The NECC big division could be a fascinating race in 2021.
Fairfield has won the division each of the last two seasons, but the margin for error is razor thin when you are only talking about four games to decide the divisional champion.
In 2020, Fairfield was perfect in the division. Last season, the Falcons went 3-1, but three of the other four teams went 2-2. Literally anyone could have come out with a title over the last couple of weeks and that makes things interesting.
Don’t expect that to change in 2022, so while Blitz will predict a favorite and all, this could be an open race in a lot of ways.
The Hornets have a lot to replace, but things have started to trend their way in a possible return to the top of the NECC Big Division after a couple of down seasons. It helps to have a quarterback return for a third season in Tyler Call, who threw for 867 yards and ran for 411 last season; Call will see some competition from junior Micah Steury. The quarterback will be leaned on heavily with the graduation of Finley Hasselman changing a lot of things about Angola’s offense.
If Angola is to keep things interesting on offense, it will need to be willing to change things up between the run and the pass with Andre Tagliaferri (146 yards rushing) being a guy who will be expected to breathe life into the Hornets and get them up the field on offense alongside Call. Lane King will also be relied upon heavily to get the Hornets moving as the top returning receiver. Angola did score the most points in the NECC Big Division last season. Rylan Gebhart is Angola’s only significant returner across the offensive line.
Angola also gave up the most points in the NECC Big Division last season, so things will need to find an upward groove there. Jake Land is part of the big push back on defense this season, the head of a really solid group of returners. Land though may be the most important as an energy guy that spurs on the effort of others. Two-way lineman Jack Archbold will be another guy who is expected to have a big year and be a run stopper in the run-heavy NECC; both he and Land have two years of starting experience for Angola’s defense. Wyatt Maggart returns at linebacker for the Hornets, who also bring back Michael Burelison and Ethan Miller in the defensive backfield.
“We have to play with an edge. We must get tougher. We cannot sit back and wait for things to happen.
We must force the action,” Angola coach Andy Thomas said.
The Railroaders may be the most top-heavy team offensively in the NECC Big Division with a host of starters returning, with most having had really good seasons in 2021. Running back Robert Koskie ran the ball 209 times for 907 yards last season with five games over 100 yards rushing, including 164 yards in a win over Angola. Aaden Lytle will return at quarterback for his junior season after throwing for 1,275 yards and running for 284 yards. Lytle loses three of his top four favorite targets, but back will be Luke Holcomb (239 rec. yards) and Kaiden Colburn (134 rec. yards). Guys like Jack O’Connor and Konner DeWitt will lead the offensive line as Garrett looks to improve upon its third-best scoring offense in the division from last year.
Kyle Smith (91 tackles, 1 fumble recovery touchdown) will return to lead the Railroader defense at linebacker with Cody Bickley (67 tackles) expected to have a solid uptick this season. Koskie will be part of the linebacker corps as well. Garrett picked off 13 passes last season and its defensive backfield was solid, but graduation wiped a lot of that away other that Colburn. The junior led the Railroaders with four interceptions in 2021.
WEST NOBLE CHARGERS
The Chargers are going to benefit from having a lot of skill position guys back, including Drew Yates who got thrown into the fire last year with mixed results at quarterback. Yates will head into his junior year after throwing for 895 yards and running for another 221. His completion percentage and TD/INT ratio need improvement, but that’s why you get your feet wet as a sophomore, right?
Nobody coming back caught more than five passes in 2021 though the Chargers will line up David Slone and Noah Dubea (5 receptions, 66 yards) in those spots. Expect the offense then to lean on senior Zach Beers and sophomore Seth Pruitt, who combined for 763 of the team’s 1,389 rushing yards last season. Playing tight end as well, Beers could have the chance to be a head turner for the Chargers.
