Aug 17, 2018
MITCHELL, S.D. – After a season that saw offensive fireworks each week with the second best offense in the NAIA in total yards per game, it is the Dakota Wesleyan University football team's defense that is ready to prove itself and help the Tigers make a push in the Great Plains Athletic Conference in 2018.
The defense returns some of its key staples to the roster as Eathen Gaulke, Dillon Rork, Tyler Wagner and Cody Reichelt come back to the linebacking core.
Gaulke, who was named All-GPAC Second Team a season ago, returns for his junior season after leading the GPAC with 8.5 sacks on the year. The Kimball, S.D., native ranked 14th in the NAIA in total sacks and ninth nationally in sacks per game with 0.9. He also finished the season third in the GPAC with 12.5 tackles for loss. Rork returns for his senior campaign after being named All-GPAC First Team last year for the first time in his career. He finished last season second on the team with 68 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss. The 6-foot-3-inch, 215-pound linebacker was also second on the team with two interceptions and tallied three sacks. Wagner recorded his best season in a Tiger uniform after leading the team with 72 tackles and notched three tackles for loss. In just his first season, Reichelt found his way into the rotation with the DWU linebackers. In 10 games, the Mitchell, S.D., native recorded 19 solo tackles and 26 total tackles, while tallying 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
"The success of our defense is going to rely on our front seven," head coach Ross Cimpl said. "Fortunately for us, we do have some guys who can come in and get things done."
Along with the linebackers, the defensive backfield and defensive line have reloaded for another season. Returning for their senior seasons in the defensive backfield include Trey DeCroock, Tyrel Haley and Bailey Schriever, along with junior Brandon Slama.
DeCroock will be looked upon to lead the experienced backfield after recording 54 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss during his junior season. Haley transitioned from safety to cornerback last season after leading the team in solo tackles with 51 and 60 total tackles, along with 1.5 tackles for loss and an interception. Slama's season was cut short following an injury; however, he still provided an impact in the six games he played as he totaled 12 solo tackles, 21 total tackles and three tackles for loss.
"The biggest thing for our defense is that we had to change some things because of what we were seeing from other offenses," Cimpl said. "The biggest factor is the experience these guys have, the reps they are taking and the importance they are putting on learning is hopefully translating into being efficient with our scheme."
The final piece to the defense will be the defensive front. Emmanuel Christopher will be the face to lead the defensive line after being named All-GPAC Honorable Mention. Christopher tallied 22 solo tackles, 34 total tackles, nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks during his sophomore season.
"I think there has been a lot of progress with our defensive line," Cimpl said. "Toward the end of last year, we were starting to put things together, and a lot of that had to do with our defensive line. This group is a deep group right now, so we will get to find out who our guys are that can play."
For the first time in several years, there will be new faces leading the Tiger offense. Calling the plays on offense will be first-year offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Loren Endsley, who joins the Tigers from Eastern Oregon University. Joining him on the sidelines will be Matthew Kloss. Kloss comes to DWU after leading the University of Sioux Falls to an NCAA Division II National Playoff appearance in 2017 as the passing game coordinator. He will hold the same position for DWU this season.
"We bring a high amount of energy and excitement," Endsley said about the coaching staff. "We are allowing our guys to play free and fast. We allow them to make mistakes and learn from them. We make sure they don't get too down on themselves."
With the graduation of two-time GPAC Offensive Player-of-the-Year Dillon Turner and his No. 1 target and All-American Hayden Adams, the DWU offense will look for new faces to lead the charge. One of those faces will include a new signal caller as junior Shaye Slaughter takes the reigns at quarterback. Slaughter has seen playing time throughout the previous two seasons, but he will be relied upon as the starter once the season begins.
"Shaye has grown a lot on and off the field," Endsley said. "He has really turned into a leader and brings a lot to the table. The amount of time he has put in has been incredible."
Helping to relieve some pressure for Slaughter will be knowing he returns four of his top six rushers from a season ago. Luke Loudenburg, Gaige Marshall, Jonny Withrow and Spencer Neugebauer all return after accumulating 1,537 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
"It is nice knowing we have depth at the running back position," Endsley said. "We lost our quarterback and our top receiver, but we feel confident in the guys we have around the ball right now."
Following the departure of the top two receivers from last year, the Tigers will count on Neugebauer, Jace Pulse and freshman tight end Kyreice Miller, of Lakewood, Wash., to step up and be reliable targets for Slaughter. Neugebauer was the third-leading receiver last year, snagging 29 catches for 381 yards and two touchdowns. The Mitchell, S.D., native also showed off his talent on kick returns as he tallied 407 yards and averaged 17.7 yards per return. Pulse will look to fill some big shoes as well following a season where he caught 24 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns.
The most experienced group and arguably the most important piece to the offense will be the offensive line. The Tigers return four seniors to the trenches in Zach Duin, Cody Cook, Ben Gannon and Trevor Wietzema. This group was a fundamental piece that led an explosive offense last season. Last year's offensive line ranked second in the NAIA in offensive yards per game (560.7), fourth in first downs per game (27.6), sixth in third-down conversions (50.3%), and eighth in passing offense per game (318.1) and scoring offense per game (43.6).
"Our offensive line is by far the most experienced group on offense," Endsley said. "We have two four-year starters, a three-year starter and four starters altogether coming back. Overall offensively, we feel very confident in what we can do thanks to the fact that everyone has bought into the system and is hungry."
The 2018 DWU football schedule kicks off at home with an in-state rivalry matchup against Dakota State University on Thursday at Joe Quintal Field. The following week the Tigers conclude their nonconference schedule on the road, taking on Presentation College. DWU returns home to begin its conference slate against Morningside College on Sept. 15 and Northwestern College the next week. The Tigers hit the road for two straight weeks as they travel to Sioux City, Iowa, to take on Briar Cliff University, followed by a matchup against a stout Concordia University team in Seward, Neb. DWU will return home for Blue & White Days on Oct. 13 against Dordt College. The Tigers hit the road to face Midland University on Oct. 20, then travel north to take on the newest member of the GPAC in the University of Jamestown. The Tigers will conclude the season with back-to-back home games as they take on Doane University, followed by the season finale against Hastings College on Nov. 10.