On Sunday in the Superior Dome, the NMU football team took to the field for the final event of the spring season: The Green versus Gold spring game.
The Gold won 19-11.
Unlike previous years, the 2008 spring game was two full teams against one another, with the team captains drafting players. Previously, the spring game pitted the offensive starters against the defensive starters, and a point system was implemented to determine the winner.
Overall, the NMU coaching staff was pleased with what they saw during the game, but realized there’s room for improvement.
“We were happy with some of the things we did,” offensive coordinator Jeff Duvendeck said. “Obviously there’s a lot in film that we can learn from, with the mistakes that we made.”
Defensively, the Wildcats are still learning new coordinator Randy Awrey’s scheme, and Awrey said the defensive players were taking steps in the right direction in that regard.
“I thought our players did a great job as far as learning what we were trying to teach them–and not only learning it, but comprehending it, understanding it and going out and performing it,” Awrey said. “They’re all taking steps, and I thought we took some good steps forward.”
He likened learning a defensive scheme to building a house.
“We have the basement in. We’ve got a lot more of a house to build, but we have a good foundation in,” Awrey said. “I feel good about what we’ve got done.”
When asked who was most valuable defensively, Awrey lauded outside linebackers coach Joe Ballard, inside backers coach Tom Wender and defensive line coach Dick Koski.
“That’s a great group of coaches right there,” Awrey said.
Ballard, who won two Division-II national championships as a player at Grand Valley State, said it was a pleasure to be able to coach with Awrey, Wender and Koski.
“They’re all great. They work well with the players, and they know what they’re talking about,” Ballard said. “I’m learning from them. I think if you add up all their years of experience, it’s close to 200 years of experience. So for me, it’s a great honor.”
Awrey added that NMU’s defense will be a team effort in the fall.
“I think that defensively, you really need to develop that team mentality,” he said. “Because one player on a Saturday afternoon could stick out, but the only reason he might stick out is because the other 10 guys did their job. He may make a big play–he might make a sack or he might get a pick–but that wouldn’t have happened if the other 10 guys don’t get the job done.”
One highlight of the game was the ongoing battle for the starting quarterback position, with junior Ben Hempel and freshman Matt Blanchard taking on the starting role for each team.
Junior Vincent Church and freshman Carter Kopach are the other two players vying for the starting quarterback role. Quarterbacks and wide receivers coach Dan Mettlach said that not having named a starting quarterback yet is more good than bad.
“It’s a good thing because it’ll keep the competition up and it’ll keep everybody working hard,” he said. “We probably won’t name a starter until the fall rolls around.”
Blanchard showed his athletic ability in the spring game, avoiding tacklers and breaking short runs for first downs, including one for a touchdown. Mettlach said Blanchard played well in the game, and added that he also made some freshman mistakes that may have gone unnoticed.
“He’s got a ways to go, and he knows that,” Mettlach said. “And he’s the type of kid that’s going to work and try to polish up those things over the summer, but we were happy with what he did on Saturday.”
Hempel, the more seasoned of the two quarterbacks, showed an ability to control the Northern offense and was composed while throwing in the pocket. Hempel finished the spring game with two touchdown tosses to a pair of sophomores, one to tight end Austin Hughes and the other to wideout Zach Nichols.
“He’s the type of kid that’s not going to make many mistakes,” Mettlach said about Hempel. “He knows where the ball’s supposed to be and he gets the ball out in time.”
Hempel’s touchdown throw to Hughes was only one of several plays to the NMU tight ends. He and sophomore tight end Luke Carlson saw a lot of plays come their way on Sunday. Hughes, at 6 feet 6 inches and 255 pounds, and Carlson, 6 feet 5 inches and 250 pounds, are both big targets for the quarterbacks to take advantage of, and Mettlach said they’ll be important aspects of the offense for next year.
“They are definitely weapons that our quarterbacks need to be on the same page with, because I think they can help us out a lot coming this fall, he said.
Tight ends coach Jeff De St. Aubin said both Carlson and Hughes are big, but also athletic.
“They’re that hybrid player – the offensive lineman who has speed that can get out and run and catch the ball in open space,” De St. Aubin said.
He added that the work ethic of all of NMU’s tight ends has been impressive. De St. Aubin said redshirt freshman Blake Crider, who will be looked to give Hughes and Carlson rest during the season, has put on 25 to 30 pounds since arriving at Northern.
Hughes, specifically, has pushed himself to work on his game in the offseason.
“He never stops. He’s always looking to improve and his heart is there,” De St. Aubin said about Hughes. “It’s amazing to watch that kid. He’s here every day – running, lifting, going over his playbook, and he’s always in there watching film whenever he can. If there was one way to describe him it’d be his work ethic. It’s amazing.”
Carlson’s described as a “freak athlete” and De St. Aubin was impressed with the things Carlson is able to do on the field, adding that Carlson has put on muscle but still remained athletic.
“You can ask him to do pretty much anything, and he’s going to be able to do it,” he said.
NMU’s offensive coordinator said having athletic tight ends was a luxury for the team because it added another aspect to the offense.
“I like getting them on the field because they are big; it gives us a better run game. They do a good job in the run game,” Duvendeck said. “Because they are athletic as well, it’s a nice target too, for a new starting quarterback to have – and whoever’s our starter is going to be a new kid.”
The running game will be again led by sophomore Mark Bossuah, who picked up Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) first team laurels last season.
“I would love to have him on any team. He does a great job, works his butt off, keeps his mouth shut,” Duvendeck said. “He really praises the offensive line and praises the rest of the team and just wants to win. He could care less if he has 400 yards or 10 yards, as long as we win the game and he’s doing his role.”
Duvendeck added he was optimistic for the 2008 season.
“We’re extremely excited,” he said. “I thought we had some very close games last year, and with the new defense – and coach Awrey does a great job with that – if we can stop some people, we should be able to win, and I don’t see us not being able to do that.”