For first-year Guilford College head football Chris Rusiewicz, the 2011 season isn't about rebuilding, but refocusing. While the Quakers are coming off their first winless season since 1972, the new coach worked with a crop of over 50 letter winners in the spring and helped bring in some 40 recruits bent on reversing Guilford's football fortunes.
Rusiewicz (left), Guilford's 22nd recorded head coach, won the 2010 American Football Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year Award as associate head coach at Ursinus (Pa.) College. He served as the Bears' defensive coordinator and special teams coach for seven of his nine years on Peter Gallagher's staff. Ursinus ranked 23rd or higher among NCAA Division III total defense leaders in three of the past four years and shared the 2010 Centennial Conference title. The Bears enjoyed four winning seasons in Rusiewicz's last five years and posted an 8-2 record a year ago.
When Rusiewicz took over in January, he met first with the Quakers' seniors and stressed his idea of success, which is more than wins and losses. For Rusiewicz, success involves having fun, learning on and off the field and making the most of the college experience. With the seniors on board, he visited the remaining veterans and implemented academic and physical expectations designed for both individual and team success. He tested the veterans in the spring and saw major improvement, which gives him confidence for his first season as a college head coach.
Backed by a nine-man coaching staff that includes a blend of former Guilford and Ursinus assistants, plus some new coaches, Rusiewicz implemented new offensive and defensive schemes in the spring. In addition to teaching new plays, the coaches evaluated talent and put students in their optimal positions. On offense, the Quakers will operate out of multiple formations designed to keep opposing defenses off balance. Ultimately Rusiewicz wants to control the ball with a sound running game combined with a quick-strike passing attack under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Chris Barnette '07. Rusiewicz directs the defense in 2011 and brings his 4-2-5 formation, which takes advantage of Guilford's depth in the secondary.
Rusiewicz wants all of his students to win at least one Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) title during their Guilford career. For the Quakers' 13 seniors, this year is their lone chance at title, which should inspire them to buy into the new coach's philosophies. Based on evaluations of last spring's practice and reviews of past seasons, Rusiewicz thinks Guilford can compete right away with good health and a little luck. If the veterans are in shape and continue last spring's progress, and if some newcomers make meaningful contributions, expect Guilford to turn a few heads in 2011.
Here's a look at some of Guilford's top contenders by position:
Team captain Chris Jessup (above right) moves from linebacker to weak-side defensive end for his senior campaign. He garnered honorable mention All-ODAC recognition a year ago after leading Guilford's tacklers with a career-high 83 stops that stood third in the league. Senior Brennan Choate, a 10-game starter on the line in 2009, will also see time at end. Kyle Ennis and Triston Kyle, have limited game experience, but will line up on the other end. Senior Brad Gayhardt, also a team captain, plays one tackle spot, while former end Chris Ward (#56 above right) or converted tight end Thor Pate battle for the starting nose tackle's spot. Branson O'Hara, who spent most of his first two seasons on the offensive line, returns to defense for his junior campaign to fill some gaps with his quick feet and 5-11, 290-pound frame.
Redshirt-senior Joseph Parrish worked his way into the starting lineup last year, his first after joining the Quakers from NCAA Division I-A (non-FCS) member Campbell University. He ranked eighth on the team with 37 tackles in 2010 and returns ahead of Kyle May and Jordan Sutton. May, also a senior, stands up and steps back after a stint on last year's line. Sutton hopes to bounce back from a week-two injury that prematurely ended his rookie season. Rusiewicz likes freshman John Scott and believes the newcomer can make a difference.
The secondary is the deepest and most experienced part of the Quakers' defense. Senior Kenneth Hyman III and redshirt-sophomore Quan Parker rank among the league's top cornerbacks. Hyman, a four-year starter and 2009 Second Team All-ODAC pick, broke up a team-high 12 passes and made a career-high 40 tackles last year. Parker's development has been slowed by injuries, but his raw speed and athleticism help overcome his lack of experience. Junior Justin Williams-Blackwell moves from cornerback to free safety in 2011 where he'll challenge classmate Luke Ledwell for starting duties. Junior De'Shawn Lindsay has 85 tackles in 16 career games and should start at weak safety. Senior Trey Billian is back after missing most of 2010 with injuries, as is sophomore Ray Brown, who moved from tailback to defensive back midway through his rookie year. Sophomore Alex Smith played in four games as a reserve last year and gets a look at strong safety. Freshmen Satiir Stevenson and Dashawn Johnson are expected to push for playing time.
