Year of redemption for GVSU football
Football rejuvenated by 18 returned starters
It’s been 16 years since the Grand Valley State University football program went three consecutive seasons without making the playoffs. That streak is in jeopardy this year as GVSU has failed to make the playoffs the past two seasons. However, the 2013 Lakers can make it 17 years with a playoff birth this season.
But for now, GVSU isn’t focused on the playoff drought, or even the big picture. Instead, head coach Matt Mitchell and his coaching staff are focused on using each practice as a chance for the team to improve and to discover more about this year’s Lakers.
“We’re all about process of a product,” Mitchell said. “One thing we always say is ‘we control what we create.’ We’re just going through that process of individuals getting better within our scheme and our staff trying to figure out what’s the best way for this team to win games. We’re going through this day-to-day process trying to get better at all three phases of the ball.”
One phase GVSU hopes to improve upon is defense. Last year, the Lakers gave up an average of 31.5 points per game to their opponents, while surrendering 226.5 rushing yards per contest. Throughout this season’s training camp, Mitchell and his staff have stressed three areas to improve the defense for this upcoming season.
“One is from a schematics standpoint, we tried to go out and implement some new defenses,” Mitchell said. “Two, we’ve tried to do a better job of coaching the techniques, and three is adding more talent up front.”
The Lakers will lean on junior defensive end Matt Judon to solidify the defensive line. Judon started in eight games and was one of the team leaders in sacks with 3.5 before he tore his MCL.
“Judon’s an every down player that can impact a game,” Mitchell said. “I think you’re really going to see him have a big year. He’s extremely long, athletic, and can run. He can really put some pressure on some offenses.”
Juniors Isaiah Dunning and transfer Frank Boenzi will man the middle of the defensive front, with junior defensive end Matt Mosley playing opposite of Judon.
“We’ve had more dynamic playmakers in the defensive line position than we’ve had in the past,” Mitchell said.
Last year’s lead tackler, senior Charles Hill, returns this season, looking to improve on the impressive 91 tackles he logged last fall. Fellow seniors Luther Ware, Jordan Kaufman, and Sam Power join Hill in the linebacking core, along with junior Jack Sauber.
The secondary boasts experience as seniors Michael Hatcher, Reggie Williams and Erik Thompson have started for three years for GVSU and all of them are back for their final year. Sophomore Brad Horling was the team’s second-leading tackler last season with 89 stops and will return at safety.
Offensively, GVSU will try to replicate last season’s success, but first, they’ll have to decide on who will lead them. Last year, it didn’t matter whether it was Parling or Grimes. The Lakers’ offense averaged 41.9 points per game and nearly six yards per carry on the ground.
“They’re both doing great,” Mitchell said about Parling and Grimes. “It’s exciting to have Heath back out here. A little different styles, but they’ve both been pounding away and taking reps. We pretty much split reps between the two. Probably that week of Labor Day we’ll figure out who’s the guy.”
In 2011, Parling led the nation in passing efficiency with a 180.3 rating. Last season, while Parling suffered a torn ACL in the third game of the season, Grimes led the country in the same category, posting a 178.0 passer efficiency rating.
“I’m not opposed to the other guy playing some too,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think we’re going to have one starter and just have the other guy sit on the bench. We might use both quarterbacks at some point in time too.”
While Parling and Grimes may be competing for a job, it doesn’t affect their friendship off the field. In fact, both guys help the other each day in practice.
“It’s helpful when you have two quarterbacks who are friends and want to compete and both want to play, but they respect the other guy enough to want the other guy to get better too,” Parling said. “At the end, it’s not about who starts at quarterback for Grand Valley, it’s about Grand Valley football and the program is bigger than any one person or any one position and it always will be.”
The offensive line that will be protecting either Grimes or Parling is anchored by consensus preseason All-American senior center Matt Armstrong.
Sophomore Connor Gould, who started 10 games for the Lakers in 2012 as a redshirt freshman, will join Armstrong, along with junior tackle Eric LaBuhn, who saw action in all 11 games last season, junior Payton McCallum, who is expected to see action at guard, and sophomore right tackle Jim Walsh.
As a whole, GVSU tallied 2,387 yards and 32 touchdowns last season on the ground, and they hope to replicate that success with everyone returning in the backfield.
Junior Chris Robinson is back to join the stable of running backs after he suffered a torn ACL and only saw action in a little over three games. Sophomore Kirk Spencer, junior Michael Ratay and senior Hersey Jackson are all expected to carry the ball this year for the Lakers.
“We’re definitely going to try to utilize all three of their abilities,” said offensive coordinator Tim Morrison. “We’re very fortunate to have all of those backs that are unique, high level players. So we’re sorting through the process of getting all those guys’ touches and utilizing their abilities.”
The Lakers will have to replace wide receiver Charles Johnson who took his talents to the NFL and accounted for 72 catches for 1,199 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Just don’t expect anyone to put up those numbers this year.
“We’re going to spread things out a little bit more,” Mitchell said. “There’s not going to be any one person that’s going to be ‘the guy,’ that might make us a better team because you can’t just focus on one person.”
The Lakers will open their season on Sept. 7 against Azusa Pacific University. That will be the first of seven home games in Lubbers Stadium this season. GVSU also benefits from not having to make a long road trip to the U.P. this season.
Last season, GVSU was hit by seemingly an endless amount of injuries. Sixty-eight games were missed from players that were two deep on the depth chart. This year, with a healthy roster, optimism is at an all-time high as the Lakers prepare for their first contest.
“We’re really excited about having everybody back,” Hill said. “With everybody being healthy, everyone’s excited to come out and be playing football again. When it’s time to go on Sept. 7, we’ll be ready.”