DeShawn Sarley’s long wait to return to the football field for the Wittenberg Tigers ends Saturday in the season opener.
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A fifth-year senior from Cincinnati Colerain, Sarley missed all of the 2018 season after tearing his Achilles tendon in the second week of preseason practices. That injury followed an ACL tear that cost him the last two regular-season games and a playoff game in 2017.
Entering the 1 p.m. game Saturday against No. 21 Washington & Jefferson in Washington, Pa., Sarley is listed as the starting running back on the depth chart, though he’ll share the load with seniors Jaheem Washington and Northeastern graduate Troy Clay for 18th-ranked Wittenberg.
“I’m excited,” said Sarley on Wednesday before practice. “I can’t wait to be out there. It’s been almost two years. I’m just ready to go out there and have some fun and ready to run around and do what I do.”
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Sarley topped 700 yards rushing in his sophomore and junior seniors. His return will be one thing to watch Saturday. Here are six more things to know about the 2019 Wittenberg football team and the opener:
1. Quarterback situation: Coach Joe Fincham said Wednesday he hasn’t made a decision on the starting quarterback, but he expects sophomore Blake King, a Milford High School graduate, to take the first snaps. Lance Lambert, of West Jefferson, could also see time. He was unsure of the status of junior Bobby Froehlich, a Cincinnati La Salle graduate who backed up three-year starter Jake Kennedy last season, because he has a “tweaked knee.”
King ran the scout team last season, so if he starts, it will be the first time Wittenberg has began the season with a starter who wasn’t the starter or backup the year before since Aaron Huffman started the first game of his freshman season in 2006.
“He’s progressively thrown the ball very well as camp has gone on,” Fincham said. “He’s got a very strong arm. He was on the scout team last year. A lot of guys that have started or made the transition to be the starter were backups the year.”
2. Familiar opponent: Wittenberg plays Washington & Jefferson for the fourth time. The first two meetings took place in 1929 and 1930. The last matchup came in the 2014 playoffs. The Presidents won 41-25 in Springfield.
In Division III, only Mount Union (798 victories) ranks ahead of Wittenberg (773) and Washington & Jefferson (744) in total victories. Wittenberg ranks sixth in winning percentage (.677). Washington & Jefferson ranks 11th (.650). The game can be watched online on ESPN3.
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Washington & Jefferson features a quarterback, senior Jacob Adams, who threw 33 touchdown passes last season, ranking eighth in the country.
Fincham said this game was scheduled several years ago, sometime after the 2014 playoff game.
“Every couple of years, we go on these pilgramages trying to find an opponent,” Finchamn said. “You hever know how the thing’s going to turn out. I can’t remember if coach (Mike) Sirianni called me or if I called him, but it just worked out this way.”
3. Local flavor: In addition to Clay, several other Clark County graduates will start or see action as backups Saturday.
Thaddeus Snodgrass, a Springfield graduate, is the team’s leading returning wide receiver. He caught 25 passes for 475 yards last season and scored seven touchdowns.
Junior Tavian Crowe, of Springfield, and junior Nasir Carter, of Kenton Ridge, will see time on the defensive line.
4. Key player: Senior linebacker Jonathan Seay, one of 23 players on the team from Florida, won the North Coast Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year award last season. He was the third straight Wittenberg player to win the honor.
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Seay is Wittenberg’s leading returning tackler. He had 77 tackles and a team-best 7½ tackles for a loss last season.
“He had a very good camp,” Fincham said. “He’s bright. He’s really improved his athleticism in the last couple of years. He dropped some weight going into last year, and I thought it made a big difference. You can’t exchange the experience he’s got. He puts himself in the right places and commands a lot of respect from his teammates as well as the coaching staff.”
5. Experienced group: Wittenberg returns three starters in the secondary: junior cornerback Michael Fiessinger and safeties Troy Jones, a senior, and Jordan Burkey, a junior. Senior cornerback Danny Foster is the new starter.
6. Big picture: Wittenberg finished 9-1 last season, losing only to Wabash, 28-21 in overtime. That one defeat cost the Tigers a Division III playoff berth because Denison won a three-way tiebreaker with Wittenberg and Wabash.
Wittenberg did keep its NCAC championship streak alive. It has won or shared the title three straight seasons. The 2019 Tigers were picked to finish second behind Wabash and play the Little Giants on Oct. 19 in Crawfordsville, Ind. A home game against Denison follows on Oct. 26.
Fincham described his team as hard-working, hungry and inexperienced but not necessarily young.
“We’ve got to get our guys out there, and they need to play and they need to grow,” Fincham said. “I’m sure we’re going to go through some growing pains.”