Guilford will miss the services of four-year starter Brice Carlson '11, but the Quakers welcome back seven veterans, six with starting experience. Senior T.J. McCay (right) and junior Daniel Biggerstaff are both two-year starters and expected to line up at left guard and right tackle, respectively. Sophomore Faris El-Ali, an opening-day starter as a rookie, shifts to center to fill the spot vacated by Carlson, a 2010 honorable mention All-ODAC pick. Juniors Jordan Moss and Donte' Mitchell will battle for the starter's job at left tackle, while classmate Alex Wallace hopes his 16 career appearances help win the right guard position. Sophomore Douglas Whitley, who shuttled between both sides of the ball as a rookie, will join two or three newcomers who will push for playing time in 2011.
One bright spot from the 2010 season was the play of wideout Ben King. He earned Second Team All-ODAC recognition and made 79 catches for 1,056 yards and nine touchdowns in his first year after transferring from Appalachian State University. While not an imposing physical presence at 5-10, 185 pounds, King is explosive, strong, runs good routes and has soft hands that make him a quarterback's best friend and an opposing secondary's nightmare. Junior Brandon Thompson returns to receiver following a one-season sojourn in an injury-plagued secondary and sophomore Kevin Tiller joins the offense after playing as a reserve linebacker in 2010. Rusiewicz says the 6-4, 180-pound Tiller is as fast as King, gives quarterbacks a big target and can create matchup problems for smaller defenders.
Sophomore Rob Fields saw meaningful time as a rookie tight end, but managed just four receptions. Rusiewicz found he was a high-percentage pass catcher in the spring and will look to get him the ball in passing situations. Senior D.J. Wilson, a wide receiver and punter in his first three years, moves to tight end for his senior season, a better fit for his 6-4, 205-pound frame.
Bailey Crego came to Guilford last fall as a bit of an unknown commodity from Grapevine, Texas, but worked his way into the starting lineup and became the team's leading rusher (61 carries, 247 yards, 2 TD). Rusiewicz likes the sophomore's powerful running style and good hands, which make him a pass-catching option out of the backfield. Crego will carry the ball along with junior Mike Williams, who experienced a bit of a sophomore jinx in 2010. After leading Guilford with 528 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns as a freshman, Williams managed 202 yards on just 44 carries last fall. Junior Ricky Douglas and sophomore Eric Kennedy will contribute as fullbacks.
After seven games as a backup in 2010, sophomore Zac Halbert takes over the reins as Guilford's starter in 2011. The southpaw completed 30-of-51 passes for 260 yards and two scores in limited action last season. He also ran 21 times for 67 yards and showed good mobility around the pocket. While he lacks extensive experience, he still has more than senior Grady Gamble, who has not lined up under center since 2006 and played defense in his lone Guilford campaign back in 2007.
Assistant coach Zach Zullinger, a 2007 graduate of league-rival Hampden-Sydney College, came to Guilford with Rusiewicz in January and directs the special teams units. Rookies Owen Bridges and Steven Gregory are the lone kickers on Guilford's preseason roster. Both also have punting experience. Seniors D.J. Wilson and Trey Billian also have punting experience, but are expected to focus on their roles as tight end and safety, respectively. Sophomore Lawrence Blake (right) ranked among the league's best with 556 kickoff return yards on 27 attempts (20.6 avg.) in his rookie year. Ray Brown is another kick-return candidate.
Guilford opens the 2011 season and the Chris Rusiewicz Era Sept.3 at crosstown-rival Greensboro College in the 15th annual Gate City Soup Bowl. Greensboro evened the hotly contested rivalry last year with a 17-15 win at Guilford. The Soup Bowl has developed into an enjoyable and beneficial tradition for the city, as both schools conduct sizable canned-good drives for the benefit of local charities.
The Quakers open their home schedule Sept. 17 versus Averett University in Guilford's lone night game. Guilford opens ODAC play Oct. 1 at defending league champion Washington and Lee University. Hampden-Sydney, which joined Washington and Lee in the 2010 NCAA Division III playoffs, visits the Armfield Athletic Center Oct. 29.