College Football: Central Ohio athletes enjoyed springing into action
Following months of not knowing when or how they’d return to competition, Brandon Burks and his teammates on the Tiffin University football team did their best to savor what they experienced this spring.
Burks, a 2016 Pickerington Central graduate, went through a mixture of emotions when he found out last summer the Dragons' fall season was canceled because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Even though programs throughout the Football Bowl Subdivision began truncated seasons throughout September and October, the NCAA announced there would be no postseason for Division II or III programs.
Teams in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference played a league-only schedule that began March 13 and concluded April 24.
Still, the Dragons began conditioning and held walk-throughs in September and practiced in October and November.
“It definitely was weird (last fall),” Burks said. “We’d have a team scrimmage on Saturday and then we’d be watching College Game Day (on ESPN) and watching the hype and the fans. … It was going back and forth the whole summer if we were going to have a fall or spring season and when we got the call in August that there was going to be a spring season, we just had to roll with it.”
Following a 2019 season in which the Dragons won the GMAC, made it to the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time and finished 9-2, they got six of their seven scheduled games in and finished 6-0 to capture their second consecutive league title.
Tiffin closed the season by beating Findlay 23-8 on April 24 for just its third victory over the Oilers.
Burks is a senior linebacker who finished with 19 tackles this spring and plans to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility to play again in the fall. Another local product, freshman wide receiver Anthony Lowe from Central Crossing, was the team’s leader in receptions with 40.
Also contributing were freshmen James Dean (WR) from Reynoldsburg, Marshawn Mankins (LB) from Walnut Ridge and Jeramiah Tucker (DB) from Marion-Franklin, and redshirt juniors Austin Andrews (RB) from DeSales and Hunter Waits (DL) from Centennial.
“I’m a freshman and the transition has been really different from high school,” Lowe said. “Coming in from my high school (where I was) around guys who really didn’t care for the sport as much compared to here where everybody wants to work, (we have) a winning mentality. We’ve got some good leaders on the team.”
Another of Tiffin’s biggest wins came against Ohio Dominican (31-16 on April 17).
The Panthers won their first four games before falling to the Dragons and then losing 35-28 to Hillsdale on April 24 to finish 4-2.
Freshman running back Travis Whittaker, a Gahanna graduate, rushed for 76 yards and one touchdown in Ohio Dominican’s season finale to finish the season with 304 yards and five scores.
Defensive back Ashton Gilkey, a Westerville Central graduate, had six tackles and an interception against Hillsdale to finish with 23 tackles and three interceptions.
“Players in Division II hadn’t gotten to play in a year and a half, so to have real live games meant a lot,” Whittaker said. “It was a lot of fun to have a chance to compete against somebody else. We just really want to keep getting stronger together and we wanted to get a lot of guys opportunities and find our strengths and weaknesses to build for our fall season.”
In Division III, the Ohio Athletic Conference put together a five-game league schedule that began March 19 and concluded April 16, but only three programs played five games.
Mount Union won the league title at 4-0, with Heidelberg (4-1), Ohio Northern (3-1), John Carroll (2-1) and Marietta (3-2) also posting winning records.
Among Mount Union’s key players were wide receiver Jaden Manley, a Hartley graduate who had 15 receptions for 316 yards and seven touchdowns, and offensive lineman Riley Fortkamp, a Watterson graduate.
Marietta had 12 players from the Central District on its roster, including sophomore quarterback Ethan Brown, a Dublin Coffman graduate who threw for 504 yards and five touchdowns.
The Football Championship Subdivision also held a spring regular season, followed by a 16-team playoff that began April 24.
Cole Potts is a DeSales graduate who contributed on the offensive line for James Madison and Griffin Crosa is a Dublin Scioto graduate who served as a backup kicker for North Dakota State as both teams qualified for the playoffs.
Having a spring season, according to Lowe, helped bring closure to a year of uncertainty for football players in the smaller divisions.
“We had a lot of questions when we first came down here in the fall,” he said. “They let us all know the season was going to be canceled but that we still had work to do. That’s when we knew we were going to have five to six games in the spring. It was kind of weird because we hadn’t played a game in over a year, but we were all just happy to be playing football and winning games.”