Wildcat football gets defensive for 2010

Drew Kochanny

The first 2010 game for the NMU football team won’t kick off until 7 p.m. Saturday Sept. 2, when the team will travel to Minnesota State University-Mankato. Practice makes perfect, however as the team has already started preparation for the 2010 season.

Spring practices began Monday, March 22 for the team who will take part in 14 spring practices, concluding on Saturday, April 17 with the annual NMU spring game. The 2009 team finished with a 6-4 record, which was its best since 2002. The team improved in almost every statistical category and saw the likes of a five-game win streak over conference opponents, and two Superior Dome shutouts.

Ricky Neaves, a senior safety, brings a powerful punch to a defensive unit that brought in 24 takeaways in 2009.

Change to nearly every position will take place as the 2009 team featured 16 seniors in pivotal areas including running back, offensive line, and linebacker. Many key positions remain strong however, and should be improved upon with another year of experience.

The first clear strength the 2010 team possesses is that of a solid starter at the quarterback position. Junior (In spring football, players are considered to have next year’s class standing) Carter Kopach steps into his third season as the starter behind center.

If there is one thing that a quarterback needs, it’s confidence. To build confidence, you need experience, which I finally think Kopach has.

In 2009, Kopach threw for 1,373 yards with 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Those numbers could be doubled this season with a more experienced passer in the backfield. Finding a solid backup to Kopach is one area this spring that may be a challenge.

The second strength of the team I see and perhaps one of the biggest is that of the outside linebackers. Senior outside ‘backers Demetri Stewart and John Blessing offer excitement to the position that has been lacking in previous years. Stewart, an All-GLIAC honorable mention pick in 2009, was third on the team last season with 65 tackles including nine for loss and four sacks. Blessing registered 52 tackles to go along with a team-leading five sacks. The numbers of both players should improve greatly this season, especially in sacks where the team has improved every season since 2007.  Solid backups in juniors Zach Pierson and Cedric Douglas along with senior Eric Wells, all bring good position depth.

Junior quarterback Carter Kopach will be called upon to be a leader of a young offense in the 2010 season.

Apart from outside linebacker, the only area of the team to not lose a starter heading into the 2010 season is the defensive backfield.  All four return as seniors in corners DJ Oke and Marcus Tribble and safety’s Ricky Neaves and Junior Michel. The four make up what I would consider the best part of the 2010 team, thanks much in part to defensive coordinator and defensive back’s coach Randy Awrey. Oke, who brought in 56 tackles and two interceptions in 2009, is the team’s best cover corner with the speed to run with anyone on the field. Neaves also has the speed to chase, but is better known for his knockout blows than his finesse ball skills. Tribble, who also brought in two interceptions in 2009, has been a solid starter opposite Oke. Michel, a 2009 junior college transfer, showed flashes of greatness all of last year, and should be a larger part of the defense this season.

All are reasons I look for more than last years  five interceptions and more bone-jarring hits from this unit next year.

When looking for an area of concern in 2010, I’d have to start with the running game. The backfields top three rushers from the 2009 season have all departed from the team. Senior Mark Bossuah’s career came to an end and sophomore Brandon Smith and freshman Antonio Wallace have left the team. The three combined for 1,586 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2009. The only returning runners NMU may have to  rely on are that of Junior Brennan Van Effen and sophomore Chris Bucalo. Van Effen has proven to be reliable, but knee problems have slowed his career. Bringing in another running back before the 2010 season is under way is a must for the team to find success on the ground next season.

Offensive line remains another area of that running game that takes a hit in the 2010 season as the tea

Senior outside linebacker Demetri Stewart, a University of Miami transfer, will once again be a defensive standout for NMU.

m losses three starters. Senior guard Jason DuMont and sophomore tackle Jace Daniels return as solid starters, but every other position will welcome newcomers. Juniors Jon Kraai and Nathan Linsmeier, may be called upon to fill those holes. A junior college transfer or one of the 10 offensive linemen signed in this years recruiting class will need to step in as well.

The 2010 season for the NMU football team will improve as its player’s progress. If guys fail to step up to fill big shoes left by seniors, or refuse to put in the work, it will show on the schedule. Eleven senior starters take the reins of a program in my opinion on the rise. I think if any stat needs to improve in 2010, though, it’s one attributed to the fans. An attendance average of 3,781 in five games needs to be higher, because the team will go as far as the crowd will follow them.