WEST LIBERTY - There may not be a college football coach anywhere in America who has to replace more top-level talent than West Liberty's Roger Waialae this fall.
After bidding farewell to a 24-man senior class that helped the Hilltoppers become the first NCAA Division II team to lead the nation in scoring and total offense in back-to-back seasons, Waialae can't wait to set out in pursuit of a seventh consecutive winning season and a return to postseason play.
''Obviously, we're replacing a very special group,'' said Waialae, who is 46-21 (.687) at the West Liberty helm. ''But with our system, we can replace the production. The key for us will be replacing the leadership.''
Graduation casualties from the 2010 roster include quarterback Zach Amedro, who completed more passes for more yards than any player in NCAA Division-II history; tight end Ryan Travis, who led the nation in receiving and receiving yards before signing with the NFL's Seattle Seahawks; tailback Kevon Calhoun, who had consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons and is the school's career scoring leader; and linebacker Clay Beeler, the 2010 WVIAC Defensive Player of the Year.
''In the past, our leaders have always come from the skill positions,'' Waialae noted. ''This year, we've seen the returning veterans on the offensive and defensive lines step up to fill that role. We have 21 seniors on our roster who want to carve out their own legacy.''
West Liberty clearly has earned the respect of the other conference coaches, who installed the Hilltoppers as a solid No. 2 choice behind defending champion Shepherd in their preseason poll. The Rams had six first-place votes and 77 points while WLU earned the other three first-place votes and 74 points. Fairmont State was a distant third with 50 points.
The Hilltoppers kick off the 2011 season Sept. 3 with a trip to perennial PSAC powerhouse Edinboro (Pa.)
''Our goal is to win our first game,'' said Waialae, noting that his Hilltoppers are 2-4 in season openers. ''We need to get off to a good start and we only have 24 practices to get our skill position people in place and up to game speed. Edinboro is my only concern right now.''
Here's a position-by-position look at West Liberty heading into preseason camp:
Former Florida schoolboy phenom L.D. Crow began his college career as Andrew Luck's backup at Stanford and completed 7 of 12 passes for 135 yards and a TD as the No. 2 guy for Central Florida's Conference USA championship team last fall before transferring to West Liberty for his final two seasons. Redshirt sophomores Tyler Tucci and Chris Kiedaisch each saw playing time behind Amedro during the past two season while Ben Rogers, a true freshman from Georgia, is coming off a record-setting high school career.
''They all bring something to the table,'' Waialae said.
''L.D. is a pro-style pocket passer with a big arm. Tyler gives us an added dimension with his running ability, Chris has run our offense under fire and Ben really fits our system. It's a wide-open competition.''
Virtually overlooked among all the Hilltoppers' passing numbers is the fact that they've produced a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the last six seasons. DeVaughn Gordon ran for 161 yards and four TDs as Calhoun's backup last year while Fairmont State transfer Scott Victorio, a Brooke graduate, ran for 473 yards on more than 100 carries in two years with the Falcons. Brandon Davis, another Central Florida transfer, is a former high school All-American who showed flashes of brilliance while battling injuries in three seasons at UCF. Also on hand are redshirt freshman Tony Dumas and true freshmen Alex Adams, Tyler Hardesty (Cambridge), Jon Mahan and Chris Smelley (Bridgeport).
''DeVaughn had more than 100 all-purpose yards in his only start last year while Scotty showed some big-play ability in the spring. Brandon hasn't had much game action the past two years but he's an extremely talented guy. Tony's still raw but we like what we've seen and we're very excited about our freshmen.''
The receiving corps lost Travis, All-WVIAC WR Jermaine Carter and veteran WR Willie Walker, who combined for 228 catches, 2,654 yards and 30 TDs last year. Speedy Brandon Carver (22 catches, 417 yards, two TDs) returns after leading the team with a 19.0 yard-per-catch average. Also back is WR Brandon Schroeder, who emerged as a reliable possession receiver. TE Daniel McDaniel is a devastating blocker whose return will boost the passing and rushing attack. Redshirt freshman WR Lloyd Phillips blocked two punts in the spring game and has game-breaking speed while sophomore WR Travis Coon had a 20-yard TD grab in the spring game. Junior-college WRs Gerryl Bennett and Hakeem Cartwright need to be quick studies while Florida freshmen Marvin Murray and Marcus Brown could be impact players. Freshman Jesse Rose projects in the slot with Payne Shanafelt, Garrett Price (Bridgeport) and Kane Boroski (Linsly) also vying for time.
''Murray and Brown may be the best freshman receivers we've ever signed and there isn't a wide receiver on the roster I'd be afraid to play,'' Waialae said.
Led by All-American senior tackle Larry Wriedt, the Hilltoppers could field one of the nation's best offensive lines. The only departed starter is All-Region center Nick Madia but senior Jose Baez moves to the middle where he'll be flanked by four returning starters. Sophomore Sawyer Russell and senior Dan Srch are back at the guard spots while Wriedt and Ryan Scaperotta resume their roles as bookend tackles. Top reserves include senior vet Randy Lemus, juco transfer Jordan Gibson, sophomore Nate Maleski, who also helps out at tight end and fullback, Austin Phillips, Connor Leckey, Dino Herrera, Tyler Tanner and Josh Varney. Tyler Abron, James Billiter, Charlie Crabtree, Brian Wells and Zach Wichterman form a solid class of newcomers.
