Coming off their first-ever conference championship, the Azusa Pacific football team will head into the upcoming offseason with a number of positions that need to be filled as players look to continue their success as a national contender.
The team will lose 16 seniors and has big holes to fill in the linebacker, defensive back and center positions. Although the squad will be losing key starters like middle linebackers Sean Barber, Ethan Danielson and Jake Henderson, center Lance Barker and both starting corners in David Smith and Silas Goma, the Cougars will have a strong core of returners in place to fill those holes and step up to provide the leadership that will be missed with this year’s senior class.
According to head coach Victor Santa Cruz, there are a number of men he expects to fill those roles.
“You expect the usual suspects of guys who have had standout stats like Terrell Watson and defensively, guys like Talaiasi Taueli, and really any one of the guys from our junior class to step up,” Santa Cruz said.
Watson, a junior running back whose stats speak for themselves, has accounted for 49.5 percent of the team’s total offense, rushing for 1,753 yards and scoring 20 touchdowns. He is heading into next season hoping to continue setting a positive example for his teammates.
“I need to go into this offseason and get ready like I never have before, and work to get better and work like I’m at the bottom instead of working like I’m at the top,” said Watson.
Santa Cruz and the Cougars will also look to players like sophomore wide receiver Tanner Henry, junior free safety Tyler Thornton and freshman kick returner, punt returner, running back and wide receiver Tarik Myles.
Henry started in 2011 as a true freshman and caught 19 passes for 277 yards and four touchdowns in the season. He has battled injuries for much of the past two seasons, but is looking forward to adding dimension to an already-powerful running game.
“Everyone knows we have Terrell, the best running back in Division II, but as a leader and being a receiver, we want to try and balance out the offense a little more with the pass game,” Henry said. “So to help him and the offense to put more points up, we’re going to have to balance things and take pressure off him.”
Thornton, an All-Conference player as a sophomore in 2012, was this season’s leading tackler. He will be expected to continue his outstanding play-making and become more of a leader in 2014.
“I just want to be that guy that people can come to and talk to about school, football or just life and be that role model and mentor the young guys because I’ve been in those shoes,” said Thornton.
Myles is a true freshmen who will provide many dimensions to the Cougars’ offense and special teams. This season, he has been used out of the backfield, from the slot and has become the team’s main return man, returning both punts and kicks. The only touchdown he scored this season was a 92-yard kick return in a key road win at Central Washington, but his 8-catch, 98-yard performance against Western Oregon at home was the Cougars’ best receiving performance all year.
The Cougars beat the Simon Fraser Clan in their last game of the season on Saturday, Nov. 16 by the score of 28-19. Their regular season record ended with a 9-2 overall record
The Victory Bowl in Rome, Ga., is the final game of the year for the Cougars’ football team and will be played on Saturday, Nov. 23. After this game, a new chapter begins with new leaders, but the same goals.