GVSU concludes spring practice with 2016 Spring Classic
GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Keane Belcher (92) spars with Ben Walling (63) during a srimmage. The 2016 Grand Valley State Spring Classic is hosted at Lubbers Stadium on Saturday, April 16, 2016.
The bass from the music playing at Lubbers Stadium, usually the opening cadence for a Grand Valley State home game in the fall, could be heard from a distance and started around 9 a.m.
Unfortunately, it’s still only April. Luckily, though, Laker faithful still have a few months of beach weather, Oberon and the circus that is the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen to tide them over until then. But GVSU fans were treated to a dose of football action at the 2016 Spring Classic at Lubbers Stadium on April 16.
The Spring Classic started at noon on a beautiful day, and the team did individual/positional practice drills for the first 90 minutes, then held a 30-minute live scrimmage at the end. The classic was the final of 15 spring practices, and the last before summer workouts begin in June.
“It was great,” said GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell. “Awesome weather, a lot of music, a lot of excitement, a lot of people coming up, so I thought maybe other than an injury at the end, we got a lot done today. I appreciate everybody that came out.”
The injury to true freshman receiver Trew Smith was the only negative part of the day. He was hurt during a drill near the end of practice and suffered a leg injury.
The Lakers viewed the day and spring practice as a figurative turning of the page after their national semifinal loss to Shepherd last season.
“It was great being out here,” said quarterback Bart Williams. “This wasn’t really a typical spring game where we line up and play a game, move the ball against each other. All spring has just been fun, just out here playing football again and kind of getting that taste out of your mouth, gearing up for the 2016 season.”
Williams, after entering last offseason in a three-horse race for the starting quarterback job, goes into 2016 as the expected starting quarterback. He’s coming off of a prolific 2015 campaign, in which he had 4,206 passing yards and 45 touchdown passes, the latter of which was best in the GLIAC.
Now a redshirt junior, Williams is looking to become a more vocal leader after proving himself as a sophomore last year, as well as honing in on the finer points of his game. Williams, though a gifted passer, sometimes got in trouble with turnovers. He had 20 interceptions last season and a 56.1 percent completion percentage. Williams was recently granted a medical redshirt retroactive to his freshman season in 2014, and will effectively receive another year of eligibility.
With a year of experience under his belt, Williams expects to improve in his second year under center.
“Individually, I would say to just step up as a leader in the team, and just be a guy that they can come to if they need anything,” Williams said. “I want to boost my reputation with my teammates and on top of that, there’s a lot of stuff I need to work on fundamentally within the offense.”
Williams can’t do it alone, though, and the Lakers used the spring to develop their young offensive line prospects following the loss of senior guards Jim Walsh and Brandon Revenberg. The Lakers return both starting tackles in Dan DeLuca and Ben Walling, as well as center Aaron Cox.
With offensive line transfers Josh VanDort (Hope) and Josh Bass (Western Michigan) coming in and a disappointing offensive line performance in the Lakers’ game against Shepherd last season, Mitchell says the line will be a project this offseason.
“Other than Aaron Cox, we’ve got some guys that made some progress, I couldn’t even tell you right now who our five starting O-linemen are,” Mitchell said. “That’s something we’ve got to get focused in and taken care of before we take the field against Tiffin.”
Another transfer student for the Lakers is sophomore tight end Pete Cender, who came from the Air Force Academy. Cender is a Division I talent who has raised some eyebrows early on, and is excited for a fresh start in Allendale.
Cender is in his third season as a college athlete, but has yet to see the field in live action.
“Completely different offenses, but I picked it up quick,” Cender said. “Just having the two years of football, having the base of football intelligence that you need to play college. I picked up the offense pretty quickly. It was an easy transition, love the players here, everyone welcomed me real quick.”
Cender was groomed as primarily a blocking tight end at Air Force, but Mitchell says Cender could well be on the receiving end of some passes from Williams this season.
“Pete Cender had a great spring, I mean a great spring,” Mitchell said. “Really put himself in a good position to be battling with Nick Keizer to be our top tight end.”
The Lakers also feel good about their defensive secondary. Junior Tre Walton (six interceptions) and Devin McKissic (three interceptions) figure to be the starters after their play in 2015, but sophomore Jacob Studdard and redshirt freshman Kalen Dunham are also eyeing the position, and Williams said the two starting corner spots will be something to watch for in the Fall.
Speaking of defense, the Lakers return 10 of 11 starters from last year—the one absence being NFL-bound defensive end Matt Judon.
Common sense says it’s nearly impossible to replace GVSU’s career sack leader (34), but the Laker coaching staff feels strongly about the defensive line, and hope to replace Judon with a rotation of capable pass-rushers.
“Matt was tremendous for us last year, especially up front on the D-line, getting after quarterbacks, harassing them,” said GVSU defensive line coach E.J. Whitlow. “Pretty much what we’ve got to do is, it’s got to be by committee. We’ve got to have a bunch of guys upping their level of play.
“Obviously, one guy can’t recreate that production that he had last year, it’s going to take the talents of many games.”
While Judon was in attendance as a spectator, his absence on the field was felt. Several other players currently on the team were also absent due to obligations from another sport or other reasons.
Marquez Gollman, Alton Voss and Cox had to sit out due to the NCAA’s rule that stipulates that players only receive 10 semesters of eligibility. The trio, and more, are currently at nine semesters, requiring them to sit out the spring and use their 10th semester in the fall.
With 2015 starting running back Kirk Spencer having also concluded his GVSU career, the spotlight has been turned on running back Marty Carter, who amassed 941 yards in a relief role last season. While Carter is slated to be the heir to the throne as the No. 1, Mitchell said he used the spring to find a replacement for Carter’s former role.
“I think it's Terrell Dorsey,” Mitchell said. “I think he’s looking smoother and faster, throughout the course of spring. He’s extremely experienced. He can run the ball, help us in protections, he’s not bad catching the ball out of the backfield. A little bit of 'lighting and thunder' with him and Marty.”
Dorsey, a senior, had four catches, 29 yards and one touchdown in limited action last season.
Williams echoed Mitchell’s sentiment that the spring’s biggest function was seeing what the young guys and incoming freshmen are made of. Veteran receivers Matt Williams and Brandon Bean were absent due to other sport obligations, which forced guys like Urston Smith—who made a number of plays throughout the day—to step up and prove themselves.
To Williams, that’s what spring football is all about.
“Bean and Matt, you know they can go out there and make plays,” Williams said. “So it’s good getting the other guys in there. Without those guys, we don’t have them to get their back if they’re not doing well, so a lot of these guys that get in there, it's sink or swim, and they feel the pressure of having to make some plays.
“It puts them in (a) situation that they haven’t been in the past, and really raises their level of play.”
GVSU will open its season with a home tilt against Tiffin on Sept. 1.