The NMU football team opens the 2010 campaign Thursday night with a non-conference game at MSU-Mankato.
2010 NMU Football Outlook
MARQUETTE, Mich. - The 2009 Wildcats finished the year with a record of 6-4 and the program’s first winning season since 2002. The ‘Cats opened last season with a heartbreaking road loss to Northwood (21-23), which then led to the start of a five-game winning streak. During the course of that run NMU took down two top 25 ranked opponents and found them ranked in the top 25 for the first time since ever in the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Poll.
After the winning streak the ‘Cats slipped a little bit losing its next three games. This year marks the start of a new chapter for the program as the team looks to make a run for the NCAA Division II playoffs. Offensively the ‘Cats return six starters that helped contribute to the third ranked scoring offense in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) by averaging almost 32 points an outing (31.6 avg/g). Junior Carter Kopach returns to guide the offensive unit that will look to fill spots along the line and in the backfield. Defensively the Cats return seven starters . Bernie Anderson returns to the helm for his fifth year in charge of the ‘Cats. Anderson believes his squad is hungry and confident they make the run to the playoffs.
In the GLIAC race, NMU finished tied for fourth with Findlay and Ashland. NMU averaged a little over 350 yards per game (350.7 avg/g) in total offense which ranked ninth in the GLIAC. The ‘Cats were ranked fifth in the GLIAC in rushing offense (198.3 avg/g) and 11thin passing (152.4 avg/g). Defensively the ‘Cats where in the top five in every category. The ‘Cats were second in scoring defense (16.1 avg/g), fourth in total defense (312.4 avg/g) and fourth in interceptions (12).
According to Anderson you can’t have a championship caliber team without a great quarterback. “What he (Kopach) brings is leadership, knowledge and athleticism of the position, which is a great place for the offense to start at,” said Anderson. Kopach is coming off his second year as the starter. He finished last season with 1,373 yards passing with 14 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 57.9 percent.
Kopach’s go-to man Zach Nichols is gone after graduation, but senior Dustin Brancheau brings back veteran experience to an explosive attack from the receiving corps. Brancheau, who was a captain last season, finished with 33 catches for 329 yards and two touchdowns. One of his touchdowns was a 62-yard strike from Kopach during the Miner’s Cup game up in Houghton which lit the torch for the ‘Cats to reclaim the cup in a huge 48-16 win over Michigan Tech.
“We have a couple of veteran experienced receivers returning with a few others that will help contribute,“ said Anderson.
At the tight end position senior Blake Crider returns with 10 catches for 154 yards and two scores. Crider will be a big physical threat with his size (6-5, 260) and speed in the conference this season.
“Crider will be a big target inside and couple deeper threats. I think there are a few others who will make a surprise and have a role,” said Anderson.
A big question mark for the offense is the backfield. Last year’s leading rusher, Mark Bossuah and his 720 yards on 152 carries has graduated. The second and third leading rushers from last year, Antonio Wallace (623 yards on 89 carries) and Branson Smith (243 yards on 42 carries) have both left the program. According to Anderson it’s a new start to the position. “We are bringing in a talented tailback from an NCAA Division I school that has played in 19 out of 20 games including a bowl game. We also have two other transfer running backs that will help contribute in the running game,” said Anderson.
The offensive line looks to be big spot that will need to be filled as the entire right side has departed due to graduation. Jack Rustman, Nichols Owens and Jon Otto had been together for three years. Sophomore Jace Daniels and senior Jason DuMont return to guide the left side of the line.
“We have a sophomore (Jordan Mancl), three juniors (Jon Kraai, Nathan Linsmeier and Chad Pepper) and a senior (Mike Levy) that have been in the program long enough to be able to pick up that slack,” said Anderson.
Turing to the dark side of the ball Randy Awrey’s fierce and physical attacking defense package returns seven of 11 starters. Inside linebackers Nathan Yelk (D2football.com All-American) and Zach Gauither are the two biggest holes that need to be filled with both of them finishing their eligibility last fall.
“Good news is our defensive system is in place for the third consecutive year with gives us some continuity. The defense is build around the inside linebackers to make plays. We had a few guys step up in spring ball,” said Anderson.
The secondary which is where Anderson says the game is played today returns all four starters. Seniors DJ Oke , Junior Michel, Ricky Neaves and junior Marcus Tribble will be the primary targets. Oke was third on the team in tackles last year with 56 (30 solo and 26 assisted). He also had two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Michel, s a junior college transfer, registered 37 total tackles (13 solo and 24 assisted). Michel also returned an interception for a touchdown in the season finale against the University of Indianapolis. Neaves, the headhunter brings a smash mouth attack to the defense. He tailed 40 tackles last season (22 solo 18 assisted) with one fumble recovery. Tribble recorded 28 tackles (23 solo and five assisted) looks to contain the last spot in the secondary.
“This might be the best returning secondary we’ve had in my coaching career,” said Anderson.
Senior John Blessing will contain the end spot in Awrey’s 3-4 defensive scheme. Blessing finished last season with 52 total tackles (27 solo and 25 assisted) with five sacks and one interception. Juniors Cedric Douglas and Zach Pierson look to get into the mix of things as well.
“I think we have great depth at this position,” said Anderson. “I believe we have four people that I think can start for us.”
The defensive line returns junior Matt Forward at the nose guard. Forward ended 2009 with 19 total tackles (12 solo and seven assisted) with three sacks. Senior DJ Catalano will anchor one of the tackle spots; he finished with 15 tackles (four solo and 11 assisted) with one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Sophomore Zach Anderson and junior Tony Propson look to fit into spots along the line as well as junior Anthony Echols who made the switch from linebacker.
“We have very capable people up front, “said Anderson. “ Forward, Anderson and Catalano return and all have played; depth behind these three might be a concern, but I’m confident with Randy Awrey as coordinator for the third year that we can make the adjustments as needed. “
Special teams are very important for the ‘Cats. As for the kicking game junior Garrett Peck returns as the punter who average 41.5 yards on 40 punts. Sophomore Rockne Belmonte got his foot in the door with handling the field goal and extra points. Belmonte finished the season connecting on five- of-seven field goals with his longest being from 36 yards against Hillsdale. Senior Anthony Leandri looks to also be in the kicking mix with Belmonte. The Florida native has a career long 49-yard field goal against Michigan Tech back in 2007.
“We were in the top of the league in the league in all the categories, thanks to Coach Tom Wender,” said Anderson. “Peck has proven to be one the most effect in league entering his junior year.”
Anderson also says that the returners will become a key with the skilled positions and addition of the incoming tailbacks will give the ‘Cats some speed.
The table is set for the ‘Cats to continue the climb up the ladder in the GLAIC. Last season Grand Valley State, Hillsdale and Saginaw Valley State represented the conference in the national playoffs. NMU looks to continue its goal of reaching the next level.
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Outlook by Michael Levy