7 summer questions for GVSU football

GVL / Robert Mathews 
Michael Ratay

GVL / Robert Mathews Michael Ratay

Jay Bushen

In the wake of a 12-3 season, a trip to the national semifinals and a No. 3 finish in the final 2013 AFCA Division II Coaches’ Poll, it seems a familiar prominence has been restored in Laker Land.

The Grand Valley State University football team made its two-year playoff hiatus look like a thing of the past with its postseason push in December, and – with most of its starters coming back – has since been slated as a top-five team in a trio of preseason top 25 polls.

The preseason hype appears to be warranted for the NCAA’s all-time winningest football program, but there is still much to be decided for GVSU this offseason. Here are seven questions to consider as the Lakers return to Allendale for lifting, conditioning and 7-on-7s:

1. Will they be ready early?

GVSU has not lost a season opener since 2000, but that streak will be on the line after a flight to Los Angeles for a nationally televised showdown on Sep. 4 at Azusa Pacific University.

APU, which finished first in the GNAC with a 10-2 overall record last season, will be seeking revenge after falling 38-17 to GVSU in front of 13,659 fans at Lubbers Stadium a year ago. The game, which will be aired on the CBS Sports Network, will be the first of three early-season tests for the Lakers.

GVSU returns to Allendale for its home opener against reigning GLIAC champion Ohio Dominican University on Sep. 13 before traveling to take on Ferris State University a week later in Big Rapids, Mich. ODU and FSU combined to score 111 points in their pair of victories over the Lakers in 2013.

“Our first three opponents were 28-6 – it’s no joke,” GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell said. “You’re going to know where we’re at three games in with Grand Valley football. Our guys probably know that, so they’re not looking down the road to October/November/December. They’re really focusing on the present.”

2. Will they stay healthy?

Every team deals with injuries throughout the course of a season. However, the injury bug seemed to victimize GVSU early and often in 2013.

Defensive end Matt Judon tore his ACL just six snaps into GVSU’s first game. Running back and leading rusher Michael Ratay also tore his ACL and meniscus and missed each of the team’s last six games. Many more key contributors – not to mention quarterback Heath Parling – spent time on the sidelines or played hurt.

The starting lineup developed in the summer never took the field, but the team’s resiliency and depth were certainly on display all season as role players stepped up and gained experience in the process.

Still, the process of winning games could be easier with the likes of Judon and Ratay on the field. Mitchell said having them back healthy makes GVSU a better team in 2014.

“They’re progressing,” Mitchell said. “There’s nobody really at risk for missing 2014, but until we get them on the field and start having them play 11-on-11 football it’s hard to tell exactly where they’re at.”

Ratay’s nose for the goal line and familiarity with the playbook certainly add to the Laker offense.

The East Grand Rapids High School product led the team with 1,012 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns and 7.3 yards per carry a season ago. He has since been “cleared to do everything.”

Judon (6-foot-4, 255 pounds) said he hasn’t taken a day off, and also expects to be ready in September. His speed and athleticism could bolster a stout, run-stuffing defensive line with plenty of potential.

3. Just how dominant will the D-line be?

Seniors Frank Boenzi, Isiah Dunning, Matt Mosley and junior De’Ondre Hogan – who led the team with eight sacks a year ago – will also be relied upon to swallow up blockers and consistently wreak havoc for opposing offenses in 2014.

There’s a buzz about this bunch this offseason.

“We’ve got five or six guys that are just absolute freaks of athletes,” Ratay said. “I’m really excited to see Matt Judon back; he’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen. It was a shame to see him go down last year.”

Judon said Boenzi, Dunning and Mosley have been setting the tone so far this summer.

“They lead by example and they don’t really talk much,” he said. “They go out there, put their heads down and just grind. As younger guys come up and develop, they are willing to help them.

“(Boenzi) went back to Chicago this summer and he lost 20 pounds. He’s out there on the field 35 minutes before everybody stretching and he invites everyone out there with him.

