By: Chris Bendel – Staff Writer
A quarterback battle—something Dayton’s football program has not seen in four years—highlights the storylines surrounding the team as summer camp winds down and the 2015 regular season begins.
After finishing 8-3 and second in the Pioneer Football League in 2014, the Flyers return eight starters on both sides of the ball, led by redshirt senior Connor Kacsor, the reigning Pioneer Football League Offensive Player of the Year and preseason All-American tailback, a seasoned group on the offensive line and a senior-laden defense.
Kacsor rushed for a team-high and PFL-leading 1,547 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, with seven games over 100 yards. He also became Dayton’s career rushing leader during the season, breaking a 35-year-old record.
Senior receiver Cory Stuart, who recorded 34 receptions and three touchdowns last season, will lead a relatively inexperienced receiving core alongside senior tight end Ian Palin, who started in five games last season. The group will look to take some of the load off Kacsor as the Flyers offense adjusts to more new faces than the unit has become accustomed to over the last few years.
After 15 seasons with the program, former offensive coordinator Chris Ochs elected not to return to the team for the 2015 season, where he also coached Dayton’s offensive line. Ochs had served as the offensive coordinator since 2012, overseeing an offense that averaged 30.4 points per game last year.
The team will continue to attack predominantly with UD’s signature spread offense, according to head coach Rick Chamberlin, but for the first time since 2011, the man in the shotgun position and calling the signals remains undecided as the season nears.
Four-year starting quarterback Will Bardo graduated in May after leading the team to a 27-17 record. Bardo only missed two starts during his tenure as UD’s starting QB and provided the Flyers with a steady – though not flashy – hand behind center.
The search to replace Bardo began shortly after the end of last season, played out during spring drills and continues into the waning days of preseason camp, with two likely candidates emerging. Engaged in a battle for the starting quarterback job, both redshirt sophomore Blake Bir and redshirt senior Luke Johnson have had an opportunity to command UD’s first-team.
A Covington Catholic High School graduate out of Northern Kentucky, Bir could have the upper hand from his experience as the second quarterback on the depth chart during the 2014 season. As Bardo’s backup, Bir saw action in five games, going 9-for-24 for 95 yards and one interception.
Johnson returns for a fifth year and offers slightly more experience behind center, though less recently. He did not attempt a pass during the 2014 season, but as Bardo’s primary backup in 2013, Johnson went 30-for-57 for 327 yards and had a pair of touchdowns and interceptions apiece.
“Both have talent,” Chamberlin said. “What you have to find out is who can get the job done under the pressure. We’re going to put as much pressure as we can on those two young men in different situations and see who makes the play when we need it.”
The team will look to name the starter by the week of the season opener at the latest, according to Chamberlin.
“I really feel like it will be a battle down to the end… It will be interesting to see how this all falls into place,” he said.
Regardless of who quarterbacks the team in the opener, the passing game will look to shoulder more of a load in production than it did last season, when it ranked just No. 8 in the PFL but was buoyed by the threat of Kascor and the league’s No. 1 ranked rushing attack.
In the PFL’s annual coaches’ preseason poll, league coaches picked Dayton to finish second in the 11-team league, whose geographic footprint extends from Florida to Dayton to San Diego, California. League coaches picked San Diego to finish first with Drake rounding out the top three in the poll.
“You could pick any of the top five teams to win the conference,” Chamberlin said. “It’s so competitive now.”
Dayton received three out of 11 possible first place votes.
“For us, we only have one spot that we’re looking at,” senior linebacker and last year’s leading tackler Chris Beaschler said, alluding to the league crown that barely eluded the team last year.
No player on the roster, including the 34 seniors, has a league championship under their belt, unlike Flyer teams of the past few years. Dayton last won the PFL in 2010.
“This year is real to us, especially this senior class,” Beaschler said. “We’re a real tight group and we haven’t won that PFL championship yet. We’re aiming for it.”
Along with Beaschler, whose performance last season earned him a spot on the All-PFL Preseason team, the defense returns another All-PFL preseason selection in senior defensive end Nate Sudnick, who recorded 64 tackles and a team-high 5.5 sacks last season.
Senior safety and second leading tackler Ryan Schwenke also returns paired with senior safety Danny Leach, who recorded two interceptions a year ago. Senior cornerback Cameron Stubbs and sophomore cornerback Christian Searles round out a secondary that was rated the No. 1 pass defense in the PFL last season.
The Flyers begin the 2015 season Saturday against Robert Morris in Pittsburgh, and will return to Welcome Stadium in the team’s new uniforms Saturday, Sept. 19, for the home opener against Duquesne.