The season is underway and the Azusa Pacific football team is looking to gain another Great Northwest Athletic Conference title. After finishing last season with a 10-1 record and a conference title, the team is striving to return to the Division II playoffs. The players and coaches know this will be hard to accomplish and are making the necessary adjustments.
The 3-1 Cougars are still trying to find their identity. Last year’s team was filled with experienced seniors, including star running back Terrell Watson who is now a member of the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad. Since many of last year’s starters have graduated, the team is now younger and loaded with raw talent. Head coach Victor Santa Cruz understands that players will always come and go.
“That’s college football,” Santa Cruz said. “You’re always replacing people. So, as coaches, you enjoy them while they are here, but you’re always recruiting and new stars will emerge. As new stars emerge, and as new teammates come on, you also evolve your systems.”
On the offensive side, the Cougars have become more balanced by passing the ball. Last year the Cougars passed for 11 touchdowns while rushing for 40. This year the team has scored through the air seven times and run for touchdowns nine times. . The coaches have shown complete trust in sophomore quarterback Chad Jeffries, a Division I transfer last year from San Diego State. . Passing, Jefferies is 62 of 89 for 833 yards and five touchdowns so far.
“Chad Jeffries really has a hand on the system and with his passing game being what it is, guys like Blake Robertson, Ethan Zeidler and Josiah Thropay have really stepped up and have done well,” Santa Cruz said. “In the running game, Kurt Scoby has really done a fantastic job in learning the system and being a real serviceable runner, a guy we believe has a lot of promise and he is only a freshman.”
Jeffries expressed his high expectations for both the team and himself this season.
“We just got to come out here every day and give it our all, in order to get better, because our long term goal is to make the playoffs, then make a run for the championship,” Jeffries said.
The defense is led by senior linebacker Erik Manning, who earned GNAC Defensive Player of the Week honors after his performance against Simon Fraser. After APU suffered a tough loss, in which the Cougars allowed 62 points and 534 total yards to Humboldt State in the second week of the season, Manning knew that they would have to step up as a defense in order to win games.
“We want to do our part as a defense and make sure that we get the ball back into our offense’s hands so that they can keep scoring for us,” Manning said. “We already overcame our loss when we played Simon Fraser. We needed something to bring us together, and nothing can do that better than a win. When we go out there, we got to feel like a unit and with that team chemistry, that loss is in the past. We don’t even think about it anymore.”
The team began GNAC play with a 34-5 blowout of Dixie State on the road on Sept. 26. Freshman running back Kurt Scoby exploded to the tune of 166 yards and two touchdowns on just 18 carries.
“First things first, you got to become a team, a family, and ultimately our experience in football is about building champions while pursuing championships,” Santa Cruz said. “My number one expectation is just to build these men up so that they can catch a vision for how to be a life champion. Football-wise, we have to be assignment sound, play as fast as we possibly can, and take it one week at a time.”