2018 Gridiron: MacMurray Highlanders
Colors: Red, white and navy
Total Returning Lettermen: 19
2017 Overall Record: 8-2
Head Coach: Chris Douglas
Years at School: 7
Record at School: 29-41
Overall Record: 59-71
MAC-RO ECONOMICS: HIGHLANDERS SEEK TO BARGE THEIR WAY INTO THE D3 NATIONAL CONCIOUSNESS
THE PRESNAP READ: Chris Douglas’ seventh season helming the Highlanders proved his most successful yet. MacMurray won seven straight contests out of the gate and set a new high water mark in the Douglas Era with eight total victories; finishing just a single game out of the UMAC Conference Penthouse. It’s the continuation of a simply remarkable turnaround in Jacksonville that has seen the Highlanders go from a program that won just a single game between 2006 and 2011 into a risen power that is now 22-8 in the last three years. Every subsequent season under Douglas’ command has seen MacMurray push the bar higher. The once seemingly laughable notion of MacMurray winning a Conference Championship and crashing the NCAA Division Three National Polls? Well, that just seems to be the next logical evolution for a program on the grow in 2018. Success has very clearly changed the margins for the Highlanders. MacMurray has amassed the kind of recruiting cache I am not sure has existed for the program in the last two decades and Douglas and staff put it to good use this Spring in netting arguably its deepest and strongest class yet. Couple that added talent to an already well heeled, veteran roster with 19 returning lettermen back and there certainly seems to be traction for the notion that Mac has the most valid preseason claim to the UMAC Throne in 2018.
DON’T MESS WITH THE ‘HOFF: While much of MacMurray’s ascent has been rightly credited to the rise of the Highlanders uber-productive offensive scheme, it’s beyond time for Coordinator Kyle Langhoff’s refurbished Defense to get its due and proper respect. The Highlanders not only held foes to a much tidier 20.2 points per game last Fall, but carry-over seven returning starters from into this campaign. On paper, that would suggest that Mac is poised to attack with its 4-2-5 scheme to even greater effect. Much of that optimism rides on the shoulders of what could be one of the nastier Defensive Lines in the Country. And why not? The Highlanders return the single most destructive force in Division Three Football in Defensive End Jevon Muhammad. The 6’1” 210 pound Senior from Chicago earned UMAC Defensive Player of the Year plaudits after bagging 73 tackles and a dozen quarterback sacks. Moreover, Javon was honored by the NCAA for setting Division High Water Marks in tackles for loss (27) as well as TFL per game. Javon’s impact was such that he single handedly tagged Highlander Opponents for 110 yards of lost production. He will have the luxury of working his magic again in concert with a pair of unsung Defensive Tackles in Juniors Jordan Wilkins (46 total tackles) and Marcus Atkinson (38 stops) who possess the size and physicality to punish opponents who try to run away from Muhammad. There’s cultivated depth and experience here in the ranks as well, including former Quincy High standout Cooper Bowles (37 tackles, 3.5 sacks) to create rotational value with the Mac Line to boot.
On balance, MacMurray’s only newcomers in the Front Six will be lined up at Defensive End, as well as complimentary Linebacker find to work with Senior Ezechuckwu Nwagbaraji. The former Springfield Lanphier standout posted 39 total tackles a year ago, His veteran presence should loom large in a run defense trying to improve on the 176 total ground yards a game in surrendered a year ago. Senior Linebacker CJ O’Rourke out of Pana, who posted 29 tackles last season, is one of a host of credible candidates to help cement the middle tier of the Highlander Defense and replace all UMAC Performer London Gulley.
Chris Blanchard headlines the Mac Secondary on the strength of a Junior Campaign that saw him earn Second Team All-Conference accord. The Mississippi native showed plenty of two-way value here with 66 tackles and four interceptions a year ago. He will be joined in back by a pair of rising Cornerback talents. Senior Willie Mieles broke up seven passes a year ago, snared an interception and delivered 37 total tackles. Jaquese Goins enters his Sophomore Season with impressive credentials of his own, including a team high nine passes defenses and 30 tackles. Depth here is good, including former Pleasant Hill/Western standout Corbin Edwards; who also earned All UMAC Second Team Honors for his Punting Prowess a year ago.
