WEST LIBERTY - West Liberty University coach Roger Waialae got the Hilltoppers back on track last fall with his seventh winning season in the last eight years.
That 6-5 campaign, which included a pair of victories against regionally ranked foes, was highlighted by stellar performances from a defense that led the nation with six interception returns for touchdown and ranked among the top 20 NCAA Division II teams nationwide in several other categories.
There are plenty of familiar faces returning to that side of the ball this fall but with preseason camp well under way at Russek Field, Waialae and his coaches aren't asking them to repeat their exploits of a year ago.
They're looking to double down.
"We played so well defensively last year that we gave ourselves a chance in every game," said Waialae, who carries a 53-36 (.596) record into his ninth season as head coach. "With a lot of experienced guys back on defense, we've challenged them not to settle for the status quo. We want them going into the season with the mindset that they're going to be better than they were last year."
A youthful offense moved the ball well at times a year ago but an Division II-high 37 turnovers prevented the unit from reaching the levels of confidence and consistency required to break through into the next level.
"Offensively, we're focusing on taking better care of the ball and being more consistent in our execution," Waialae said. "The talent is there. It's just a matter of learning to play together and trusting each other in order to get where we want to go."
With the dissolution of the West Virginia Conference, this year also marks the start of a new era for WLU football as the Hilltoppers have joined 11 other schools as charter members of the Mountain East Conference.
West Liberty kicks things off on the road Sept. 7 when it heads south to take on Catawba (N.C.).
Here's a position-by-position look at how the West Liberty squad shapes up heading into the season.
With the return of All-WVIAC performer Alec Wood from injury, West Liberty is in good shape at all three safety spots. Andrew Faraimo started every game at strong safety last year, Wood was a two-year starter and Tanner Stocker and D'Andre Muhammad also saw plenty of action. Jovontae Johnson returns at free safety after an all-league season and All-WVIAC linebacker Marquis Bradley is moving back to weak safety. There's plenty of talented depth, as well, in Kane Boroski, Miles Young, Ellis Randall and Cordell Felder.
"With Marco Ricchetti redshirting this year, we moved Marquis back to his natural position of weak safety," Waialae said. "With him and Jovontae over the top, we'll be as good as anybody in the country back there. We have a great mix of talent and experience with playmakers who could start at all three spots. These guys make things happen."
Both starters return in All-WVIAC standout Justin Black and fellow senior Rod White. That duo combined for five interceptions a year ago, returning three of them for scores. Also back are lettermen Josh White, Omar Crawford and Garrett Price while freshmen Da'Quan Brown and Carlos Atkinson could also figure into the mix.
"This is another spot where we like our talent, experience and depth," Waialae said. "Justin and Rod had very productive seasons last fall but Crawford, White and Price are coming on. I'd be comfortable with any of them out there and I really like the new kids. We led the nation in scoring on defense and we'd like to keep that going."
Starters probably won't emerge here until the end of camp. Lettermen Marcus Schumacher and Dylan Dominico were the most consistent in the spring along with junior college transfer Jede Fue. Outside safeties Faraimo or Wood could move here and T.J. Lesniewski is back for his senior year. Newcomers Zach Barnes, Garrett Vulcano and Cole Stephen will get long looks.
"We want to get our best 11 guys on the field so we may take a look at Wood or Faraimo here. Schumacher, Dominico and Fue all played well in the spring and Lesniewski's a veteran guy so we have a lot of options. We'll have to see how things go in camp, though, because we think the three freshmen could make a big push if they can pick up our schemes."
The defensive line was hit harder by graduation than any other spot as All-WVIAC standouts Leonidas Redding and Matt Betz departed along with standouts Nick Augustyn, Nate Parry and Bryan Spruill but it again shapes up as a strength. DT Nate Maleski has All-Region potential while DT/DE Derrick Rovira is a three-year letterman who can fill any spot and DT David Huggins played in every game last season. Redshirt freshman DT Darnell Vickers and Hargrave transfer Josh Wilcher add depth inside. On the edge, DE Quinton Sifford had 10.5 tackles for losses as a freshman and DE Josh Quinn returns after sitting out in 2012. Senior DE Vernon Dunnom, junior DE Sam Robinson and sophomore DE Gavin Hutchison are also back. New faces include DE Tim Moody, NG Khalil Seaburn, DT Danair Hardrick and DT Lutena Falatea.
