EDWARDSVILLE — When the 2011 season ended for Wilkes, coach Frank Sheptock couldn't wait to get back on the field for the start of the 2012 campaign. Nineteen of the Colonels' 24 starters in the season finale were underclassmen, making Sheptock enthusiastic and hopeful.
That time has now come for the Colonels, who are coming off a 4-5 overall record and a 4-4 mark in the MAC. And although the club is still youthful with a small senior class stepping on the field when the season begins later this week, the expectations are high.
"They're not worried about what other people think or what they're saying or what they did against other teams," Sheptock said. "They're excited about the new experience and the new team that they're on and hopefully that allows us to play with an enthusiasm and a passion."
Junior Alex George is beginning his third year at quarterback. He's not entering without experience as he's seen significant playing time in the previous two seasons, including starting every game last year.
There's no pressure on the signal-caller, but now appears to be his time. Junior Tyler Bernsten, who was banged up last year, is also expected to take snaps this season.
The Colonels return nine starters on offense, but one of the losses is tailback Zach Tivald, who finished his career fifth all-time on the Wilkes career rushing yards list. The cupboard isn't bare in the backfield though, as the team ran for an average of 242.8 yards per game in 2011.
Aux Wogou, a junior, carried the ball 74 times for 425 yards last season. Sophomore Andrew Regan and junior Calvin Garvin also got limited carries and George piled up yards on the ground running for the second-most on the team with 706 and a team-high nine rushing scores.
"One of Alex's strengths is running his own read. He makes very good decisions and he's tough to tackle," Sheptock said. "We feel very strongly about our three top returning backs."
Junior Tim Bousson leads a young receiving corps and will be joined by sophomore Ryan Behrmann.
On the O-line, four of five starters return including tackles Anthony Swain, a junior and Chris Grube, a senior.
The Colonels struggled at times defensively in 2011 allowing an average of 268.8 passing yards a game. But that was a young group in the secondary and with a year of experience, the stats can only improve.
Tate Moore-Jacobs, a junior linebacker, helped the pass defense leading the unit with three interceptions and 95 tackles. Entering his third year as starter, he could be one of the top 'backers in the country by the time the season concludes.
"He's having his best camp thus far," Sheptock said about his stud linebacker. "He's building off of last year where last year he was our leading interceptor. He's really embraced being a complete football player as opposed to just a tackler or a run player."
D.J. Shuttleworth is expected to start alongside Moore-Jacobs, while sophomores Justin Pellowski and Matt Briskie are returning starters in the secondary along with fellow sophomores Jake Sarson and Omar Richardson.
Junior Rob Houseknecht paces the pressure on the D-line as a returning starter picking up a team-high 2.5 sacks and was second on the team in tackles behind Moore-Jacobs.
Winning two out of its last three games last season, Wilkes started to get things going late and should be able to carry that momentum into 2012.
The Colonels weren't a high choice in the preseason MAC Coaches Poll, but if there's a team that could pull off upsets and surge to the top of the conference it's without a doubt Wilkes.