Respect is something the NMU football team has been trying to achieve since before head coach Bernie Anderson arrived on campus, and with the 2008 season fast approaching, respect is something the team plans to earn.
“We need to flat out win. That’s our goal, to win,” Anderson said. “We have an expectation that we’re good enough – and capable enough – going into every football game, that we’re capable of winning.”
The season begins for the ‘Cats on Saturday Sept. 6 when conference foe Northwood University travels to the Superior Dome to meet an eager group of Wildcats.
In 2008, the Northern football team will go through a series of changes from a 2007 team that finished 5-5 overall.
One area of change will be newly-named starting quarterback Ben Hempel, a junior. With the departure of senior Buddy Rivera from last year’s team, Hempel will step in as the team’s signal-caller. Hempel said he believes the team has many goals to live up to, but, playing in one of the toughest conferences in Division II, the team will need to take things slow.
“Our first goal is always to win,” Hempel said. “We need to take it one week at a time and obviously any team’s goal is to be conference champions. For now, we are just focusing on Northwood.”
Hempel won the starting job this offseason in a tight three-way battle with red-shirt freshmen Matt Blanchard and Carter Kopach. In the two games last season that Hempel saw action, he threw for 96 yards on 6-14 passing and one touchdown, while also rushing for 30 yards and another score on the ground.
“He will be our starting quarterback; he’s a junior and has the most experience,” Anderson said of Hempel. “He manages the team well. We’re not going to ask him to make big plays, he just needs to manage the ball and control it.”
Someone the offense will look to for big plays will be junior running back Mark Bossuah. Last year’s team MVP is coming off of one of the best seasons ever for a Wildcat running back. In 2007, Bossuah rushed for 1,285 yards and 12 scores, ranking him second in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference (GLIAC). True freshman Maurice Williams adds solid depth to a backfield that should put up big numbers in 2008.
“We are a run oriented team and we like to set up the pass with the run, so a good running game is something that we really do stress,” Bossuah said.
Paving the way for Bossuah and the rest of the of the backfield will be a solid group of linemen led by a pair of team captains, in junior center Jack Rustman and senior tackle Kris Krempien. Junior’s Nick Owens and Jon Otto, along with senior Cody Hanson, are all experienced starters helping the cause.
The deepest group though remains NMU’s stellar assembly of receivers. Seniors Fred Wells and Dan Elmore, along with junior Zach Nichols lead the way for this group of wideouts. Contributing receivers include sophomore Dustin Brancheau, and juniors Tyler Schrauben, Justin Merchx and Brian Mitz. The core also returns a solid tandem of tight ends in junior Luke Carlson and sophomore Blake Crider.
Overall, the team will be looking to improve on an offense that ranked 7th in the GLIAC in 2007.
“We do have a lot of goals for ourselves because we do have 10 out of 11 starters returning,” Bossuah said of the offense. “We expect to score a good amount of points and want to make it so we have a chance to win every game.”
Defensively, the Wildcats continue with the model of change, as the team will be showing a new look defense after the off-season acquisition of defensive coordinator Randy Awrey. Awrey comes to NMU from Saginaw Valley State, where he held the position of the Cardinal’s head coach. The team has had a modest amount of time to prepare the new defensive scheme, but Northern’s head coach predicts a positive outcome.
“We just haven’t had a lot of time with this defense – to put in all the little things that you put in – so you put in a base that they can handle,” Anderson said. “We have a good part of the package in that we feel they can handle, and not confuse them – allowing them to play with a minimum number of mental errors.”
A strong point of the 2008 defense is the play of its linebackers, led by juniors Nathan Yelk and Zach Gauthier, who both bring experience and leadership to the table. Others who are looking to make a name for themselves include sophomore Ricky Neaves, junior Scott Avery and junior transfer Michael Boren.
The change to a new defense is something Yelk said he feels has gone well.
“I think it has been smooth for the most part. The spring helped a lot,” Yelk said. “Coach Awrey has made it pretty easy understanding it, and he’s brought the fun aspect into playing football once again.”
The defensive line returns starters (years?) Jacob Reimer and Daniel Catalano and welcome (year?) Dave Reese into the rotation. Last year’s D-line ranked last in the conference in sacks, and this group will be counted upon to place more pressure on the quarterback in 2008.
A young set of defensive backs fill The secondary in cornerbacks (year?) Deji Oke and Marcus Tribble. Senior safeties Alex Grignon and Aaron Tillman add leadership and knowledge to the group. Depth is added by senior Cody Wheeler, and sophomores Courtney Sweeney and Andrew Strobel.
One thing that coach’s are stressing for the young defense is staying positive and playing consistent football.
“Sometimes with being young, a team will score or have a long drive, and there’s a little let down,” Yelk said. “We need to keep hyped up and know every time we’re out there that we have the capabilities of stopping them and not just being a back peddle.”
Northern’s special teams remain fairly similar to last seasons with sophomore kicker Anthony Leandri handling the kicking duties, while Jon Laue should fill into the punting duties. Receivers Wells and Elmore should see the bulk of touches in the return game.
The 2008 schedule experiences a shake up from last year’s including the addition of Tiffin University to the conference.
“Tiffin is going to be very competitive, Anderson said. “It was a good move for the conference and they’ll represent the conference just fine.”
Games to take notice of will be this opening weekend game against Northwood Saturday Sept. 6, Michigan Tech September 18, a nationally televised game, Saginaw Valley State October 4, homecoming game, and Grand Valley State November 1, senior day. All games are at home for the wildcats, giving the ‘Cats the edge of home field advantage.
The team’s complete attention will be on Northwood for now though as the 2008 Wildcats continue on the path of building respect one game at a time.
“Northwood will come out fired up, and not come out flat,” Hempel said, “we won against them last year so they will be hungry which means we need to come out ready to play for four quarters.”