Section: Football

Thomas Merkle ’20: A retrospective on the career of the most decorated quarterback in Kenyon history

Thomas Merkle ’20: A retrospective on the career of the most decorated quarterback in Kenyon history

Merkle, who ended up switching to #7 his sophomore season, leads his team in pre-snap adjustments in his first career start against Sewanee. | COURTESY OF KENYON COLLEGE ATHLETICS

If a neutral passerby with no knowledge of the Kenyon Lords football team walked by a practice one day and saw Thomas Merkle ’20, they would probably assume he played slot wide receiver or defensive back. Listed at 5-foot-11-inches and 165 pounds, Merkle does not look like the starting quarterback for a college football team, much less the most accomplished quarterback in that team’s history. 

Merkle, who will play in his fortieth and final game on Nov. 16 against Denison University, leads the team in career passing yards (10,037), pass attempts (1,782), pass completions (1,043) and completion percentage with at least 400 attempts (58.52%). He is ranked second in Kenyon history in passing touchdowns (60) and interception percentage with at least 400 attempts (3.03%). In NCAC history, he holds the record for career pass attempts and pass completions, while he is set to finish second in all-time career passing yards. He’s one of only nine quarterbacks in conference history to ever throw for 2,500 yards in two consecutive seasons. Yet his tenure is also marked by a 6-33 record as a starting quarterback—including a 26-game losing streak, the longest in school history. No one, not even Merkle, could have expected his career trajectory coming in to his first day of camp.

The Kid from Southern Pennsylvania 

Raised in York, Pa., Merkle wanted to play football since he was old enough to walk, according to his mother, Michelle Merkle. However, his parents were able to convince him to wait until he was in seventh grade, and when he got on the field he immediately impressed the coaches with his arm strength. Despite his impressive arm, coaches had to make adjustments in order for Merkle to play at his stature.

“In seventh grade he weighed 90 pounds and he could barely see over the line,” Michelle recalled. “They started putting him in shotgun early on and they had him five yards behind the line so he could see over them.”

As a three-year starter at York Suburban High School (Pa.), Merkle led the varsity team to their first playoff appearance since 2009, while setting school and county records for career passing yards. Despite these accolades, when it came to the college search even at the D-III level, Merkle was hard-pressed to find somewhere that he would be guaranteed a place to start. 

“I think the classic line we got from a coach was ‘Thomas, you have a Division I arm and a Division IV body,’” Michelle said. “We knew he was going to be locked into a Division III program and we looked at lots of schools.”

At the conclusion of the college search, Merkle was down to three schools: Kenyon College, Denison University and Juniata College (Pa.). Juniata has a similar—if not slightly more successful—program history than Kenyon and offered Merkle a greater financial package. They also had expressed their intentions to have him sit for one year behind their senior starter and start for his final three years. At Denison, Merkle would have had the opportunity to be a part of a program that has been in the conversation for a conference title every year since 2013. The fatal flaw for Denison in Merkle’s eyes was his low potential to actually play on the field. Reigning NCAC Offensive Player of the Year Canaan Gebele had the spot locked down as a first-year when Merkle was a high school senior, meaning injury would have likely been the only chance Merkle had to start until his senior season. Kenyon, the most expensive of the three, had two rising junior quarterbacks and the worst recent record of the three programs, but football ended up only being a part of Merkle’s decision.

“The reason I ended up coming [to Kenyon] is because I wouldn’t have gotten into this school without football, so I felt like I didn’t want to pass up on an opportunity to go to such a high academic institution,” Merkle said.

“You’re up”

Merkle came into camp without much intention of starting in his first year. Sam Appel ’18 had seemingly assumed the job from three-year starter Jake Bates ’16 entering training camp. Thanks to an impressive camp, Merkle had earned himself a tie for the second-string job coming into Kenyon’s first game against Sewanee: The University of the South (Tenn.).

The Lords were coming off a 2-8 season and had lost their last six games of the 2015 season. The Lords had lost to Sewanee by a score of 31-21 in the season opener the previous year, making Sewanee one of the few games the mid-2010’s Lords had serious potential to defeat. In pregame warmups, Appel injured his Achilles tendon and there was uncertainty over whether Merkle or co-backup Noah Montgomery ’18 would take his place. 

