Two-time NAIA champion Saint Francis couldn't make it a three-peat in 2018. It was a year of growing and accomplishments for the Cougars, who finished 10-3, 4-2 in the Mid-States Football Association, before falling to Morningside in a snowy, overtime semifinal.
Coach Kevin Donley passed Bear Bryant on the all-time wins list. He enters his 41st season (22nd with the Cougars) with a 326-132-1 career record, the winningest active collegiate coach and No. 1 in NAIA. Donley is No. 7 on the collegiate coaching list entering the 2019 season. His contract has been extended through the 2023 season.
Piercen Harnish finished his decorated college career with the most career tackles in program history (471) and was the first Cougar to be named a Walter V. Campbell Trophy finalist, given annually to the top scholar-athlete in all of college football.
Junior Matt Crable embraced his role as a starting quarterback as a sophomore and recorded the highest passing efficiency rating in the Mideast League (153).
Justin Green completed his career with 6,834 rushing yards, landing him No. 2 on the Mid-State Football Association career all-purpose yards list.
As the first day of camp starts today at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium, the Cougars come into the season sporting the No. 3 ranking in the NAIA Coaches' Preseason Top 25 poll. This is the 19th time in 21 seasons that Saint Francis has been a preseason Top 25 selection. Here are five major questions looming as camp begins:
How ready is Crable?
Crable came into last season with incredibly large shoes to fill. Nick Ferrer was the face of the program and led the Cougars to those back-to-back national championships. But as a sophomore, the Grand Valley State transfer stepped into the role – and at all the right times. On Oct. 14, the Cougars trailed Siena Heights by eight points with just under a minute remaining in regulation. A loss would all but have ended their season, but Crable executed a nine-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that featured a little bit of everything to save the season. He finished with 2,703 passing yards and 26 touchdowns, all while finding confidence in young receivers and running backs.
Fresh faces on defense
The Cougars held opponents to 18.2 points per game and tallied 46 sacks last season, second in the MSFA Mideast League. But Donley's team must replace six defensive starters in 2019, most notably Eric Dunten and Harnish. Senior defensive end James Jamicich had 14.5 tackles for loss for 88.5 yards in 2018 and will jump into a bigger leadership role in 2019.
Ricksy and Rocky
Crable's top targets quickly became Rocky James and Dan Ricksy. Ricksy averaged 61.5 receiving yards per game (799 total) to lead the team. The Lafayette native was a staple on the championship winning 2017 team, putting up 1,172 yards as a sophomore, but the Cougars had significantly fewer passing yards in 2018. James averaged 60.2 receiving yards per game and showed off his acrobatic skills more than once. He was one of Ferrer's top targets in prior years and became that for Crable, too. Both had seven touchdowns last season.
Green led the Cougars in rushing three consecutive years. He was reliable, shifty and a bear to bring down. But injury woes left the door open for Eastside grad P.J. Dean in 2018. He led the team in rushing with 72.6 yards per game and tallied 973 on the year.
On this season's roster of 99 players, there are 24 freshman from the Fort Wayne and surrounding areas. Players such as running backs Everett Johnson of Bluffton and Anyis Lockett of Snider. Former Carroll quarterback Gaven Vogt and his running back Nathan Harrah continue their offensive prowess with the Cougars. The offensive line will be stacked with Bishop Luers graduate Sam Garretson, Snider's Will Swartz and Wayne's Lukas Fender. No telling how many of the former Northeast Indiana high school stand outs will make a mark for the Cougars, but they sure won't have to adjust to playing in Fort Wayne.
Sept. 7: at St. Francis (Ill.), 5 p.m.
Sept. 21: at Robert Morris, 8 p.m.
Sept. 28: Saint Ambrose, noon
Oct. 5: at Marian, 6 p.m.
Oct. 12: Concordia, 6 p.m.
Oct. 19: Indiana Wesleyan, noon
Oct. 26: Siena Heights, noon
Nov. 2: at Lawrence Tech, noon
Nov. 9: at Taylor, 1 p.m.