BLOOMINGTON — There definitely is momentum on the side of Illinois Wesleyan's football team heading into this season.
The Titans won their last five games a year ago. They got a jump start on the 2017 campaign by winning an exhibition game in Japan in the spring.
With 19 players who started at least one game when IWU compiled a 7-2 record last season, Norm Eash heads into his 31st year as the Titans coach lauding his team's experience.
"This isn't the biggest squad I've ever had (with 96 players), but it's very talented and focused," said Eash, whose squad was picked to finish in a tie for third place in the preseason College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin coaches poll.
Yet there are some key questions surrounding the Titans heading into Saturday's 1 p.m. season opener against Division III powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater at Tucci Stadium.
— Who starts at quarterback? Senior Jack Warner, a starter his first two years, missed last season after complications from knee surgery. Brandon Bauer came in as a freshman and sparked IWU's late-season run.
— Will the running game be as strong without Maurice Shoemaker-Gilmore, who gained a school-record 1,143 yards?
— How will the defense, which replaces three veteran linebackers, respond to new coordinator Jeff McDonald's system?
— Can the Titans survive a brutal month of September which includes games against preseason No. 3-ranked Whitewater, No. 6 Wheaton (Sept. 30) and No. 7 North Central (Sept. 16)?
"We're excited to play a great schedule," said IWU senior linebacker Jordan Hassan. "We can make a lot of noise through the nation. That's the goal to be the best, so we have to play the best."
Eash said Wednesday a decision still hasn't been made on whether Warner or Bauer will be the starter. They have shared reps throughout practice and in a scrimmage against Robert Morris.
Warner ranks 10th all-time in school history with 3,721 passing yards and 4,051 total offense yards. His 25 passing touchdowns in 2015 is tied for fifth most in a single season.
Bauer completed 122 of 205 attempts for 1,446 yards and 16 TDs last season, earning IWU's "Most Valuable Freshman" award.
"Both are similar in their style of play. Both are playmakers," said Eash. "Both make really good decisions. They see the field and understand our offense. Our team is comfortable with either one running our team, which is a key."
Senior tight end Andrew Apel, who could see a bigger role in the passing game, said the Titans have confidence in whoever lines up behind center.
"Both command the huddle really well," said Apel. "There isn't very much difference when either one steps in the huddle. We know what to expect."
Eash definitely is comfortable with his veteran offensive line. Left tackle Connor Melvin is a four-year starter, while center Mike Mulcrone, right guard Chris Collins and right tackle Nicholas Monferdini are three-year starters. Mulcrone earned all-CCIW first-team honors last season, while Monferdini was a second-team choice.
The other guard, 320-pound junior Jack Moroni, and 300-pound junior reserve Kyle Cook also were starters last season.
"They understand the game and understand our schemes and what we're trying to do and make adjustments really well on the field," said Eash of the line. "I know they'll have a big effect on our offense and how explosive we are and how many points we score."
That group helped Shoemaker-Gilmore, who could run over or around defenders, pile up more than 2,000 yards the last two seasons. The battle to replace Shoemaker-Gilmore is among three juniors — Matese Scott, Morgan Alexander and Nick Harcar of Streator.
The IWU defense is adjusting to a new voice. McDonald was hired in the spring when Travis Rundle accepted the head coaching position at Sewanee (Tenn.). McDonald served as defensive coordinator the last three years at Wesleyan (Conn.).
"We've spent a lot of time focusing on the fundamentals. It's aggressive, but disciplined," said McDonald of his philosophy. "But it all starts with the fundamentals. The whole defense we talk about how we're going to strip the football and how are we going to get off blocks because that's across the board. The kids have really embraced it, and I couldn't be luckier than working with a group like this."
Senior defensive tackle Justin Krzeczkowski believes the Titans have adapted well to the new terminology and techniques that McDonald is stressing.
"He's really into turnovers, pursuit, the little things after the play you can do," said Krzeczkowski. "He's just more detailed about it in film."
Krzeczkowski, an all-CCIW second-team choice, anchors the charge up front. Junior Eric Dubose has been moved from inside to end. Sophomore tackle Chance Hilliard and senior end John Nolan both got experience last year and are now starters.
Sean Garvey, the rock of the IWU defense the last three years at middle linebacker, has graduated. So did outside linebackers Luke Roth and Tyler Fahey. They were the Titans' three leading tacklers last season.
But IWU does have seniors stepping in to fill those holes. Hassan has taken over for Garvey. Brinton Wilkey Jr. has moved to outside linebacker from safety (where he was an all-CCIW second team choice), while senior Josh Akin is back at linebacker after playing end last season.
"I sat back and watched him (Garvey) the last three years be an absolutely great leader and player," said Hassan. "I took a lot away from that and hopefully I can put that through to the other guys and have an equally great year as he did."
Senior Jeremy Giderof and junior Trevor Staley have experience at strong and free safety, respectively. Quinton Walters, a junior transfer from Iowa Wesleyan, and sophomore Trevor Koepke will start at cornerback. Senior cornerback Erich Lieser also has starting experience.
"I like the talent back there and the way they're playing," said Eash of the secondary.