Dylan Lagarde returns for his sophomore season after splitting time with graduated senior L.D. Crow last fall. A late arrival to camp, Lagarde went through some growing pains but completed 90 of 192 passes for 1,150 yards and six TDs. He was the WVIAC Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 302 yards and five TDs at W.Va. State. Senior backup Tyler Tucci is also back with freshmen Dan Leonard, Jerimy Mask and Aaron Fonner looking to make their mark.
"Dylan learned a lot last year and has the most experience," Waialae said. "He has a better understanding of what we want to do so it's just a matter of consistency. Tyler has improved and has a chance to help us. I really like the way the ball comes out of Dan's hand and think he'll be a big-time player for us when he's ready. Jerimy is a terrific athlete who might be the fastest player on the team. Aaron came over from the baseball team but was a three-year starter in high school so he knows what he's doing. The key is we'll have good competition in camp and that's what we want."
Last year's top two rushers - Isiah Moody (618 yards, six TDs) and Kenjay Trueblood (352 yards, touchdowns TDs) - are back while Dominic Cooper returns to the backfield after starting at slot receiver last fall. Moody had a pair of 100-yard rushing games while Trueblood cracked the century mark against W.Va. State. Promising newcomers include Devon Penick, who impressed in the spring game, along with Jeremiah Ortiz, Shavonta Craft and Josh Dent.
"Kenjay was our starter until he got hurt but he looked good in the spring," Waialae said. "Moody finished strong and can also help in the return game while Cooper came to us as a running back and can do a lot of things back there. Penick opened some eyes this spring and we think the three high school guys - Ortiz, Craft and Dent - have a chance to help. I'd like to see one guy take the starting job and run with it but we might just use a rotation and go with the hot hand."
The receiving corps is the biggest question mark with plenty of talent but little experience. Marvin Murray and converted QB Ben Rogers were in the rotation last year but combined to catch just seven passes for 115 yards, while Daree Goodwin added three catches in three games. Transfers Roosevelt Morriset and Dylan Potts played well in the spring and more reinforcements are on the way. Juco transfers Dominique Harris and Jovan Murphy joined the mix in August along with Shepherd transfer Anton McCallum. Freshman recruits include Malik Lockett, Max Kapron, Tyler Peterson, Jordan Bonar and Brandon Dunston.
"Daree really stepped up in the spring," Waialae said, "while Rogers and Murray have proven they can play at this level. We expect Murphy and Harris to have an immediate impact and we liked what we saw from Potts and Morriset in the spring. McCallum was a starting safety at Shepherd in 2011 but we like his explosion at wideout. With all the new faces, how fast they pick up the system will determine how much they play."
Waialae expects the Hilltopper H-Backs, who can line up in the slot, at tight end or fullback, to play a more prominent role this season. Transfer R.J. Thomas, who played in 24 games at California (Pa.) University, is joined by converted junior LB Lukas Turley and redshirt freshman Robert Jones.
"This was probably the position we were most pleased with coming out of spring ball," Waialae said. "We have three athletic H-Backs who can block as well as catch. That's something we haven't had here for a while."
The Hilltoppers welcome back a trio of starters up front in sophomore tackle John McCullough and senior guards Zack Turley and Sawyer Russell. Jordan Gibson sat out last year but has game experience while Jake Turley saw extensive action as a true freshman. Another potential starter, junior Jake Lilly, is coming off an injury. Also back are Mike Berardi, James Tabor, Erik Rose and Eli Crutchfield. Among the newcomers are Eric Burhop, Corey Ernest, Freddie Pflugh, Avery Goff, Caleb Reihner, Charles Conner, Clement Powell and Rafael Delgado.
"We have 19 offensive linemen and all of them have the potential to play," Waialae said. ''McCullough started every game at left tackle as a true freshman last year while Zack Turley and Russell started just about every game at guard. Jake Turley came on strong at the end, as well. In addition, we brought in by far the best freshman group since I've been here. Ernest and Pflugh will push for playing time and I wouldn't be surprised to see one or two other guys emerge."
Punter Griffin Yocum returns for his third season while a replacement must be found for graduated kicker Jeff Hoak. Sawyer Russell will handle the long-snapping duties for the fourth straight season. Black and Cooper get first crack at return duties but several others will get a look.
"I think Sawyer Russell is one of the best long-snappers in the country," Waialae said, "and Yocum has earned some all-conference recognition. Rickey Wilson is back after kicking off for us last year. Josh Wilson kicked in a couple of games, Bryan Arbes was an All-PAC kicker at Waynesburg two ago and we also signed Isaac Boles from Parkersburg South. We'll have good competition here.''