''The offensive line will be the backbone of our team,'' Waialae said. ''We have a lot of guys capable of playing at this level and some really good freshmen. Brian Wells is one of the best freshmen centers we've had. If football games are won in the trenches, we should be in pretty good shape.''
There's depth and talent to spare on the defensive front, as well. Three of the four returning starters - NG Matt Betz, DT Leonidas Redding and DE Isaac Omaits - were All-WVIAC picks last fall. The other defensive end spot shapes up as a battle between junior Nick Augustyn, coming off a medical redshirt; returning junior letterman Nathan Parry, Fairmont State transfer Bryan Spruill, juco transfers Tevita Fehoko and Benedict Faolotoi and redshirt freshman David Huggins. Also in the mix at defensive end are returning players Josh Flint and Mike Waderker along with newcomer Chaz Billiter and converted TE Matt Shyosky. Helping anchor the inside rotation are returning lettermen Jake Lilly and Ryan Hughes along with redshirt freshman Zack Turley. Sophomore DE Derrick Rovira, who had a school record 99-yard fumble return at Seton Hill last fall, will miss this season with a medical redshirt.
''I like the talent and versatility,'' Waialae said. ''A lot of these guys play more than one position which allows us to expand our rotation. We could go 8 to 10 deep on game day.''
Graduation exercises took their toll at linebacker but the departures of Beeler and fellow four-year vets Mike Buffo and Fred Kimbro cleared the way for new faces to emerge. Leading a strong group of returners are seniors Dustin Whittlesey and Dan Carrel along with sophomores Marcus Raney and T.J. Lesniewski and redshirt freshman Tyler Druschel. Highly touted newcomers include Kyle Augustin, a first team All-California juco honoree; Mike Jefferson, leading tackler on a nationally ranked Good Counsel (Md.) High School team; Quinton Sifford, an All-Conference standout on an unbeaten North Carolina state champion; Lukas Turley, a two-time all-state linebacker from western Pennsylvania; Curt Smelley, a first team All-Ohio Division VI honoree from Bridgeport; Dylan Dominico, another all-conference pick from western Pennsylvania and Gavin Hutchison, an all-conference selection from central Ohio.
''This is probably the most talented group of newcomers on our roster,'' Waialae said. ''The competition is so wide open I wouldn't even want to guess who might come out on top, but we'll be putting some quality athletes on the field.''
Senior Carl Hayles returns at one cornerback while sophomore letterman Justin Black stepped up at the other spot in the spring. Returning senior letterman Laurence Johnson will also push for time. Juco transfer Korneill Howard is penciled in here but could also help out at safety while true freshman Eric Cowan should be an impact newcomer after helping lead his high school team to three straight North Carolina state titles. Other new faces include redshirt freshman Rod White and sophomore transfer Josh White along with true freshmen Najee Crawford and Sean Kinahan.
''Justin Black had a big spring,'' Waialae said, ''and Eric Cowan is the first high school All-American we've signed here so we expect him to compete right away. The thing I like about this group is we took experienced kids who have been through the fire, helped them get better in the spring and added some pretty talented new faces.''
The Hilltoppers have numerous options at the three safety spots. Sophomore Alec Wood, the team's second-leading tackler and the WVIAC Defensive Rookie of the Year at will safety last fall, will switch to strong safety while senior Lawrence Robinson returns at free safety. Sophomore Marco Ricchetti, who lettered as a true freshman, should see his playing time increase. P.J. Polsley and Scott Houghton are two more veterans in the mix with such new faces as Howard, Dominique Sherman, D'Andre Muhammed, Derek Mills and Devante Sims being bolstered by the addition of true freshmen Marcus Schumacher and Tanner Stocker.
''Most of these kids can play multiple positions,'' Waialae said. ''That makes it easier to mix and match with our different calls. I don't know if we'll have set starters at every position or just go with a rotation but we'll sort that out.''
The Hilltoppers will have a new punter and placekicker with the graduation of two-year starter Mike Blewett. Strong-legged sophomore Jeff Hoak handled kickoffs last year but will be pushed for the placekicking job by newcomers Lucas Tournay and Josh Wilson. Griffin Yocum, Payne Shanafelt and Gerryl Bennett will battle for the punting job. There are plenty of long snappers, led by Russell, Baez and Josh Flint, but one of Waialae's priorities in preseason camp will be developing a holder.
''As far as kickers go,'' Waialae said, ''I'm not looking for the strongest leg as much as I'm looking for consistency. All we want our punter to do is kick the ball out of bounds 35 yards downfield. We're in good shape with long snappers but we have to identify a holder in camp. We have probably 20 kids who can return kicks but that's something else that will be settled in the preseason.''
Sept. 3: at Edinboro (Pa.)1:30 p.m.
Sept. 10: So. Connecticut1 p.m.
Sept. 17: at W.Va. Wesleyan1 p.m.
Sept. 24: Fairmont State1 p.m.
Oct. 1: at Glenville State1 p.m.
Oct. 8: W.Va. State1 p.m.
Oct. 15: at ShepherdNoon
Oct. 22: at Charleston1 p.m.
Oct. 29: Seton Hill1 p.m.
Nov. 5: Concord 1 p.m.
Nov. 12: at UNC-Pembroke1 p.m.
Win 7, Lose 4