SIOUX CITY | Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 280 pounds, Sterling Ofoh was comparable in size to many Great Plains Athletic Conference defensive linemen.
Yet, he was only a freshman. The Briar Cliff lineman may have held his own, but the experience on the other side of the trenches sometimes prevailed.
“Sterling has good size, but he’s 18-year-old playing against 22 and 23 year olds who are the same size he is,” said Briar Cliff football coach Dennis Wagner. “Sterling would be the first to tell you he has to get in the weight room more. He has natural size and strength, but not weight room strength that he needs to be.”
Ofoh was one of four freshmen defensive starters pressed into duty as losses continued to mount in Wagner’s first season as head coach. One of those first-year players, 6-foot, 195-pound strong safety Markel Roby, led the Chargers with 71 tackles in an 0-11 season that concluded with Saturday’s 58-37 loss to Dordt.
Briar Cliff’s defense was often mismatched in a conference where half of the offenses averaged better than 400 yards per game and as a result, yielded better than 500 yards in all 11 games.
Injuries were to blame for the insertion of freshmen and sophomores on defense. Physical ailments also occurred offensively, particularly at the most important leadership position where Wagner said for the first time in his nearly 40 years of coaching, he started five quarterbacks.
“I think it was a combination of both (youth, injuries),” said Wagner. “When we started off, we had a class of 18 seniors. Most of those guys held up until halfway through or maybe not quite halfway. We lost a lot of those guys with injuries that caused them to miss the rest of the season.
“So the freshmen that did play were not backups, they were starters. You hope when you play your non-conference schedule it gets you better going into the GPAC, but for us, we played our non-conference schedule and two games in, we were getting a lot of guys injured. I think it was a lack of the strength and the conditioning part.”
Offensively, turnovers were a factor. Freshman Dillon Ruelas, the fifth starting quarterback, completed 26 of 41 passes for 415 yards against Dordt. All were single-game highs.
Ruelas, likely the starter heading into spring drills, had fine rhythm going with senior Joe Heinrichs, who had 10 catches for 178 yards (both single-game highs for a receiver) and a touchdown. Freshman receiver Logann Freeman had a 55-yard catch that pulled the Chargers within 21-20 early in the second quarter.
However, Ruelas also threw five interceptions. All of the starting quarterbacks with the exception of Chance Barlow had at least one INT.
“Offensively, we never had consistency at quarterback. Ever,” said Wagner. “It was back and forth and you can’t get timing and rhythm. Even something simple as a cadence is different and how it comes out of their mouth, how fast it is, how slow it is. You try to change a play and their voice structure is different.
“I don’t know what to say other than thank God we had six (quarterbacks). We were one play away in this last game from our sixth guy. Again, it goes back to strength, conditioning and preparation.”
One of the bright spots was junior running back Noah Ylagan, fifth in the GPAC with 1,334 yards rushing. Ylagan, en route to a BCU record and becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher, had six games of triple-digit yardage, including a school-record 265 in a 63-24 loss at Dakota Wesleyan.
Ylagan’s totals were somewhat enhanced because he gained more duty when Kwame Johnson (498 yards, 6 TDs) suffered a season-ending injury in early October. Johnson twice topped 100 yards with a high of 168 in a 56-28 loss to Midland.
“Offensively, I was happy with the running game,” said Wagner. “I wish we could have stayed healthy and seen what that would have taken us to. We could have had two running backs instead of one. We had 10 offensive linemen and nine are back. That’s a good nucleus to build upon with our running backs and four starting offensive linemen back.”
Before he embarks on a recruiting trip this week, Wagner is meeting with players and players are also meeting with their position coaches. Again, the message of better weight room and conditioning habits is being stressed. Speed is another factor.
There’s another advisory Wagner is telling players. Their starting position is not safe.
“We have to recruit to get more depth and to bring in players to challenge for positions and to create more competition,” he said. “We told all of the guys there will be no guarantees they will be returning starters.”