“[Former Lords head coach Chris Monfiletto] was kind of just walking towards the sideline, looked at me and said ‘you’re up,’” Merkle said. Merkle’s teammates embraced him as a first-year starter on a starting offense filled with veteran leaders. “I was in the huddle to begin the game and everyone kind of reassured me ‘let’s go, we have no problem with you being in here.’”

Early on, Monfiletto called a conservative game on offense to protect his quarterback that had just been thrust into the season-opener as a true first year. On the first three drives, Merkle only dropped back on four out of 13 plays. Once the Lords fell behind 14-0, Monfiletto had no choice but to let Merkle loose.

With 3:22 left in the first half, Merkle drove the team on an eight-play 92-yard drive on which he completed three passes for 58 yards and topped it off with his first career touchdown pass. By the time he got the ball back, the Lords were once again losing by two scores, 17-7. Merkle took the Lords offense 70 yards in six plays for a second touchdown, including completions on all four of his pass attempts for 59 passing yards capped off. The Lords would score the next drive on a 36-yard pass from Merkle to complete the comeback and take a 21-17 lead. To top off his comeback, Merkle proceeded to orchestrate a 15-play 81-yard drive that—despite ending in a missed field goal—killed 6:28 of time off the clock late in the fourth quarter. 

Despite the scripted nature of Merkle’s first career start, he didn’t let the pressure get to him. “I wanted to give the upperclassmen and the guys who had their positions locked, I wanted to give them the best opportunity to be successful,” Merkle said. “I really went out there trying to fill a role and not do too much. In terms of pressure, I didn’t really allow myself to think about it too much because that would’ve really negatively affected my play.”

Instant Success

After a victory in his debut, Merkle was the undisputed starter in his second game. The opponent was Oberlin College—who the Lords lost 28-24 to the prior season—and once again, Merkle impressed. Behind 311 yards, three touchdowns through the air and an extra with his legs, Merkle led the Lords to a dominating 45-16 victory. 

The Lords were 2-0 for the first time since 1998, and their success could be directly attributed to the chemistry between their first-year quarterback and senior wide receiver Brian Hunca ’17. In just those first two wins, Hunca had 21 catches, 299 receiving yards and 2 receiving touchdowns, all from Merkle.

“[Hunca] was just always on the same page as me. No matter if we had specifically talked about this play and where I want him to be or not, he was always in that position. So whenever, if I need to be bailed out—if I left a ball short or behind him he always made the play and them some,” Merkle said. “He really took me under his wing in terms of on the field, learning how to be comfortable and adjust to what defenses were doing, changing ball placement, just getting on the same page with the rest of the offense… My relationship with him freshman year was as big as anything in terms of my growth as a football player.”

Hunca would go on that season to catch 99 of Merkle’s passes, which, at the time, set a new record for the NCAC. With 1,283 receiving yards, Hunca had the third-best season in NCAC history. Hunca had such an incredible senior season that his performance got the attention of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, who gave him a rookie camp tryout in the Spring of 2017.

The Merkle-to-Hunca connection was one of the backbones of the offense. After a poor showing by the offense against Hiram College, only scoring seven points on 261 yards, Merkle found Hunca 10 times for 191 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-7 win against Allegheny College. The Lords had a 3-1 record for the first time since 1984.

The Tough Times

After a 48-35 loss to DePauw University in the fifth game of the season, the Lords offense didn’t surpass 17 points again that season. Averaging 27.8 points in the first half of the season, the Lords’ offense dropped off to only 13 points in the second half. The Lords finished their 3-1 season with six straight losses.

“I feel like, to some extent, we took it for granted because winning a college football game—any college football game—takes a lot in terms of it takes a lot of effort, it takes a lot of preparation,” Merkle said. “Winning a single college football game is hard and when we won three of our first four I don’t think I realized how hard it was to win those games because it all just felt natural.”

Despite winning NCAC Newcomer of the Year, there was still a lot to prove for Merkle in his sophomore season. Was he the quarterback who came in and led the program to its first 3-1 start in three decades, or one got stifled by stingy defenses late in the year once they found answers for Hunca? The first game of his sophomore season presented more questions than answers. Despite throwing for 300 yards against Sewanee and constantly coming close to scoring, five of the Lords seven drives ended in interceptions, three in the red zone. Clearly Merkle was good enough to drive the offense down the field, but would he be able to get his team in the end zone?

