Ben McCormick probably needed help identifying players the first day of practice.
Janesville Craig graduated all 22 starters from last season’s playoff team.
Despite losing that wealth of talent, the sixth-year coach is optimistic heading into Friday night’s opener at Beloit Memorial.
McCormick thinks with a good start, the Cougars could build momentum and make a second straight run at the postseason.
“We’re not young; we’ve got about 40 seniors, but we’re inexperienced,” McCormick said. “But we’re also a lot farther along at this point than I thought we’d be.
“I think after last year ended, I thought this was probably going to be a rebuilding year for us. But now that I’ve got a chance to see us and the progression we’ve made, I think we can compete with anybody. Our depth at most positions is much better than I expected coming in.”
Craig went 6-4 last season, including an opening-round Division 1 playoff loss to Fond du Lac.
McCormick is excited about Craig’s secondary and said it should be the cornerstone of what he hopes is an improved 4-3 base defense.
Seniors Matt Brennan, Jared Filter and Peter Larson will anchor the secondary, along with juniors Nick Cramer and D’Angelo Dixon.
“They’ve all got excellent ball skills and are very instinctive back there,” McCormick said. “None of them are afraid to hit, and if they have to, they all have the speed to chase somebody down.”
McCormick will turn to part-time starter Clay Martin to lead a versatile linebacking corps. Martin played well at the position before a broken leg put an end to his season a year ago. He will play inside linebacker along with sophomore Jake Campbell and senior Tyler Carlson.
At outside linebacker, McCormick said juniors DJ Sweeney and Uriahs Williams are battling for the starting spots, along with seniors Jontae Pegeese, Ben Richards and Brevin Anderson.
“The biggest improvement we need to see from our defense this season is our ability to stop the run,” McCormick said. “And that starts with our linebackers stepping up to make plays.”
Up front defensively, McCormick is counting on senior Cole Chesmore at tackle, along with senior Erik Woelfle at nose guard. Senior Logan Baker will also likely to start on the D-line.
Senior Brett Krueger and junior Travis Schliesner are also expected to provide depth at defensive tackle.
“We won’t be as big up front as maybe you’d like, but the kids we have can rely on their quickness and ability to get off the ball,” McCormick said. “If they can hold things up long enough, I really believe our linebackers are going to be there to make a lot of plays.”
Craig scored points in bunches last season, and McCormick is hoping the scoreboard operators stay busy.
Cramer started the final two games of last season at quarterback, including the playoff game, and he is in a close battle for the starting spot along with sophomore Noah Berghammer.
“They both bring a little bit something different to the table,” McCormick said. “One day it looks like Noah is a little bit ahead, but then the next day Cramer has the edge. They’re both good athletes that need to be on the field regardless.”
Williams is the clear-cut No. 1 halfback, while senior Aristide Serrano will open at fullback. Baker, Brennan and junior DJ Sweeney are also expected to get carries.
Senior Robby Hoppe is the top wide receiver, while McCormick has been impressed with sophomore tight end Luke Malmanger. Pegeese, seniors Christian Clankie, Coby Brault, Doug Lane and Maguire Pryor are also capable options at wideout or tight end.
“We want to continue to spread the field, and I think we have the athletes to do that,” McCormick said. “We’ve got a couple of guys at the skill positions that are going to surprise some people. They’ve got some talent that you can’t coach.”
McCormick said the team’s biggest question mark heading into the opener is the offensive line and whether it can come together quickly as a unit.
Senior Nolan Reilly started a few games last season at tackle and will join Krueger as the anchors up front. Junior Max Miller is the starting center, while senior Brady Trapp gets the nod at one tackle spot, with Martin also a likely starter at guard.
Juniors Justin Malloy and Nick Knaub will provide depth.
Craig has to replace second-team all-Big Eight kicker Joe Glowacki, but McCormick thinks he’s got a capable candidate in senior Hozai Ceballos.
Three of Craig’s first four games are against Beloit Memorial, Janesville Parker and Madison East—teams that combined to win just four games last season.
“Our leadership has been good, but we just don’t have that on-field experience yet,” McCormick said.
“Hopefully, we can get off to a good start and build on that. Our goal every season is to make the playoffs, and it’s no different this year.”
Where has Big Eight playoff success gone?
The Big Eight continues to struggle in the postseason.
Once one of the most dominant conferences in the state, the Big Eight hasn’t produced a state champion since Sun Prairie won the Division 1 title in 1995.
Last season, the Big Eight was 2-6 overall in the playoffs. No team advanced past Level 2.
Will things change for the better in 2015?
Middleton won the outright conference title a year ago, and it joined Madison La Follette, Verona, Janesville Craig, Madison West and Sun Prairie in the postseason.
Led by first-team all-conference running back Cam Maly, who rushed for more than 1,100 yards last season, Middleton figures to have an excellent shot at repeating. The Cardinals have strong numbers, a strong tradition and are a virtual lock for the program’s 20th straight postseason bid.
Sun Prairie had won back-to-back Big Eight titles before slipping to 6-3 last season. J.P. Curran returns at quarterback for the Cardinals, but they must find a replacement for all-state running back Noah Diaz.
West is coming off its third straight postseason berth. The Regents ran up the points last season and could be primed for another stellar year offensively. Quarterback Xavier Miller returns after throwing for 1,447 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Terrence McNeal and Greg Wright are back to give the Regents a potent one-two punch in the backfield.
