The North Central College Football team returns to the field for the 2023 season after winning the program’s second national title in three consecutive seasons. The Cardinals finished 2022 with the most successful season in program history, recording a perfect 15-0 record, culminating in a 28-21 victory over Mount Union in the Division III Championship game. Not a bad debut for first-year head coach and 2004 NCC graduate, Brad Spencer.
The most dynamic offense in the country is back
This fall, the Cardinals bring back a large amount of their dominating offense that led the nation in scoring, total yards, and rushing offense. One of the critical contributors back under center is quarterback Luke Lehnen, who’s ready to hit the gridiron for his junior year. Picking up right where they left off, the defending Stagg Bowl champions are off to a 1-0 start after a dominant week one victory over Roosevelt University by the score of 41-7. Lehnen and the offense, which averaged over 52 points per game last season, looked sharp to open the year, jumping out to a 34-0 halftime lead.
“We’ve got a lot of fast guys at receiver. I know we were down receivers because of injuries throughout the season. I’m just happy to be out here we get to spread the field, we get to throw the ball we got great guys that blow right past people and make great catches. So I’m excited for what we can do with the pass and running game,” said North Central junior quarterback Luke Lehnen.
“We do have guys that have been in the program who played, a couple of transfers came in, and they gelled and meshed with the team pretty quickly, and we got a chance to see them out here in-game action and now just go back to the drawing board evaluate and see where we’re at two weeks from now,” said North Central Head Coach Brad Spencer.
One of the most electric players in the country returns at wide receiver in senior All-American DeAngelo Hardy, who hauled in a pair of touchdowns in the season opener. While Hardy will receive most of the attention from opposing defenses, Lehnen will also look for pass catchers like former defensive back turned wide receiver Nic Rumell, who also snagged a touchdown pass in the week one victory and Rumell’s younger brother Jack. Illinois State transfer Joe Lombardi also returned after an injury-shortened 2022 season with a touchdown catch against Roosevelt.
The Cardinals look to continue their dangerous ground attack
However, the primary game plan from a season ago was unleashing a running game that averaged 355 yards per contest. The biggest question mark for North Central College football entering the season is how to replace the two recently graduated workhorses in the backfield including the nation’s leading rusher and 2022 Gagliardi Trophy winner, Ethan Greenfield, who ran for over 2,000 yards and 26 touchdowns. All-CCIW second-team member Terrance Hill and his 700 yards and 11 touchdowns will need to be replaced as well. While Lehnen has proved to be a dangerous runner in his own right, juniors Jordan Chisum and Joe Sacco will be getting most of the carries in the backfield. Both earned valuable playing time last fall, thanks to many of the games being out of hand early. Even if their playing time was just a quarter or two they knew it was an excellent way to help them get ready for this year’s ground attack.
“Playing in garbage time helps you learn the playbook and learn all those little things that they were teaching us and me and Chis bonded, and we’re to be that one-two punch and we also have Chuck Coleman and Sean Allen so they’re big additions to the offense so I can’t wait to see them run,” said Cardinal running back Joe Sacco.
Helping create holes for the stable of running backs will be a strong, athletic offensive line anchored by two All-Americans at center and guard with senior Jarod Thornton and junior Jeske Maples. All-CCIW junior guard Sam Pryor also returns as do veterans Nick Fehrle, Alex Knaperek and Zach Fortier. Senior tight end Matt Robinson is also back as a key blocker and pass catcher.
A veteran defense is ready to go
The defensive side is a veteran group despite the departures of defensive lineman Tyler Rich and standout Dan Gilroy. The Cardinals do bring back defensive linemen Dan Lester, an All-American and the CCIW Defensive Player of the Year as well as fellow lineman Will Kettlekamp, All-American defensive back Antwain Walker, safeties Julian Bell and Zach Orr and linebackers BJ Admchik and Angelo Cusumano. There will be several new faces in the starting lineup include linemen James Hart and Sam Chapman and linebacker Rahmareon Roby. The defense held their opponents to only seven points a game, including five shutouts last fall. The defense picked up where they left off to start the year, only giving up seven points against Roosevelt. This group of playmakers is ready to keep the pressure on opposing offenses down the road.
“We’re a new team we get to have new opportunities and show people that we’re still going to be just as good of a defense and how we’re going to work hard every day and show people that our defense is still the real deal,” said Angelo Cusumano.
The special teams unit will be brand new this year with two freshmen in kicker Sean Ryniec and punter Dom Scalera taking over the roles.
The Cardinals take the field on Saturday against Carthage to begin CCIW play in the first battle on their quest for a third consecutive conference plaque. The always competitive Battle for the Little Brass Bell against Wheaton College awaits on September 30th on the road. North Central College was picked to finish first in the league and was voted as the preseason number-one team in Division III football for the first time ever. With all the excitement around Naperville, there’s no doubt that Spencer will have his team ready to go as the Cardinals welcome the Firebirds to Bennedetti-Wherli Stadium to kick off the home slate.
“You’re battling, and the margins are small, so there’s not a lot of wiggle room in our league so it’s fun to play and perform under that type of environment and pressure because our guys thrive in it. They love playing in big games and teams in the league, so I’m excited about it,” said Spencer.