Prior to the start of the 2015 season, Ashland University's football team had just nine catches coming back from its wide receiver corps and just two catches returning from its tight ends from 2014.
Coming into the 2016 campaign, the Eagles have 185 of their 247 receptions from 12 months ago heading into the start of training camp on Thursday (Aug. 11) morning. That – in addition to an all-conference quarterback and tailback and a fully-intact offensive line – may see AU's offense become even more potent this fall.
In 2015, Ashland averaged 39.5 points and 483.1 yards of offense per game – both good enough to rank in the top 15 in NCAA Division II. In 2016, those numbers have the potential to go even higher.
Junior Travis Tarnowski is 18-3 as a starter at Ashland, and has the chance to become the first Eagle QB to lead the team in passing four years in a row since Duane Brown (1959-62). He also has the opportunity to collect every major career passing record in the near 100-year history of the program.
But first comes Tarnowski's junior season, one in which he will look to build off of the second-most passing yards (3,121) and third-most touchdown passes (30) in Ashland history. He, along with Tiffin senior Antonio Pipkin, Grand Valley State junior Bart Williams, Findlay junior Rhys Gervais, Michigan Tech senior Brandon Cowie and Northern Michigan senior Shaye Brown, are the most experienced pivots in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2016.
Senior tailback Vance Settlemire has the second-highest yards-per-game average (111.6) returning in the conference. Thanks to his school-record 19 touchdowns and 114 points in his first season as a starter, Settlemire has a chance in 2016 to become Ashland's all-time touchdown leader, needing just 12 to pass former teammate Anthony Taylor for the top spot.
The backfield was bolstered by the addition of freshman tailback Keishaun Sims, the 2015 Ohio Mr. Football and the first player to earn the honor to suit up for the Eagles. Sims rushed for 3,225 yards (unofficially the sixth-highest single-season total in state history) and 43 touchdowns as a senior at Massillon Perry.
Ashland returns three wideouts who combined for 78 catches a season ago – juniors Jamie Hence (35 catches, 418 yards, one touchdown) and Stewart Turner (23 catches, 368 yards, two touchdowns) and sophomore Matthew Wilcox (20 catches, 519 yards, four touchdowns).
Two of the newcomers who could make the biggest impact are redshirt freshman Stanley Jackson Jr., the Gridiron Club Offensive Player of the Game from the 2016 Purple & Gold spring game, and true freshman Logan Bolin, the son of former Ashland All-American running back Ray Bolin.
Junior Adam Shaheen is as versatile as he is productive. An All-American as a sophomore in 2015, Shaheen caught a school tight end-record 70 passes for 803 yards and 10 touchdowns – all while lining up in a variety of spots on the field. He led NCAA tight ends at all levels in receptions a season ago, and he fell just two catches short of the school record for a single season by any player.
So far in 2016, Shaheen has been named first-team preseason Division II All-American by Football Gameplan and first-team preseason All-American by Lindy's Sports.
Backup quarterback and first-team All-GLIAC punter Austin Bruns has made the full-time move to tight end as a senior, and sophomore Jack Holl returns after serving as the No. 2 tight end for most of his freshman season.
The 2015 O-line basically is intact. Three of the five starters from a year ago return to their previous spots – senior right guard Zachary Douglass (a 2016 preseason second-team Lindy's Sports All-American), junior left tackle Damon Stewart and sophomore right tackle John Conner. Junior Matt Murphy moves over from center to left guard for the graduated Jon Cipa.
Ashland's line gets a boost from the return of redshirt sophomore center Dominic Giunta, who started as a redshirt freshman in 2014 but missed the entire 2015 campaign due to injury.