The Lords offense continued to struggle through the first four games of 2017, averaging 12 points per game. They had now lost their tenth straight game.

The Turnaround

In the fifth game of Merkle’s sophomore season against Ohio Wesleyan College, the Lords lost a close 23-21 game. While 21 points is no offensive juggernaut, the game featured a breakout performance by wide receiver Ian Robertson ’19, who reeled in nine catches for 176 yards and two touchdowns. In the next four games the Lords would score over 30 points each game, something they hadn’t done since 2006, while Robertson strung together a streak of six straight games with over 100 receiving yards. The offense was on fire, averaging 36.8 points in the second half of the season. Robertson, despite recording only 76 receiving yards in the first three games, finished the season with 1,053 receiving yards, second in the NCAC for 2017. However, despite the incredible success on offense, the Lords could not find a way to win.

In retrospect, Merkle realized that he had to accept the smaller victories. “Putting everything into perspective we were able to have a lot of success despite the wins and losses. We were able to have a successful offense for a couple years and put up all-conference numbers in terms of team offense and stuff like that,” Merkle said. “We had a couple receivers have some breakout season, those little successes you kind of cherish as wins for the team overall and you rally behind the guys having success.”

The best game of Merkle’s career came within that stretch. “I remember vividly how much fun we had as a team, or at least as an offense, the day that we played Hiram my sophomore year,” Merkle. The Lords found themselves down 34-21 at halftime, but in the locker room they made some adjustments that would turn an already successful offensive day, into an all-time successful offensive day. 

“We went into the game with a fantastic gameplan, then after two quarters they kind of figured out what we were doing and we made perfect adjustments and they didn’t have any answers to shut us down,” Merkle said.

The Lords had six drives in the second half, all of which started from within their own 35-yard line. On all but one of those drives, the Lords marched their way down the field and scored a touchdown. In the second half alone Merkle had 219 passing yards and three passing touchdowns with one rushing touchdown. Merkle put up 410 yards and 5 touchdowns passing, the only time he’s put up 400 yard and 5 passing touchdowns in the same game. Despite all this, the Lords could not get a stop on defense and fell by a final score of 62-56.

“[The Hiram game] really put that whole thing into perspective about having those little successes because it felt like as an offense we were going out and doing our job and having fun with it,” Merkle said.

The Bad Year

Entering Junior year, hopes were high for Merkle who had put up near identical 2,900 passing yard seasons in his first two years. However, either the talent or the effort around him seemed to be lacking. The entire offense sputtered, only scoring multiple touchdowns in four of their 10 games and never surpassing 24 points. On the other side of the ball, the Lords defense had trouble keeping the offense engaged in games, as they never conceded less than 28 points in a single game. The only competitive game the Lords played in was a heartbreaker, as the Lords blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead to Hiram despite a fantastic 373-yard, 3-touchdown effort from Merkle.

“We hit a couple of rough patches,” Merkle said, regarding his entire career. “We hit a couple of weird things going on with injuries, we had a rough year or two on defense—there were a couple things that didn’t shake out our way.”

The only bright spot on the entire team was Robertson leading the league in receiving yards with 1,203, good for sixth in NCAC single-season history, and Robertson breaking Hunca’s single-season receptions record from 2016. That season Robertson became only the fifth receiver in NCAC history to have 1,000 receiving yards twice in their career, and, along with Hunca, Kenyon became the only school to have multiple receivers on that list. Of those four 1,000 yard seasons, Merkle was the quarterback for three of them. 

However, despite this “little success,” the Lords once again lost all 10 of their games. About three months after the culmination of the season, Monfiletto, the head coach, offensive play-caller and personal mentor to Merkle, resigned. 

“I don’t think I can attribute my success to [Monfiletto] enough in terms of just understanding the game of football. When I came in I had learned more in the first two weeks of camp than I had my other six years playing football prior,” Merkle said. “He really pushed me and challenged me at the quarterback position, but not past the point of comfortability.”

Transition and Change

“[When Monfiletto stepped down] I brought the team together before our lifts… and my message to the guys was really ‘between now and the time we do end up finding a head coach, you will never have more responsibility as a football player within a program than you do now,’” Merkle recalled.