On the defensive side of the ball, there is a solid returning core along the line. Mike Lecount, Abram Olvera, Brady Shields and Keegan Clark will be big as defensive tackles with Andrew Saggers, Andrew Magdich and Pruitt at defensive end positions. Beers (one interception) is back at middle linebacker
“(We have) several young skilled players with good team speed, and the makings of a strong OL/DL. We are going to have to develop depth in several areas and concentrate on special teams going forward, getting everyone on the same page going into the season,” said West Noble coach Monte Mawhorter.
Two giant offensive threats are gone with the graduation of Braedon Helms and Johnathan Estep, but still the defending big division champions are going to be a threat with a large presence of guys with multiple years in important positions on the varsity level. For Fairfield to value the football better, things will start in the hands of returning quarterback Carter Kitson, who showed solid mobility in keeping Fairfield’s option offense diverse last season. Kitson ran for 434 yards while occasionally dropping back to pass, mostly to Helms. While Cohen Custer may acquire a lot of the handoffs, Kitson will have Owen Bustamante and Alex Hofer as receiver options. There are also newcomer options for Fairfield to keep its run game strong in Sawyer Ernsberger and others; Fairfield had 10 different guys rush the ball last season.
But Fairfield is likely to be tougher on defense than on the offensive side. Custer (67 tackles, 3 interceptions) is going to be a major anchor for the defense in about every way. Custer will be joined in the defensive backfield by Kitson (3 interceptions) and Marco Garcia (2 interceptions). Brock Berkey (47 tackles, 3 sacks) is also going to be tough defensively at linebacker while Dayton Lockwood will anchor the defensive line alongside two-way linemen Derek Moles, Caleb Becker, Wesley Riegsecker, Ethan Hochstetler and Nic Hofer.
“Our biggest strength defensively is the experience we have returning in multiple positions and those experiences will help us out in several areas,” said Fairfield coach Matt Thacker.
Lakeland returns a lot from last season’s three-win effort so there could be an uptick in this tight NECC Big Division with the Lakers joining the party. Three big offensive threats all return with Deion Marshall, who threw for 1,018 yards last season, and Owen Troyer (22 catches, 307 yards) as well as a strong back in Khamron Malaivanh (128 carries, 514 yards). So needless to say, Lakeland’s offense will remain intact in many ways. The Lakers also return four offensive linemen in Ben Martin, Jayheth Dominguez, Cam Riegling and Payton Cowley and tight end Johnny Wright, so the support staff is in place for Marshall to lead the way.
Even as a big school in the NECC, Lakeland has a lot of guys who are playing important roles on both sides of the ball. Riegling is the top returner in tackles with 44 last season, which ranked second on the team in 2021. He is the only player in the top seven in tackles for Lakeland a year ago that is back. Troyer (25 tackles) is the only other returner who was in the top 10 last season. Troyer (1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery) and Marshall will lead the defensive backfield that will also include sophomore Drannon Miller. Riegling is part of a solid linebacker group that includes Jeremiah Hart, Cole Frost and Carson Mickem.
One thing to keep an eye on: could freshman quarterback Brayden Holbrook and freshman receiver Levi Cook vie for time to make the offense deeper?
“[We have] lots of returning weapons in the perimeter and in the backfield,” Lakeland coach Ryan O’Shea said. “We must get them the ball in space.”
Robert Koskie, Garrett
It is possible that Koskie was one of the toughest running backs to take down across northeast Indiana last fall. He is a powerful back that averaged 90.7 yards per game and was able to sustain a high usage rate. He will be used just as much this year with more guys keying on him, but will they actually have any luck?
Cohen Custer, Fairfield
He is hard nosed and gets after it on defense. He returns as the top player in tackles for the Falcons and also had three interceptions. Custer’s aggressiveness is a game changer for Fairfield and his leadership could prove significantly valuable.
Deion Marshall, Lakeland
Marshall may be one of the most talented players in the NECC that nobody is talking enough about. He is mobile as a quarterback even if he didn’t run a lot last season. He rushed for 97 yards and three scores, so the ability is there. If Marshall can be more diverse running the offense, Lakeland could have some surprising outcomes.
NECC SMALL DIVISION PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
3. West Noble
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