Updated: September 20, 2013 6:26AM
RENSSELAER — Topping last season won’t be easy for St. Joseph’s wide receiver Julian Walker or quarterback Billy VandeMerkt.
Setting records nearly every time they stepped on the field, the lethal senior citizens put up numbers most skilled players can only dream about at this level.
Walker snagged a school-record 94 passes for 1,082 yards on his way to all-Great Lakes Valley all-conference first-team honors. He also tied another school record of 11 touchdowns set by Portage’s Dan Paulsen. Not content with just hugging the football like a long lost relative, the versatile receiver also threw three touchdown passes.
Wary opposing secondaries will cling to him like a second skin, a harsh reality Walker understands.
“The focus will be on me so I feel other guys will have to step up,” he said. “My job is to try to be a leader, to help them.”
Coach Cory Sanders added 51 freshmen so they will be needing some guidance. “We had to get our numbers up with only 48 coming back from last sason,” he said.
Being a fifth-year senior, Walker won’t need a road map to help the newbies navigate the rustic campus. He could walk it blindfolded, having spent all four summers at SJC.
“Pretty much a permanent resident,” joked the Indianapolis native.
Talented receivers EJ Woody, Joey Bishoff, JaMicha Cooper and Alphonso Hines should relieve the pressure. To the list of double-figure catchers add tight end Tyler Callaghan.
“We’ve got a solid core of guys who have been in the program for a while,” said VandeMerkt, who passed for 2,417 yards and 25 touchdowns. He also set school records of 2,860 yards in total offense and nine TD passes against William Jewell.
VandeMerkt likes to throw on the run, a wise idea for a visionary 5-foot-11 quarterback who led the Pumas in rushing (4.3 average). New offensive coordinator Brandon Murphy should add a few wrinkles to the game plan.
Over the summer VandeMerkt remained on campus, taking classes and working out with 20-plus teammates.
“What they bring to the table is leadership,” Sanders said. “They impact the program by doing small things right.”
Nine returning offensive starters should help the Pumas improve on a 6-5 record.
On the flip side the defensive line needs patching, but linebackers Joel Wimbley, who finished with 33 tackles in the last two games, and Gary Yeoman can be counted on to plug holes.
“Joel’s very talented,” said Sanders of the all-GLVC defender. “Gary, being the son of the Penn coach (Cory), understands the game pretty well.”
To challenge defending GLVC champion Indianapolis the Pumas must tighten up against the running game. Their opponents averaged 197 yards rushing and ground out 26 touchdowns.
St. Joe’s kicking game should be solid with Wheeler grad Gavin Voss, who connected on 7-of-11 field goals in his freshman year, and redshirt Marcin Gawlak relieving him of punting duties.
“Doing all that put a lot of stress on Gavin’s hip flexor muscles,” said Sanders, “but he’ll continue to kick off.”
St. Joseph’s will host Valparaiso on Sept. 7. That suits him just fine.
“We open with VU for the next three years,” said Sanders, who would like to see the rivalry continue on a permanent basis. “It’s a big game for both schools since we’re just down the road.”
Last year Voss kicked a field goal to set up a game-winning 93-yard, 12-play scoring drive in the final minutes at Valparaiso.
Walker contributed 11 catches for 205 yards to the come-from-behind victory, which he considers his most memorable outing.
“It was an electric atmosphere,” he said. “Winning like that gave us a lot of confidence for the rest of the season.”