When the Chapman football team kicks off its season Sept. 10 at Linfield University, it will hope for a better start than last season. In their first game last year, the Panthers (4-5, 4-3) were defeated 52-14 by Linfield College (12-1, 9-0) in a game where the most memorable play may have been a flop by then-sophomore kicker William James, which was put on YouTube under the title “Worst Flop in College Football History?” and has more than 345,000 views.
Following the Linfield game, the Panthers lost their next two games, and three of their first five conference games. Though the Panthers would go on to finish with a winning 4-3 record in the conference, those three losses marked the first time since 2011 that Chapman lost more than two conference games in a season.
Coming after a conference title-winning 2014 season, head coach Bob Owens said the decline in performance can largely be attributed to a loss of talented players, and how difficult it is to remain at a constantly competitive level in college football.
“I think like most programs, when you go on a run of three or four straight years, you lose people, and especially at the collegiate level,” Owens said. “There’s no team in the country where they have three or four straight years that they don’t lose a great senior class or a combination of junior-senior class. Then they’re in that rebuilding mode, and that’s kind of where we found ourselves (last season).”
Junior quarterback Mac Vail said this cycle of negativity was largely due to the way the team dealt with its struggles.
“I think we need to do a better job of handling adversity,” Vail said. “When things go wrong, we need to look internally and make adjustments to be better the following week.”
Vail added that the most important thing for Chapman’s offense is to maintain consistency.
“To win on offense, we need to be consistent and limit negative plays,” Vail said. “If we keep the chains moving, good things will happen and our offense will be effective.”
Even though the team lost more than 20 players after last season, Owens said he had a good idea of where the team’s strengths and question marks lie. The head coach said the team’s groups of linebackers, defensive linemen, wide receivers and quarterbacks all look strong and competitive.
“The question marks are going to be in our secondary and just finding the right guys to complete that group,” Owens said. “And there’s some question marks in our running back core and our offensive line.”
The running back position is one that Chapman has rarely had to worry about in previous seasons, with the school’s all-time rushing yards leader, Jeremiah McKibbins, leading the way.
“We obviously have had a three-year period of having the most talented running backfield in the conference,” Owens said. “We’ve been spoiled, not just by (Jeremiah) McKibbins, but the other guys – Kean Stancil, Terrell Dolberry and Cody Chapple. And that’s four guys that could have gone to most teams in our conference and started.”
At this point in late summer, the team has just kicked off its training camp, only beginning drills with pads on in the last week.
The dynamic and expectations of the team can be reflected in the team’s large group of returning players as well as incoming players, something that Owens said he was most excited for going into the season.
“We think we’ve got some solid returning players, and we’ve got some pretty exciting new players, both transfers and freshmen,” Owens said. “I think the excitement for us is being able to blend those two products together. And it’s the excitement and the challenge.”
Owens said that it’s tough to assess exactly what the team will look like when it starts, but that his expectations haven’t changed.
“Expectations are the same as they’ve always been,” Owens said. “Play hard, give major effort and challenge each team that we play. We want to make each team that we compete against play hard, and we want to make the least mistakes between the two of us, and that gives us an opportunity to win.”