“We really say it starts up front. We’re the ones that have to stop the run – linebackers get tackles – but defensive tackles stop the run. Defensive backs get the interceptions, but we have to pressure the quarterback.”

4. Who will emerge from the pack at linebacker?

The defensive line may have to play especially well early in the 2014 campaign while the somewhat unseasoned linebackers develop.

“We’ve got to rely on our D-line early,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got a lot of good guys back on our D-line. I think at the linebacker position we have talent, but we don’t have any experience.”

Junior Brad Horling’s transition from strong safety to linebacker will help, but five of the team’s eight leading tacklers from 2013 were seniors: linebackers Charles Hill, Jordan Kaufman and Luther Ware, along with defensive backs Reggie Williams and Erik Thompson.

There are starting jobs to be won.

“We just try to tell them that it doesn’t matter how old you are – anyone can lead,” Judon said. “Anyone can see someone else slacking off and tell them to pick up. It’s something that comes with being a competitor and you’ve just got to be natural leader. Somebody’s going to have to separate themselves from the pack because we have a bunch of talented young linebackers and their potential is unlimited.”

Sophomore Joe Moran and junior Christian Harris, a transfer from the University of Tennessee, are expected to compete for playing time with sophomore David Talley, who appears to be the frontrunner.

“Losing three seniors, that’s going to hurt, but David Talley is going to be a really good player,” Dunning said. “If we didn’t have the three seniors last year, he would have been a really great player for us. He did get some playing time, but him being able to start and play a whole game – he’s going to be the next big thing I think.”

5. How will the coaching changes affect the defense?

The addition of linebacker coach and co-defensive coordinator Jim Louis figures to speed up the progression of the linebacking corps. He previously held the same title at St. Cloud State University (Minn.) from 2008-2013.

His defense at St. Cloud State was particularly known for its ability to force turnovers as the Huskies led all DII teams in turnover margin in 2010 (+23) and ranked third a season ago (+22). They forced 39 turnovers last year, the second most in the nation.

“We’re focused on being the No. 1 turnover defense,” Judon said. “Any interception, fumble, any kind of turnover we can get on fourth and long, a blocked punt – it takes pressure off our offense. We all know they can put up points, especially on the 30 going in.”

GVSU also brought in a new defensive line coach, E.J. Whitlow, who was a standout defensive tackle at the University of Findlay from 2006-2010. He coached the D-line at Notre Dame College from 2010-2013.

6. Who will step up in the passing game?

The Lakers will be without the services of graduated receiver Brandan Green, who led the team with 1,210 receiving yards and averaged a GLIAC-best 22.8 yards per catch a year ago.

Seniors Keontre’ Miskel and Darryl Pitts, who hauled in 30 passes for 525 yards and five touchdowns a season ago, figure to be two of the leading candidates for Parling this fall.

Parling will still have his security blanket in Daktronics, Inc. First-Team All-American tight end Jamie Potts, who led the Lakers with 54 catches and 11 touchdowns in 2013.

The three-headed monster, Ratay and fellow running backs Kirk Spencer and Chris Robinson, will also be a big part of the aerial attack. They combined to rack up 54 receptions, 628 yards and six touchdowns a year ago.

7. How will they replace Thompson and Williams?

Replacing this duo won’t be easy.

Thompson and Williams not only combined to record 126 total tackles and nine interceptions in 2013, but also a trio of blocked kicks and more than 70 percent of the team’s kick and punt returns.

Senior defensive backs Deonte’ Hurst, DeVonte’ Jones and Jack Sauber will be the primary leaders of the secondary. They are the only upperclassmen (besides Horling) listed at the position.

Meanwhile, Spencer appears to be the one to beat for kick-returning duties.

He returned nine kicks last season for 195 yards (21.7 average), and showcased his ability with a 100-yard kick-return touchdown in the team’s 54-44 loss at Ferris State.