La Follette and Verona both qualified for the postseason a year ago, but both programs lost a ton of talent to graduation.
Madison Memorial could be the sleeper team, as the Spartans have an abundance of individual talent returning. Jake Ferguson, grandson of University of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, led the team in receiving and tackles last season and has already signed a scholarship offer with the UW. Quarterback Emmett Enright also returns for the Spartans, along with running backs Jason Weah and Jack Andringa.
Janesville Craig made the playoffs a year ago for the first time since 2008, but the Cougars must replace all 22 starters from last year.
Janesville Parker missed the playoffs last season for the third straight year, but the Vikings have an athletic and speedy junior class that could vault the Vikings back into the playoff picture.
Can the Big Eight regain its playoff presence? Probably not this season. Talent abounds, but there isn’t a team that looks like it could make a long playoff run.
Number, Name, year, height, weight, position.
1, Peter Larson, Sr., 5-11, 160, WR/DB
2, Hozai Ceballos, Sr., 5’10, 170, K
3, DeAngelo Dixon, Jr., 5-7, 155, RB/DB
4, Jared Filter, Sr., 5-10, 165, QB/DB
5, Jacob Hackett, Sr., 5-8, 145, QB/DB
6, Logan Baker, Sr., 6-0, 175, RB/LB
7, Ben Richards, Sr., 5-8, 165, WR/LB
8 , Uriahs Williams, Jr., 5-10, 180, RB/LB
9, Lane Shickles, Sr., 6-0, 190, TE/DL
10, Nick Cramer, Jr., 6-0, 161, QB/DB
11, DJ Sweeney, Jr., 5-10, 182, RB/DB
12, Noah Berghammer So., 6-0, 170, QB/DB
15, Deon Newson, Sr., 5-9, 137, RB/DB
16, Chris Cabelka, Jr., 6-0, 150, WR/DB
17, Bailey Lambert, Sr., 6-2, 145, WR/DB
20, Evan Spry, Jr., 5-11, 162, WR/DB
21, Everett Washington Jr., 5-10, 180, RB/LB
22, Robby Hoppe, Sr., 6-1, 185, WR/DB
23, Brevin Anderson, Sr., 5-10, 165, RB/LB
24, Jontae Pegeese, Sr., 6-1, 179, WR/LB
25, Stone Klingaman, Jr., 5-6, 145, RB/DB
27, Matt Brennan, Sr., 6-0, 195, RB/DB
28, Jack Shelton, Sr., 5-10, 125, WR/DB
29, Kiegan Redenius, Jr., 5-7, 145, WR/DB
30, Deondre Ward, Jr., 5-9, 153, WR/DB
31, Tyler Carlson, Sr., 5-10, 180, RB/LB
33, Joey Amundson, Jr., 5-9, 195, FB/LB
40, Luke Malmanger, So., 6-1, 210, TE/DL
43, Tyler Kulas, Jr., 5-10, 185, RB/LB
44, Maguire Pryor, Sr., 6-1, 205, TE/DL
47, Jacob Campbell, So., 6-0, 190, RB/LB
48, Aristide Serrano, Sr., 5-5, 175, RB/LB
50, Elijah Toay, Jr.
51, Travis Schliesner, Jr., 6-1, 260, OL/DL
53, Noah Atkinson, Jr., , , OL/DL
54, Erik Woelfle, Sr., 6-0, 200, OL/DL
55, Clay Martin, Sr., 6-0, 245, OL/DL
57, Brett Krueger, Sr., 6-4, 230, OL/DL
60, Cole Chesmore, Sr., 6-1, 250, OL/DL
61, Jacob Eldred, Sr., 5-5, 142, OL/DL
62, Charlie Murillo, Jr., 6-0, 202, OL/DL
63, Nick Knaub, Jr., 6-1, 236, OL/DL
64, Keegan Sweeney, Sr., 6-1, 175, OL/DL
65, Justin Malloy, Jr., 5-10, 225, OL/DL
67, Justin Tracy, Sr., 5-11, 265,
68, William Drake, Sr., 6-6, 275, OL/DL
70, Bradley Smit, Sr., 5-10, 260, OL/DL
72, Nolan Reilly, Sr., 6-5, 275, OL/DL
73, Brady Trapp, Sr., 6-1, 177, OL/DL
74, Gunner Sullivan, Sr., 6-0, 201, OL/DL
75, Brice Wills, Jr., 6-0, 180, OL/DL
76, Max Miller, Jr., 6-1, 265, OL/DL
77, Eddie Duarte, Sr., 6-2, 285, OL/DL
79, Malik Farr, Jr., 6-5, 281, OL/DL
80, Brandon Alexander Sr. 6-3, 177, WR/DB
81, Christian Clankie, Sr., 6-0, 195, WR/DB
82, Seth Birkelo, Sr., 5-10, 145, WR/DB
83, Doug Lane, Sr., 6-1, 180, WR/DB
84, Coby Brault, Sr., 6-2, 185, WR/DB
85, Adam Schumann, Sr., 6-4, 165, WR/DB
87, Darius Floyd Jr., Sr., 5-5, 115, WR/DB
77, Alex Kiefer, Sr., 6-3, 205, TE/DL
78, Seth Ware, Sr., 6-4, 315, OL/DL
91, Jacob Swenson, Sr., 6-0, 160, WR/DB