GVSU preps for '14 amid grand expectations
#2 Lakers open at Azusa Pacific University on Sept. 4
Grand Valley State University football coach Matt Mitchell took to the Twittersphere on Wednesday after his team was picked as the preseason No. 2 team in the nation by USA Today and The Sporting News:
“Just distributed pizza to the team in the dorm. Far more interesting and important than pre-season polls and prognostication.”
The preliminary prognostication seems to suggest GVSU is an early favorite to make a national championship appearance in 2014 – so how could pizza possibly be more important?
“Especially in Division II, a lot of the people at a national level have never seen the teams play,” Mitchell said Thursday before the team’s first official practice.
“They’re going based on the previous year’s records. I understand we’re ranked high in some preseason polls because of what we did last year, but it’s pretty much meaningless when it comes to the 2014 season.”
Regardless, the 2014 season could be a big one for the Lakers.
Championship-caliber teams often share many of the same traits, and GVSU certainly seems to have the required ingredients for a winning recipe.
That recipe can be broken down like the different parts of a palatable pizza. It takes the right combination of crust, sauce, cheese and tasty toppings to make a supremely stacked pie:
The crust: an experienced roster with plenty of returning talent
Like a Chicago-style deep dish, it all starts with the crust or, in this case, a core nucleus of returning players. GVSU brings back 47 letter winners, 21 seniors and 26 players who have started games.
The returning starters got a taste of the Division II postseason in 2013 when they finished two victories away from a national title, and their postseason know-how could certainly aid GVSU on the field.
Off the field, they’ll be just as valuable. Particularly because GVSU won't have the luxury of looking ahead. It's the only NCAA Division II squad facing five opponents that had eight or more victories in 2013.
GVSU, the NCAA’s all-time winningest football team, will have to deal with lofty expectations all season, but an experienced locker room could help the team stay focused despite the hoopla.
“We kind of like distractions; it kind of gets us in the game setting in a lot of ways,” senior linebacker/nickelback Deonté Hurst said. “It’s just ‘stay focused and ignore the noise’ – that’s something Coach Mitchell likes to say a lot. We’ve got to focus and get the job done because there’s going to be distractions, we’ve just got to overcome them.”
Pizza sauce: a new-look defense with a different flavor
Hurst, who led the team with 109 total tackles in 2013, will be an important member of the defense, which lost five of its eight leading tacklers.
Hurst, converted linebacker Brad Horling and senior cornerback DeVonté Jones will need to make plays and provide leadership as they are the only returning starters along the back seven.
The front four, however, features five formidable defensive linemen with a rare combination of size, strength and agility: seniors Isiah Dunning, Matt Mosley, Frank Boenzi and juniors De’Ondre Hogan and Matt Judon.
If jersey numbers are indicative of the group’s speed, then they’ll be able to run like defensive backs in 2014. They will don No. 1 (Dunning), No. 4 (Mosley), No. 5 (Hogan), No. 9 (Judon) and No. 11 (Boenzi).
“The key point is going to be our defensive line,” Hurst said. “They’re real good, real deep. There’s a lot of places we’re real deep with young guys, but the thing about last year to this year is we’re way deeper and we’ll have a lot of those guys to go to.”
Cheese: a capable offensive line
The recipe has a solid base with a hearty crust and a modified sauce, but a pizza is not a pizza without a healthy portion of mozzarella – and GVSU will have some work to do up front.
The team will be without the services of graduated center Matt Armstrong, who is currently a member of the New Orleans Saints. Additionally, Mitchell said, the unit will have to adjust after the “early retirement” of 13-game starter Connor Gould, who was plagued by a shoulder injury.
However, the team brings back a trio of starters from 2013.
GVSU's starting tackles in 2013, senior Eric LaBuhn and junior Brandon Revenberg, will return along with junior left guard Jim Walsh, who was recently named to the BSN GLIAC 2014 Preseason All Conference team.
Mitchell said Revenberg has been taking first-team reps at center, while senior Payton McCallum is at right guard after starting three games at the position last year. Second-year lineman Dan DeLuca appears to be the frontrunner at right tackle.
“I’m excited to see how our offensive line comes along,” senior quarterback Heath Parling said. “We have a lot of different players that can really step up and make an impact this year and a couple young players who haven’t really had a chance yet.”
Meat: a veteran quarterback with weapons in the backfield
After missing five games last season, Parling is back, healthy and ready to build on a 2013 campaign in which he racked up 2,441 passing yards and 27 touchdowns to go with just eight interceptions.
Like a pepperoni to a pizza, Parling will be one of the most valuable components of the GVSU offense – and he’ll have plenty of help from his tailbacks.
Call them the meat trio (sausage, ham and bacon), the three-headed monster or the three musketeers: senior Michael Ratay, classmate Chris Robinson and junior Kirk Spencer.
“The number one goal in our offensive meetings every day is we want to be able to run the ball,” Parling said. “That’s our number one goal of our offense, the hallmark of our offense.
“When you have three guys with versatility and different things that they can do, it makes it easier as a quarterback to know that these guys are going to be able to get you first downs."
The trio combined to put up some impressive totals last year: 2,342 rushing yards (5.9 yards per carry), 25 rushing touchdowns, 31 receptions, 628 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns. Seniors Hersey Jackson and Ben Hutchins will also be competing for playing time along with sophomore Terrell Dorsey.
Veggies: playmakers in the passing game
The final touches to this fully-loaded pizza – tomatoes, jalapeños and an assortment of peppers – have been somewhat overlooked: the tight ends and wide receivers.
At receiver, seniors Keontre’ Miskel and Darryl Pitts will likely lead the way, but it’s anybody’s guess from there. A recent transfer, former University of Oklahoma wideout Kameel Jackson, has a chance to compete for a roster spot, but it’s too early to know who will climb the depth chart in the coming weeks.
“Other than defensive line, I honestly think that wide receiver is one of the deepest position groups on our entire team,” Parling said. “I know that some people may not agree with that, but I’m around these guys every day and I see honestly eight, nine guys deep that can play and can make an impact.
“I really like our wideout core as much as I have since I’ve been here, so I’m really looking forward to working with them.”
At tight end, junior and Daktronics First Team All-American Jamie Potts returns in a Jimmy Graham-esque role after leading all GLIAC tight ends with 11 touchdowns in 2013. Seniors Joe Wirth and Alton Voss also figure to be in the mix.
Cook time: still more than two weeks away
GVSU will begin its season on Sept. 4 at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif. The game will be televised nationally on CBS College Sports. Until then, Mitchell and the Lakers will be focused on perfecting their recipe for success in practice.