in redshirt sophomore Zach Rumpke (66 tackles, team-leading 6 for loss), who also led the team in sacks (3) and finished tied for second with 2 interceptions. Rumpke was also named Preseason All-PFL. Behind him, redshirt sophomore Owen Smith played in all 11 games, finishing with 10 total tackles in 2019. Redshirt freshman Joe Craft is joined by true freshman Grant Russell and Jacob Schachte in reserve.
In the secondary, the Flyers are also strong, especially at cornerback and strong safety.
At cornerback, senior A.J. Watson returns from a leg injury that cut short his 2019 season after 9 games played (7 starts), and is flanked on the other side by redshirt sophomore Sam Broom, who finished with 32 total tackles and 1 interception in 2019. Fellow redshirt sophomore Logan Tate is the back-up with the most experience (4 games played), but redshirt freshman Elijah Smith and true freshman Bryce Jamison could also play a few snaps in 2021.
At free safety, the Flyers lose veteran leader Tim Simon – who finished with 62 total tackles, 4 pass break ups and 2 interceptions in 2019 – and senior back-up Drake Yinger. If healthy, senior Joe Bubonics could be the answer after missing the 2019 season with a leg injury and moving to the safety position in the long 2020-21 offseason. In 2018, Bubonics tallied 39 total tackles in 10 games played (7 starts) as a cornerback. Redshirt freshmen Logan Dalton and Matt Lenti are more likely to see playing time at free safety back-up, with the strong safety position firmly in the hands of a preseason All-American and Buck Buchanan Award Watch List safety, Brandon Easterling.
In 2019, Easterling led the team with 140 total tackles, 82 of them solo to lead FCS in per game average (7.5), finished with 3.5 tackles for loss, and led the team with 6 interceptions. The Fairborn, Ohio, native also finished with 4 pass break ups and 3 fumble recoveries. Simply put, Easterling is the engine that will drive the Flyers’ defense in 2021.
“I think, first and foremost, our team has a really good, tight-knit group of leaders,” Easterling said. “I think we all, within the leadership roles, play a different part. For me, I think I’m more of a vocal guy, and I take pride every day in making sure that we got the juices going. So just bringing the energy, I think that’s going to be my big role this season is trying to bring the energy at all times.”
Finally, the oft-forgotten special teams will return sophomore starting kicker Sam Webster, who was named Second Team All-PFL in 2019 and Preseason All-PFL this year. Webster finished with 58 PATs and was 8-for-9 on field goal attempts, with a longest kick of 53 yards. At punter, redshirt freshman Drew Nieman returns with just 2 punts for 84 yards in 2019, and could face competition from fellow redshirt freshman Michael Denning. Redshirt freshman long snapper Hayden Synder will be making the snaps for the Flyers in 2021.
After finishing with 29 kickoff returns for 684 yards and an exciting touchdown return against Duquesne, Chisholm is the likely choice for kickoff returns, though that number could lessen as he takes a bigger role in the offensive backfield.
As the Flyers move into fall camp, Easterling sees the summer as their chance to work on physical improvements, and now being the time to work on the mental side of the game.
“This is going to be a big mental ramp-up for us,” Easterling said. “This is when we get our X’s and O’s down, get the kinks out. Build the brotherhood, build the chemistry within the team, and just get ready to roll.”
The Flyers will open the 2021 season against Robert Morris at home at Welcome Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 4 at noon.