The Wittenberg Tigers took a 500-mile trip from Springfield to Dubuque, Iowa, on Friday for their 2023 opener, which will be played at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The University of Dubuque had an opening in Week 1. Wittenberg needed an opponent after playing SUNY Cortland the last two seasons. It was that simple. The teams, who have never played, will meet again in 2025 at Edwards-Maurer Field.
“Dubuque’s got a good football team and a good program,” Wittenberg coach Jim Collins said Wednesday. “I think it’s an ideal matchup. It’s going to be a great opener. We’re excited about the opportunity, and we’re ready to get rolling.”
Collins’ second season at Wittenberg will start with a new quarterback. Hours after he talked to the News-Sun on Wednesday about using a two-quarterback system in the opener, the returning starter, senior Collin Brown quit the team. Collins confirmed that news Friday. He had planned to play both Brown and junior Max Milton with fifth-year senior Miles Johnson as the third-string quarterback.
With that late change to the depth chart, Wittenberg will face a Dubuque team that has finished 6-4 the last two seasons. It has recorded eight straight winning seasons. It was picked to finish fourth out of nine teams in the America Rivers Conference. Among Dubuque’s returners is junior quarterback Ben Gultig, who threw 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season.
Wittenberg has lost three straight openers. It lost 42-28 at Cortland in 2022, 38-16 at home to Cortland in 2021 and 16-8 at Washington & Jefferson in 2019.
The 2023 Tigers, boosted by a 98-man recruiting class, have one of the biggest rosters in program history. Collins said they had more than 160 players on the roster as of Wednesday.
“We had a good preseason from the standpoint that I think our players showed up every day,” Collins said, “and we had great practices. They’ve worked hard and got better. We’ve got a big roster, and I think we’ve been able to really evaluate everybody. We improved from a performance standpoint, but also even with a big roster, I think we really came together and got close as a team. Those were our goals: get better on the field but — we’ve got a lot of newcomers — also get better with chemistry and the connection within the team.”
The newcomers will join with the returners to try to get the program back above .500. Last year’s 5-5 finish was the first non-winning record for Wittenberg since a 5-5 season in 2005.
“We’ve got some decent freshmen DBs that will be playing,” Collins said. “We’ve got a freshman linebacker that’s going to be playing, and we’ve got a couple of freshmen in the two deep on the D-line. Offensively, we’ve got a couple freshmen running backs. I don’t know how much they’re going to play, but they’re traveling, and they may see some action and then a couple offensive linemen on the depth chart.”
The freshman linebacker who may start, Collins said, is Tyre Smith, of Sarasota, Fla. The running backs are Cleve Benson, also of Sarasota, and Chaminade Julienne graduate Josiah Payne.
The running back position should be one of the strengths of the team. Wittenberg led the North Coast Athletic Conference in rushing last season, averaging 207.4 yards per game. It returns Bellefontaine graduate Garrett Gross (90.9 yards per game), Bryce Anderson, of Indianapolis, (51.0) and Reed Hall (39.1), of New Albany High School. All ranked among the top 15 rushers in the conference.
Wittenberg’s top returning receivers are juniors Milik Bowe, of Miami, Fla., (13 catches for 166 yards) and Tyler May (11 for 266), of Oak Harbor, Ohio. Senior tight end Troy Teepe, of Brookville, Ind., also returns.
On the offensive line, the top returners at tackle are junior Wyatt Osterhage, a Centerville graduate, and junior Angel Bravo. Senior Isaac Grilliot, of Versailles, moved from tight end to the offensive line. Junior Ed Bolden, a Lakota West graduate, started one game at center last season and begins the season as the starter this year.
At guard, there will be new starters with three players sharing time: sophomore Andrew McFeeters, of Columbus Bishop Hartley; sophomore Henry Birchwell, of Hamilton Badin; and junior Javaughn Neal, of Cincinnati Princeton.
Senior linebacker Cameron Snurr, of Springboro, is the top returner on the defense. He led the team with 77 tackles last season. He’s one of four captains along with senior safety Anthony Pedro, of Massillon Washington, Gross and Teepe.
The other top returners on defense are: senior defensive end Connor Walls, of Centerville; Christian Sweet, a fifth-year senior from Hilliard Davidson; and linebacker Dane Flatter, of Carlisle, who ranked third on the team with 52 tackles.
Overall, Collins sees the team as a hungry group eager to improve on last year.
“I’m not going to say last year is behind us because that’s been our motivation throughout the winter, spring and summer and preseason camp,” he said. “These guys are ready to set the tone for 2023.”