Juniors Matt Longacre and D.J. Gnader didn’t know one another when they were playing high school football in the metro area.
But Longacre and Gnader know all about each other’s games now as they line up together on one of the best defenses in NCAA Division II.
Longacre, a Millard West graduate, and Gnader, who went to Council Bluffs Lewis Central, started every game for a Northwest Missouri State defense that allowed 13.8 points per game last season. That was the second-lowest average in Division II.
The Bearcats, 10-3 in 2012, return six full-time defensive starters and three others who started at least once.
“We’ve got a lot of players back who have done great things in the past,” said Longacre, who had a team-best seven sacks from his defensive end spot as a sophomore. “The secondary and linebackers are probably our core right now.”
The secondary is led by Brandon and Brian Dixon, twin brothers who intercepted five passes apiece last season. Brandon Dixon has been named a preseason All-American by College Football America and USA College Football.
Gnader is a linebacker. He finished with 96 tackles last season, which was 22 more than any other Bearcat. As a freshman in 2011, he was second on the team with 100 tackles. This season, he’s moving from weakside to strongside linebacker, where he said he feels more comfortable.
Although he has two years of eligibility left, this is Gnader’s fifth season at Northwest Missouri State. He redshirted in 2009 and was awarded a medical redshirt after breaking his left hip during the season’s first game of 2010.
“He’s a physical freak,” Longacre said of Gnader. “He closes on the ball so well. He’s got great speed. He’s always flying around making plays.”
Longacre starts up front. Now in his fourth season at Maryville, the redshirt junior feels he’s becoming more consistent.
“I always thought he’d be a special player. He’s lived up to that,” Northwest Missouri head coach Adam Dorrel said.
Dorrel also is expecting a breakout season from another Millard West graduate, sophomore defensive tackle Brandon Yost, who played in all 13 games last season. Longacre believes in the 280-pound Yost, as well.
“I expect him to step in and not take any step back,” Longacre said. “He just has to put everything together.”
Offensively, the Bearcats return four starters on a line that helped the team average 41.9 points per game. Northwest Missouri State has averaged at least 40 points a game four times in the past five years.
The offense is triggered by three-year starting quarterback Trevor Adams. Last season, Adams completed 64 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,515 yards and 23 touchdowns.
“We feel really good about him,” Dorrel said. “We’re trying not to overcoach him this year, just letting him be a ballplayer. He’s at his best when things break down, when he’s using his instincts.”
The Bearcats, though, won’t have a wealth of established experience at running back or wide receiver.
James Franklin won’t be suiting up this season due to academic ineligibility. Franklin led the Bearcats in rushing each of the past two years after transferring from UNO in 2011. He led the MIAA with 1,332 rushing yards in 2011 and had more than 700 last season.
“I’m very confident in the three or four running backs we have back,” Dorrel said of a group that includes Millard West’s Kohlman Adema-Schulte, who had 171 rushing yards last season. “I think it will basically be by committee.”
Northwest Missouri’s special teams also should be solid as Kyle Goodburn, a third-team All-American who averaged 44.3 yards per punt last season, returns.
The Bearcats open with a traditional power in Saginaw Valley State on Sept. 5. Saginaw, which defeated eventual national champion Valdosta State to open the 2012 season, has been to the NCAA playoffs seven times since 2000.
“I think we’ll end up having one of the toughest, if not the toughest, schedule in Division II football,” Dorrel said.
Northwest Missouri, ranked fourth in the coaches poll, hopes that prepares it for a long postseason run. Last year, the Bearcats were eliminated in the second round, losing 38-35 in double overtime to Minnesota State-Mankato.
“That’s all I think about, to be honest with you,” Gnader said of last year’s playoff loss. “Our team motto this year — we came up with it at the end of spring — is “back to the top.” That’s been our goal. We want to get that MIAA championship back in Maryville and then obviously make a run in the playoffs and go to Alabama. We don’t want to finish second, we want to be the best.”
The Bearcats played in the national title game every year from 2005 to 2009, winning the championship in 2009.