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Johns Hopkins football’s 4-0 start rooted in rebounding from atypical 2019 season

Johns Hopkins quarterback Ryan Stevens delivers a pass during a game against Ursinus on Sept. 11, 2021.
Johns Hopkins quarterback Ryan Stevens delivers a pass during a game against Ursinus on Sept. 11, 2021. (James T VanRensselaer)

If missing the 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic provided the Johns Hopkins football program with an uninhibited enthusiasm for this season, 2019 laid the foundation for inspiration.

“I think it’s definitely something you don’t forget,” graduate student defensive back Macauley Kilbane said of the 2019 season, during which the Division III Blue Jays suffered the most losses in the Centennial Conference in 14 years. “We’re all kind of aware of it. But at the same time, we brought in two new classes, and this is a whole new season with a whole new team.

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“So while we may still remember it, our focus has been on this week and playing to the best of our ability and going 1-0 this week. We’re not looking in the rearview mirror. We’re just focused on this team and this season.”

Thus far, the Blue Jays are making 2019 seem like a distant memory. They can improve to 5-0 for the first time since 2016 if they can defeat conference rival Franklin and Marshall on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Homewood Field.

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Johns Hopkins is ranked Nos. 14 and 15 in the most recent American Football Coaches Association and D3football.com polls, respectively. The offense is one of the most prolific in Division III, and the defense isn’t far behind. Yet coach Greg Chimera remains cautiously optimistic about the team’s early success.

“I just think the guys came in ready and focused in the preseason, and we’ve gotten better every day,” he said. “As cliché as that sounds, our attitude right now is to get better every week and face our opponents. How good can we get Sunday to Saturday every week? That’s really been the guys’ focus, and our coaches are doing a great job with keeping guys engaged.”

Johns Hopkins defensive back Macauley Kilbane directs traffic during a game against Ursinus on Sept. 11, 2021.
Johns Hopkins defensive back Macauley Kilbane directs traffic during a game against Ursinus on Sept. 11, 2021.

The 2019 season, the first time Johns Hopkins failed to capture at least a share of the league championship in 13 years, was also the school’s first without Jim Margraff, the program’s all-time winningest coach and longtime architect who died suddenly Jan. 2, 2019, at the age of 58. Margraff, a record-setting quarterback for the Blue Jays and their coach since 1990, had led the 2018 team to its first appearance in the semifinals of the Division III tournament, where they lost to 13-time national champion Mount Union.

That year, Johns Hopkins won a program-record 12 games, and Margraff was named National Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association National and D3football.com.

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Chimera, a 2009 graduate who had been the offensive coordinator under Margraff for five years until being promoted to head coach on Feb. 22, 2019, acknowledged that the absence of the man he and many others still call “Coach” weighed on the program.

“I think 2019 had its own feeling to it just with everything that happened with Coach Margraff and it being my first year and the coordinators’ first year,” Chimera said. “There was a lot of things that happened all at once in almost a perfect storm type of thing. And our players went through a lot with Coach Margraff passing and going through some change. So I think everything in ‘19 was a little different.”

As much as Chimera was embraced as Margraff’s successor, adapting to a new voice took some time for the players.

“I think it was just a tough transition overall from losing such a historic coach in Coach Margraff and a father-like figure,” Kilbane said. “So I think both the team and the program overall were trying to figure out how to move on and succeed from there. But I think the biggest thing is that the group that returned from 2019 learned a lot from that.”

This season, in his first year as the full-time starter, junior quarterback Ryan Stevens ranks second in the nation in passing yards per game (370.3) and is tied for second in touchdown passes (15). Senior wide receiver Harrison Wellmann is seventh in receiving yards per game (128.0) and is tied for fourth in touchdown catches (seven), and the offense ranks second in scoring (58.2 points per game) and fifth in yards (577.0 per game).

Stevens traced his development to learning from former starter David Tammaro and depending on his teammates.

“I just knew that if I bought in and used what the coaches had taught me and just bought into who we are as a team, we were going to be successful on the field,” Stevens said. “There’s nothing talent-wise that holds us back. It’s about, can we execute and play hard on Saturday?”

Sophomore defensive end Luke Schuermann is tied for fifth in the country in total sacks (five), and senior cornerback Finn Zechman is tied for ninth in total deflected passes (seven). And the defense has surrendered just 11.3 points per game, 19th-best in the country.

But it’s the growth of Chimera as a head coach that many players and coaches point to as one of the keys to their success so far this fall. Kilbane said he has witnessed Chimera grow more comfortable as the program’s leader.

“I think anyone comparing their first year to third year is going to see a learning curve, and that’s just not at the head coaching position, but even as players,” he said. “Coach Chimera has done a tremendous job of leading this group and being the right man for the position.”

On Saturday, the Blue Jays will clash with a Franklin and Marshall team that tagged the 2019 squad with one of its three setbacks. Stevens said the memory of that result has resonated with the players around at that time.

“This game holds a place in our hearts for most of our players that played in 2019,” he said. “I would say that we go into every game like we want to win, but there’s a certain type of energy going into this week, and everybody’s preparing well. I feel like since we’ve been successful so far this week in practice, it will correlate to the game.”

FRANKLIN & MARSHALL@JOHNS HOPKINS

Saturday, 1 p.m.

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