BORN TO MAC: The Highlanders graduate Division Three Football’s most productive Running Back over the last two seasons in Chazz Middlebrook, as well as three/fifths of their starting Offensive Line.
Anyone expecting MacMurray to miss a beat on Offensive because of either of those factors just doesn’t understand the narrative.
Chris Douglas has proven over and over again to be a tremendous Offensive Football Mind. Give him assorted pieces and he finds ways to reconfigure the jigsaw puzzle to the betterment of his team. Expecting him to do any less in 2018 is a fool’s wager. He’s got a half dozen experience starters at his disposal from an Offense that produced 31 points and nearly 435 total yards per game a season ago. Moreover, when one of those set-pieces happens to a proven Spread Quarterback, the threat level for opponents simply escalates. Nathan Randall enters his second season at the tiller of the MacMurray Offense with impressive first year credentials to his credit. The 6’0 190 pound Senior completed 57% of his passing attempts for 2332 yards and 13 touchdowns. Adding to his comfort level, Nathan gets to work to the exact same receiving corps he did a year ago in Ian Leib, Devonta Preston, and Nick Valentine. That troika helped the Mac Offense to 235 passing yards a game a year ago. Preston led the way with 51 receptions, 658 yards, and four touchdowns. Lieb caught 23 passes as a Sophomore for 294 yards and a touchdown. The 6’3” 230 pound Valentine had a touchdown among his five receptions as well. There’s already existing depth here. And a recruiting class that includes Brown County star Tight End Tanner Sussenbach only adds to the intrigue.
While it may lack the marquee power it did in the Middlebrook Era, the Mac Running Game seems to be well stocked. Marquez Ellison scored a dozen touchdowns a year ago in a complimentary role. He also rushed for 556 yards and showed the durability to carry the football 133 times. Sophomore Chilo Dore’ averaged five yards per carry in a limited cameo. That’s a really good two-deep alone. Moreover, the Mac Staff has been added quality one-back candidates in each of the last three recruiting classes. There’s plenty to suggest here that MacMurray can sustain or better its 200 ground yards per game balance from a year ago. The returns of Offensive Tackles Anthony Fowler (6’4” 260lbs) and Austen Manley (6’0” 270 lbs) should help nicely frame up the rebuild in the trenches. Fowler is a returning Second Team All-Conference honoree.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: It may not have had the desired Conference Championship implications Chris Douglas hoped for but that Week Ten win over St Scholastica last Fall on the road felt like yet another important corner turn for this program. The most tangible evidence yet the Highlanders are ready to make that breakthrough as a viable Conference Championship contender. The conditions for such a quantum leap are even more favorable for the Highlanders in 2018. Defending UMAC Champ and 2017 Mac nemesis Eureka is not on the slate. St Scholastica and Westminster, the two toughest opponents on the 2018 docket both will be forced to come to Freesen Field and beat Mac in Jacksonville. The front end of the schedule seems built to allow the Highlanders to amass momentum for those critical later games. If you are a Mac Fan, you really couldn’t ask for a better set up. Now it’s just a matter of doing the darned thing after knocking on the door the last two years. Chris Douglas will sell his charges all Summer Long on the rare window they have to exploit, reminding them that a single lapse of focus anywhere could ruin everything. This is a group mature enough to embrace that notion and talented enough to deliver. October looms really large here, with a sneaky tough trip to Greenville that has real “stub your toe” danger to it. We will see how the Highlanders handle that roller coaster and how they attend their business. But honestly, my gut says the time is now, largely because this team is so much better on Defense than it was two years ago. MacMurray feels legit across the board; no longer just a parlor trick of offensive wizardry. And that is true program traction. It should be a very fun year for college football on both sides of “The ‘Ville” indeed.