For about a month and a half during the spring, including the beginnings of spring practices, the Lords had to focus on preparing for the next season without a head coach. For Merkle, he had to serve as a senior leader while also not knowing at all what the offensive gameplan was going to entail. While he had some participation in the process of hiring a new coach, Monfiletto’s offense had been tailored towards Merkle and any incoming coach was going to have Merkle for just one more season as they tried to implement a long-term future for the offense. 

Merkle met newly-hired head coach James Rosenbury when he came to campus last April, but he did not get the opportunity to talk to the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Allison until he was hired in the middle of the summer. 

“He facetimed me the day he was hired and we’re able to have about a 20 minute to a half hour conversation,” Merkle said. “He pretty much said ‘I appreciate and respect your experience and I’m gonna have you’re back the entire way through the season.’” 

Although Allison and Merkle work in collaboration to make the offense run as smoothly as it can, the Allison-Rosenbury system has balanced the run-pass splits significantly. Under Monfiletto, Merkle averaged 47.8 pass attempts per game, an astounding amount. Of the three seasons Merkle played under Monfiletto, Merkle finished second, fourth and fifth in the all-time NCAC records for pass attempts. While Allison certainly hasn’t taken the ball out of Merkle’s hands—he’s still averaging a whopping 38.5 pass attempts per game this season—the style of play has taken some of the load off Merkle’s shoulders.

Breaking Through

After 26 games of losing, the Lords faced Catholic University in Washington, D.C. the first game of Merkle’s senior year. In a double overtime thriller, featuring a season-high 322 passing yards for Merkle to go along with two passing touchdowns and a passing two-point conversion to seal the game, the Lords had finally broken their streak of futility. After the walk-off two-point conversion, Merkle told the Collegian, “I don’t know really the words to describe it, it was kind of a hesitant celebration. It was like ‘is anything going to get called back?’ You wanted to celebrate and jump up with the world, but you didn’t want anything to happen.” After 26 games, Merkle was thinking about all the ways the Lords might lose, that for a brief moment he couldn’t believe they had actually won.

After getting shut out for only the second time in his career the next game against Ohio Wesleyan and losing to DePauw 21-7, there was some realization setting in that perhaps the offense would struggle even more than in 2018. Without a fully healthy offensive line in almost every game and without any 1,000 yard receivers, the Lords have averaged just over 13 points a game leading up to Denison.

However, the defense was able to repay Merkle for some of their performances that cost them wins in some of his best career games back in 2017. Against Hiram, the Lords won their first home game in three years with a 15-12 defensive battle. Merkle was only one of 14 players who had been on the team during the last home win, and one of the even smaller few who actually played a pivotal role.

“On one hand it went really quick. It feels like yesterday that we had that [2016] home win and all those people were around and you kind of felt like that was going to be the norm,” Merkle told the Collegian two days after the Hiram victory. “When you’re in the middle of it, it feels like forever. When we were getting up towards however many straight home losses, you’re kind of just itching for one… at the end of the day [the win] meant a lot for everybody.”

Merkle got his most recent and quite possibly his final victory of his Collegiate career during a 12-7 Oberlin victory where he played incredibly well despite the offense only scoring one touchdown. Completing 29 of his 38 passes for 252 yards with only one interception that was batted in the air by his receiver. However, a symptom of the offensive season, Merkle was sacked five times and it took a Michael Picone ’21 interception return for a touchdown to steal the game for Kenyon.

Merkle’s turn

As his career has wound down, Merkle has started to end up on the record books for both Kenyon and the NCAC. Once the distributor for two wide receivers who ended up in the NCAC record book, it has been Merkle’s year to break records. Entering the season as the sixth leading passer in NCAC history, he’s climbed all the way up to second. Last week he was congratulated by the announcers on Senior Day for becoming the second person in NCAC history to record 10,000 passing yards in a career. 

“You don’t really think about it during the season while the numbers are racking up, because you never know from week to week what the hell is going to happen,” Merkle said. “Once you kind of settle down and reflect on ‘these were the numbers for the year,’ I think after sophomore year is when I realized ‘we could turn this thing into a pretty good career if we keep working at it the way that we have for years.’”

“[I have] a sense of pride [in Merkle’s records],” Michelle Merkle said. “but mostly its satisfying for him to see that his hard work pays off. He works very hard, he lifts weights year-round, he stays in shape, he knows he’s limited by height and weight but he does everything he can to do the best he can with the physical assets he has.”

Merkle will play in his final game Sat. Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. in Granville against Denison.

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