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Weber State football preview: Wildcats aim to build on last season's success

OGDEN — Sure, last year was awfully good, but these Wildcats want to be great.

Indeed, Weber State enjoyed a solid football season in 2016, going 6-2 in the Big Sky Conference, 7-5 overall, and reached the national FCS playoffs for the first time since 2009.

In 2017, though, the Wildcats have set their sights on taking the program to the next step, like winning the conference championship for the first time since 2008 and making a deep postseason run.

With 15 returning starters back from last year's ballclub, those lofty ambitions might not be out of the realm of possibility.

"We're not satisfied with just making the playoffs any more," said senior Andrew Vollert, the Wildcats' All-American tight end who had 62 receptions for 840 yards and seven touchdowns last season. "A first-round exit is just not acceptable, so we're trying to make some noise, trying to make a playoff run.

"And for us to do that, obviously winning the Big Sky would help, so that's the ultimate team goal there. We came in third last year; we were a game or two away, but I think we're making strides toward accomplishing our goal.

"I'm feeling confident," he said. "We've still got some steps to take and we've still got room to grow. I'm confident with where we're at, but we're not where we need to be yet."

They certainly seem to be on the right track, however. Under fourth-year head coach Jay Hill, the ’Cats have put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since Ron McBride's teams did so for three straight years from 2008-10.

They have six All-Big Sky players returning in Vollert, a first-team selection; senior cornerback Taron Johnson and senior punter Jacob DeMaio, who were named to the second team; and senior defensive tackle McKay Murphy, junior linebacker Landon Stice and junior offensive lineman Iosua Opeta, who earned honorable mention last season.

Johnson, a four-year starter at cornerback and a two-time all-conference pick, feels like the Wildcats' defense is very strong and has great camaraderie, and he has high hopes that this year's team can not only return to the playoffs, but advance further this time around.

"That's definitely the goal is get past the first round of the playoffs, because we didn't do as well as we should have when we got there," he said. "I honestly think that we're gonna have a better defense than we did last year. Our defensive line has come along tremendously, and I feel like they're better than they've ever been.

"The team chemistry has grown tremendously. We're just a close-knight group of guys, and I feel like this year is the closest we have ever been."

Others top returnees from last year's team include senior wide receivers Drew Batchelor and Darryl Denby, junior running back Treshawn Garrett, junior offensive lineman Baron Bruce, senior tight end Tui Satuala, senior cornerback Xequille Harry, sophomore safety Trey Hoskins, senior safety Arnold Lopez, senior defensive lineman Cardon Malan, junior defensive lineman Filipe Sitake and sophomore defensive linemen Adam Rodriguez and Jonah Williams.

Among the newcomers who'll be counted on to step into key roles this year are senior quarterback Stefan Cantwell, a former Bingham High, Dixie State and Snow College star who takes over the reins following the graduation of Jadrian Clark, who started the past two-plus seasons. Sophomore QB Justin Shaw, a former Fremont High School standout, is also ready to contribute.

"Jadrian set the bar high, and he was there to help me train and help me to grow," Cantwell said. "With coach (Fesi) Sitake and coach Hill backing me up and helping me with my reads and the playbook and everything that I need, I feel comfortable with them being there at my side, learning and growing at the quarterback position."

The ’Cats are ranked No. 22 in the FCS coaches' preseason poll, but Cantwell says their sites are set on moving up the national rankings.

"That No. 22 ranking is a really good ranking and that shows how hard we worked last season and it shows the progress and what we did. And for me this season, that's a good starting point," he said. "… Year by year, we're just getting better and better, and I'm just here to try and help that happen.

"We want to make the playoffs and then keep moving on from there, not just the one-and-done show like we had last year. Last year we had a really good team and we did our best, but this year we're looking to pull together a little bit more and see how far we can make it."

Hill likes what he's seen out of his wide receivers, tight ends, the left side of the offensive line and his defense thus far in fall camp, and he feels like his team has shown great resiliency.

"We've seen some wide receivers step up — TyJuan Prince, Rashid Shaheed — those guys both have great speed, they've got the ability to stretch the field," he said. "Last year when we had a couple wide receiver injuries, we lost that ability, and those guys have been a real good surprise to me.

"The defense has been pretty solid, we've got a lot of returning starters there in the front seven, and I like their progression. This is the most veterans we've had in our secondary since I've been here, so we should be solid on that side of the ball. … This is as much depth as we've had on defense. We finally have the ability to overcome some injuries when they occur, because they always occur, but we've got to continue to develop depth throughout the team.

"I think we have the best tight ends in FCS football, if not higher levels. I think they're great players," Hill said. "Andrew Vollert was an All-American last year, and Tui Satuala was right there with him. He's as good a blocking tight end as there is. So I love those guys, and I really like the left side of our offensive line — Baron Bruce and Iosua Opeta — those guys are returning starters for us and they're playing great right now.

"They're a resilient group; they're working hard, and camp's been a grind. We've purposely tried to push ’em as hard as we can, and they've handled it great. Last year we won a lot of close games, and I know that they'll hang in there through those tough times, so they continue to show that through practice. We've just got to continue to get better at execution and doing the little things right and, as we do that, I think we've got a chance to be a really good team."

And as far as continuing the program's upward trajectory, Hill certainly sees that as an attainable goal.

"We expect to be better than last year," he said. "We've got a lot of returning starters, we've got a lot of veteran guys who've now been to the playoffs. We've made some runs at conference championships now, and now we've got to finish those runs that we're making.

"I like what we've accomplished; we've gotten better every year. We still have one big step to take forward, but if we make it, I think we'll have another year that was better than the previous year. … I just love the vibe and the feel of the program right now."