By ANDY WOLF
For better or for worse, the University of Findlay football team will find out exactly how good it is in 2019.
That’s because the Oilers are going up against, arguably, one of the toughest NCAA Division II schedules in the nation.
Findlay enjoyed an 8-3 mark last season. Matching that this season will be a feat in itself, though the goal for ninth-year UF coach Rob Keys and his team is to win every game.
The upcoming 11-game slate features three playoff teams from 2018, including two Division II national semifinalists. Three other opponents notched winning records last season.
“We’re the only team that’s playing two Final Four teams,” Keys said.
Those two games are spaced out in Thursday’s Week 1 contest at Ferris State and Week 8 at Notre Dame (Ohio).
In between, the Oilers go to perennial power Ohio Dominican in Week 3 and host defending Great Midwest Athletic Conference champ Hillsdale in Week 7.
They’ll end with a bang and in double rival week flair, hosting Ashland in nonleague play and Tiffin in the GMAC finale.
Findlay hasn’t beaten ODU since 2011 and Ashland since 2013.
“It’s, on paper, one of the toughest schedules we’ll face,” Keys said.
But Keys isn’t one to look too far ahead. For now, he’s focused on Week 1 where he has a lot to find out about his players.
Graduation hit the Oilers harder than in past years, leaving several question marks at key positions.
“We’re excited about the start, and there are certain aspects of the team that we can rely on because of experience and production,” Keys said. “There are certain spots where there’s a lot of question marks. We’re going to find out (question marks) every week, over the course of 11 games.”
It all starts with the experienced corps of veteran offensive and defensive lines.
Findlay returns four starters on its offensive line in left tackle Logan Bailey, left guard Andrew Dickinson, center Neal Davis and right guard Clay Colvin.
That same quartet also started both playoff games in 2017.
Keys hasn’t named a starting right tackle yet. Ben Farrar, Michael Jerrell, Zackary Sharp (Bowling Green State University transfer) and Kory Henthorne are all in the mix.
“We’re going to need to rely on very solid offensive line play,” Keys said.
The unit paved the way for Brian Benson (963 yards, 16 TDs) to have a breakout 2018 in his first season of action.
The redshirt sophomore is joined by Nate Slagel in a “1-B role” to Benson. Lance Mitchell and Derek Lynch will also see time at running back.
UF’s ground game will be pivotal in opening up the passing lanes for first-year starting quarterback and junior college transfer Matt Winzeler.
His most experienced targets are also the most sizable.
Seniors Drew Ogletree (6-foot-5, 242 pounds) and Luke Stuffel (6-6, 268) provide serious mismatches at wideout and tight end, respectively.
Ogletree battled injuries in 2018 but finished strong and with five scores.
Stuffel had 16 catches for 302 yards and five scores last season.
“Luke has to be a factor; we’ve got to get people to have to defend him,” Keys said.
Junior Kijana Caldwell (6-1, 185) also returns after making 18 catches for 185 yards. Marlin Richardson spent two years as a defensive back before being switched to wideout this year.
Several other first-year guys are in the shuffle, too.
Lima Senior grad Ruben Flowers (junior college transfer), William Morehand (Northern Arizona transfer), and true freshman and McComb grad Tanner Schroeder are all expected to see time, Keys said.
Morehand was an honorable mention all-Big Sky punt returner in 2016. Schroeder is fresh off guiding the Panthers to a Division VII OHSAA state title.
Senior Nathan Densel converted from tight end to fullback, while junior Chioke Bradley is now a wide receiver.
“All those guys are going to be involved in that passing game” Keys said. “It’s still a concern because there’s a lot of guys who are going to step onto the field, game 1, that haven’t done it in this offense.”
The defensive returnees are even scarcer. Only three of UF’s top 10 tacklers are back from a unit that allowed 24.7 points per game.
“That’s the exciting part of this defense,” co-defensive coordinator Jason Makrinos said. “On that back end, it’s a bunch of no-names right now. They have the opportunity to step up and take advantage.”
Even special teams will sport new faces.
True freshman Mitch Hebenstreit is the starting punter.
“I told him flat out ‘If you decide to come here, you’re probably going to be the starter,'” Keys said.
The kicking job is up to Chris Demler, Chase Wilcox (Findlay High) and Tristan Meyer.
Only Demler has game experience at 3 of 4 on field goals, with a long of 40 yards.
Keys is also auditioning Lynch, Richardson, Morehand, Schroeder, Caldwell, Mitchell, Benson and Eriq Fadahunsi as kick returners.
“There are some spots that we’ve got some new people playing,” Keys said. “Until you see them do it in action, you’re not 100 percent certain how they’re going to handle it.”
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