Wildcats start new season, offense

Brice Burge

The Northern Michigan University football team will be taking the turf today, Sept. 2, in Mankato, Minnesota against the No. 21 Minnesota State University-Mankato Mavericks at 7 p.m. The game is the first of the season, and junior quarterback Carter Kopach said the Wildcats are excited to do their part in the new offense.

“The (offense) puts the ball in my hands a lot more,” Kopach said. “Last year I had reads like this, but this year we’re going to throw the ball more. It’s really our strength.”

The 2009 season was a rushing focused offensive attack for the ’Cats. Mark Bossuah, Antonio Wallace and Brandon Smith carried the ball for more than 1500 yards and 26 touchdowns, allowing Kopach to be more of a game manager than an offensive weapon. However, that all changed after Bossuah used his final year of eligibility, and Wallace and Smith left Northern.

Junior quarterback Carter Kopach is defended by the offensive line as he looks to make a pass. Kopach’s completion average was 57.9 percent as he threw for 1,373 yards and 14 touchdowns during the 2009 season. // Ashley Wiggins/NW

“Last year we had a three-headed attack in the backfield. Now we have four guys all in the mix, but I don’t think any of them are the caliber of a feature back yet. The ball is going to be in my hands more and we’re going to have some wide receivers step up,” Kopach said.

Kopach did what he could during the summer to be a better quarterback, as he spent time with other players and professional prospects for the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Rush of the Arena Football League.

“I’ve been trying to get bigger in the weight room. I’m faster, had a better vertical (jump) and had 21 reps of 225 pounds (in the bench press). I put on about 25 pounds trying to take (my game) to the next level,” the 6-foot, 220-pound quarterback said.

While many questions of Kopach’s abilities as the cornerstone of the offense have been answered, many questions have arisen with regards to who will catch his passes. Zach Nichols, the top receiver from the 2009 season, graduated while Brian Mitz and Christian Jessie, the second and third wide receivers on the depth chart, were ruled ineligible after the beginning of training camp.

“We made some adjustments, but it happens and we have to move on,” said Offensive Coordinator Chris Ostrowsky. “I don’t think we spent too much time on thinking ‘poor us.’ It’s unfortunate that we lost those two guys, but we’ll move on and be ok.”

The top wide receiver for the ’Cats this year will be Dustin Brancheau. The 6-foot, 200- pound senior had 33 receptions for 329 yards and two touchdowns last year. Brancheau will be joined by juniors Tony Awrey and Kyle Senn, sophomores Lee Figures and Sam Celentino and freshmen Christian Marble-King and Julian Gaines. The offense will also have Blake Crider, Craig Thompson and Brent Parrett available as tight ends.

On the defensive side of the ball, things have been a lot more stable, as Coordinator Randy Awrey is entering his third season in charge of the defense. Northern showed a bend-don’t-break defensive ideology as the Wildcats gave up 312.4 yards per game, but was eighth in the country for defensive scoring, allowing only 16.1 points per game and 17 touchdowns all season.

“Defense looks strong this year,” said junior linebacker Eddie Knoblock. “We got a strong d-line and some experience coming back. It should be a good year.”

The biggest issue for the defense will be filling the holes left by graduating seniors Nathan Yelk and Zach Gauthier and ineligible Demetri Stewart. All three played the same position, as Yelk and Gauthier were inside linebackers and Stewart was an outside linebacker.

“Those are big shoes to fill, but I think we’re ready –very ready,” Knoblock said. “We’re going to do better than they did.”

Special teams will also be a big part of the Wildcats’ game this year as that group will be highlighted by sophomore kicker Rockne Belmonte and junior punter Garrett Peck. Belmonte made 36 of 42 PATs and five of seven field goals.

Peck was named Division II honorable mention All-American by Consensus Draft Services. The NMU punter finished  second in the GLIAC in punting average behind Brian Schmeidebusch of Findlay, but Peck was used in a single punter program. Findlay and Hillsdale used one punter for long distances and another for shorter distances during home games last season. Peck has used the summer to improve as a player and as a punter.

“I’ve been working a lot on directional punting and keeping the ball out of the end zones. I’ve been working left and right and using the sidelines to our advantage,” Peck said.

The Wildcats’ first home game will be on Saturday, Sept. 11 against the University of Findlay Oilers at 2 p.m.