Fort Lewis College senior defensive lineman George Marpaung is holding everyone on the Fort Lewis College football team accountable, and he believes it is going to kickstart a new era for a program that has had just 11 winning seasons since 1963.
“I feel like we’ve turned the program in a new direction,” Marpaung said.
Led by first-year interim head coach Brandon Crosby, Fort Lewis will look to kick off a new era of Skyhawks football at 1 p.m. Saturday at New Mexico Highlands in Las Vegas.
“The buildup is good, all of our players are excited,” Crosby said, who enters his second year as offensive coordinator. “It’s just another opportunity to showcase what we’re trying to build here as a program.”
Last season, the Skyhawks averaged 22.3 points per game, which was the third-fewest in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, only behind Black Hills State University (22.0 ppg) and Western Colorado University (21). In addition, Fort Lewis was second-to-last in the RMAC in total offense, as it averaged 294.9 yards per game.
One of the biggest questions entering the offseason was the quarterback battle. Last season, Jake Lowry was injured three games into the season, while Nick McNamee, who had never started a game at FLC, was eventually replaced by Erik Ornduff late in the season.
Heading into Saturday, Lowry, a redshirt junior, was named the starter over junior Ornduff, but Crosby said he will use both throughout the season.
“Lowry gives us a few different things offensively, his athletic ability and the way he can run, it stood out to us,” Crosby said. “Ornduff can do a little bit of both, but I feel comfortable with both those guys ready to play for us at any time.
“The quarterback position is an extremely hard position to play, and I just hope we stay healthy and we can be successful.”
Lowry said the offense has seen marked improvement across the board, and with the addition of strong transfers into the program, he envisions the season playing out much differently than last year.
“It’s coming along a lot better, and with it being our second year under coach Crosby as our offensive coordinator, we’re a lot stronger,” Lowry said. “We brought in some pretty talented offensive linemen, plus some wide receivers and running backs. We definitely have some more talent on the offensive side, and now that we’re all on the same page with (Crosby), it’s going to be good.”
Emmanuel Nwosu, a junior college transfer from Santa Barbara City College, impressed over the offseason, while the Skyhawks will also return junior running back Brayden Lucero, who rushed for 642 yards on 144 carries and scored three touchdowns last season. At the receiver position, two transfers will also look to make a big difference, as Isaac Leppke, a transfer from the University of Wyoming, and Markez Boykin, who arrived from fellow RMAC foe Black Hills State University, will be a dynamic duo on the outside. Add in senior Arealous Hughes, who caught 18 receptions for 312 yards and scored three times, and it could be a formidable unit.
“All of the new guys look good on paper height- and weight-wise, but it’s not just on paper,” said Ornduff. “You could definitely tell that they’re going to make some big plays for us this year.”
While the offense is looking to improve, so too is an already stout defense. The Skyhawks return two all-conference selections in Suli Tukumoeatu and Marpaung, both of whom will look to play a pivotal role this year. In addition to defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato returning, the Skyhawks will look to build upon last year, in which they finished fourth in total defense after they gave up 422.4 yards per game. Marpaung made 45 tackles last year, including 14 for a loss, while Tukumoeatu made 66 tackles, and made two interceptions.
“Coming from last season, I feel that we’re even deeper than before,” said Tukumoeatu. “We’ve got a solid defensive line, our backs are solid and our secondary is looking great. Braylan Davis and Ka’Lonn Milton have looked really good for us, as well. There’s a lot to be excited about.”