When a player is asked to switch positions, that task can usually prove to be too great for said player.
However, Jack Kayser has handled that switch in stride — and then some.
The Portsmouth native and 2014 Notre Dame High School graduate — who tore up the gridiron for the Titans throughout his high school days — not only made the switch from running back to linebacker during his junior season for the Wittenberg Tigers’ football program — but did so with open arms.
As a result, the Wittenberg football program — and Kayser himself — have benefited from that swap.
If 103 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and a team-leading three interceptions for a program that went 10-2 on the year with an 8-1 record and a North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) Championship doesn’t indicate that, nothing will.
“It’s been great,” Kayser said of the transition. “It’s the greatest decision that the coaches could’ve made for me. I feel very comfortable playing defense; it’s something that I loved to do during high school, and it was something that I missed doing in my first two years here at Wittenberg. It’s worked out pretty well. I had a pretty good season last year.”
Winning, however, is something that Kayser has grown accustomed to doing throughout his football career.
Playing under a fierce and fiery leader in Bob Ashley, Kayser ran for 950 yards and made 97 stops in his junior season at Notre Dame. The 5-11 fullback and linebacker upped those numbers to 1,100 yards and 100.5 tackles in his final campaign with the Titans in 2013, and, alongside fellow hand Dakota Smith, combined to form one of the most explosive backfields in school history as the duo led Notre Dame to an 8-3 overall record and the school’s first playoff appearance since 2007. Kayser finished his career by earning back-to-back Division IV All-State Honorable Mention accolades as a result.
“I definitely learned a lot from my experiences at Notre Dame,” Kayser said. “You know how many games you’re going to have to play in the regular season, but you never know when your last game is going to be in the playoffs, or if you’ll be able to make the playoffs at all. We plan on making the playoffs every year here at Wittenberg, so I take everything that we do with a grain of salt, just like in high school.”
That success — both as an athlete and as a student, where the Titan took Advanced Placement and Honors courses — allowed Kayser to earn an opportunity to play at Division III Wittenberg — a school that has only had one losing season since 1954 — and head coach Joe Fincham, who had won 164 games and 10 NCAC Championships before Kayser’s arrival on campus.
“(Bob) Ashley and (Mike) Fincham are very similar coaches,” Kayser said. “They’re both great guys who can also be very intimidating at times. I believe that Coach Fincham is one of the best coaches in the entire country, so it’s a big honor playing underneath him and learning what he can give to us.”
Over the first two years of his playing career at Wittenberg, Kayser continued improving as the Tigers kept adding on wins. A 10-1 record and another NCAC Championship in 2014 was followed by an 8-2 record in 2015, with Kayser rushing for 162 yards on 41 carries in limited duty — impressive stats for a third-string back.
Entering his junior season, Kayser’s work looked like it was going to pay off, as the Notre Dame graduate was all set to be a member of the Tigers’ starting backfield.
However, Fincham had other plans for Kayser — plans that didn’t include him playing on the offensive side of the football.
“When I made the move from the running back position to linebacker, I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to start or not,” Kayser said. “However, it just seemed like I was able to improve on something every week.”
And that attitude not only allowed Kayser to start in Wittenberg’s defensive front seven but star in it.
The 103 tackles and 12 tackles for loss each placed the junior in third place in each category for a defense that allowed just 13.3 points per game in 2016 compared to a unit that allowed 17.2 points per contest in 2015 — an improvement that allowed Wittenberg to improve from an 8-2 mark and a 7-2 ECAC mark to a 10-2 mark and an 8-1 record in the ECAC as Fincham was able to pick up his 12th conference championship.
Included in that title-winning effort was a 24-14 victory over the 10th-ranked team in all of Division III in Wabash College. Wabash pummeled Wittenberg by a 42-14 score, but Kayser’s 12 tackles and game-clinching interception allowed the Tigers to defeat Wabash in a critical conference victory.
“Our huge rival is Wabash, and in my sophomore year, they beat us, 42-14,” Kayser said. “That was the worst moment of my career here at Wittenberg. We came back this year and were able to beat them, 24-14, and I got a big pick at the end to help seal the game. It’s one of the best moments that I’ve ever had playing football.”
In the playoffs, the success continued for both parties. The No. 17-ranked Tigers went to No. 15-ranked Thomas More and came out with an incredible 33-30 quadruple-overtime victory over the Saints, as Kayser recorded a dozen tackles in that affair to help Wittenberg win the grueling affair on a 37-yard field goal by ace kicker Will Gingery.
While the run eventually ended with a 37-9 loss to NCAA Division III national powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater, Kayser’s mindset on the season wasn’t diminished.
“It’s great to be a part of a team that has won as much as we’ve had,” Kayser said. “However, I’ve also learned that it comes with a huge responsibility. You can’t take a day off here. We have to sacrifice a lot of free time that you would normally have as a college student,” Kayser said. “There’s a lot of days that we’ll wake up at six in the morning and either practice, lift, or watch film. That means that you have to get to bed early, and sacrifice nights where you could normally go out with your friends. You can’t have too much fun as a college football player, and the fun that you are able to have has to come from football. However, at the end of the day, it’s all worth it.”
A statement that was proven when Kayser was rewarded with NCAC First-Team All-Conference accolades for his play over the course of the year.
“That was quite a shock,” Kayser said. When the NCAC came out with the awards, I had no idea I was even getting anything. Obtaining first-team honors is definitely up there as one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.”
Like his elder brother, Sam Kayser believes that Wittenberg will be the right fit for him as well. That’s why Sam will also attend Wittenberg and play football for the school in the fall alongside his brother.
To succeed, however, Jack has told Sam that he must be prepared to sacrifice — in more ways than one.
“I believe that it’s going to be awesome for Sam,” Kayser said. “However, I do let him know all of the time that playing for Wittenberg is a huge responsibility. We aren’t just here to go 5-5, we’re here to go 10-0 and make a run in the playoffs. That takes a lot of sacrifice and includes the fact that you aren’t going to be an average college kid. However, through all of that, it’s what Sam wants to do, and I’m proud of him for that.”
However, while Kayser is proud of how far he’s come during his playing career at Wittenberg, he isn’t satisfied — not yet, anyway.
“I want to make it back to at least the second round of the playoffs — which is where we were last season — and knock off a program like a Wisconsin-Whitewater, a Mount Union, or a Mary-Hardin Baylor,” Kayser said. “Getting there and being able to play Wisconsin-Whitewater was a great experience, but just getting there isn’t good enough. I want to help my team defeat a Division III national power and end my career on that note.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930