Story By Nathan Peterson
Arizona Christian is looking to reload their cannons after a very promising 2020-2021 campaign that spanned ten months and included COVID-19 testing, quarantining, social distancing, a first-ever playoff berth, and a conference championship.
While most coaching staffs look to rebuild from the starters that have left due to graduation, ACU will return the bulk of their talent, as many starters that were seniors last year are taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted to them because of the pandemic.
“I really don’t like comparing one year to another. I know we have a lot of quality returners coming back and hopefully we continue to develop in the leadership roles” said head coach Jeff Bowen. “I’m excited about our recruiting class coming in and looking for them to fit into the culture of ACU football”.
With many key pieces coming back to ACU for another go next season, Coach Bowen and the Firestorm will look to repeat as Sooner Athletic Conference champions come the fall season.
On offense, the Firestorm will be returning 10 starters from last season’s conference championship team.
The breadth of returning starters means that the competition level at certain positions will be especially steep, and the quarterback position is no exception. Tyler Duncan began last season as the starter before suffering a season-ending collarbone injury in the first spring game, and backup Shea Morales went undefeated down the stretch. With both quarterbacks set to return this fall, Bowen will have a tough decision to make.
“Tyler is back and healthy so the quarterback competition will be really good,” Bowen said.
The battle between Morales and Duncan will be one to monitor closely as the season approaches, but the Firestorm’s running back competition might be even more hotly contested. ACU used six different ball carriers last season, and all of them will be vying for more touches this fall.
Eiryon Ward and Tyrese Gholar are still recovering from knee surgeries, but will be in the mix once healthy. Ward saw the bulk of his carries in the fall semester with a 5.3 yards per carry average and four touchdowns on just 38 attempts, while Gholar only carried 13 times, averaging 15 yards per attempt and scoring two touchdowns of his own.
Aidan Quinn, Cole Davis, and Alex York also saw significant playing time, combining for 833 yards and 13 touchdowns on 180 touches. With such depth at the position, it is expected that the Firestorm will deploy their running backs in the same fashion as last season.
At receiver, Bowen and his staff will likely stick with the same group that included record breaking pass catcher Jon Cole. Cole put up 131.9 receiving yards per game last season and totaled 1634 all-purpose yards to lead the NAIA. Second Team All-American Kel Lee McPeck will anchor the offensive line, which returns four of its five starters from last year.
Defensively, the situation is less clear-cut. The Firestorm lost Clay Branton and Dezmon Dean to graduation, and new faces will need to step in to replace them. ACU returns All-American Riley Tucker and defensive lineman Maurice Powell, who will look to follow up an SAC freshman of the year performance. Elsewhere, defending tackles leader Jacob Hernandez is set to lead the linebacker group once again.
“From a returner standpoint, we’re in good shape. As far as specific guys that are new, I really don’t get into talking about specific guys and our expectations of them because they have to come in and become a part of us and see who can get on the field,” Bowen said. “There’s always surprises. To assume anyone, freshman or transfers are going to come in and make an impact would be a little premature.”
While certain spots on ACU’s roster remain up for grabs, the number of returners means that the team should have a very similar look to last season’s conference championship-winning squad. With nearly two months still to go until the opening game of the season, Bowen will have plenty of time to deliberate on his starting lineups. Repeating last season’s success will not be easy, but the Firestorm have the depth and experience necessary to get it done.