Next Step – Deep roster, excitement shows season potential

One number holds the key to something special for Manchester University football.

125 … Fans might think of a needed rushing yards per game mark, a significant set of wins and so on. While those options would be areas that head coach Nate Jensen and his staff would be happy about, these three digits deal with something even more important … roster size.

While that mark creates a palpable excitement for the program, this is not Jensen or his staff’s first rodeo.

“This definitely shows how hard our staff is working towards bringing in much needed depth (for our roster),” he noted. “However, there still needs to be a buy in – a commitment from these young men towards moving things forward. We see the guys wanting to have something special (at Manchester University) as they have committed to gaining a great education and playing the game they love.

There has to be a balance,” he added. “The summer is still important- their own workouts, running and lifting when they can. It is all about being accountable toward each other and the program in order to create a memorable season everyone wants to have. We have been hearing things that this is happening. Once they step on campus to begin preseason camp, we will know. Hopefully, that translates into good news, as it can jumpstart a positive feeling.”

Digging into each area of the 2017 squad, Jensen had the following thoughts …

Offense

Three running backs that averaged right around and even above four yards per carry, two quarterbacks with returning experience and a high-flying receiving corps take their cue from the line, according to the Spartans’ skipper.

“It all goes through a guy like (senior) Eric (Beard of Findlay, Ohio),” he noted. “He’s one of our captains and a three-year starter. The rest of the group will feed off him and his leadership. He won’t be the only individual looked to for that intangible, either, as (junior) Brady (Nyland of Avon, Ind.) is also a captain and has two seasons of starting and playing experience.”

The duo is joined by the likes of seniors Robby Davis (Cayuga, Ind.), Jared Bourff (Elwood, Ind.), and Jon Brann (Orland Park, Ill.), along with sophomores Chris Jacobs (Fort Wayne, Ind.), Tyler Gilles (Shelbyville, Ind.) and Tanner Fernung (Sharpsville, Ind.), to add to leadership and rotation options, according to Jensen. Davis is the returning starter at center after appearing in all 10 games last fall, while Brann, Fernung and Jacobs along with Bourff have seen field time during their careers.

They will lead the way for a skills unit that enters the year looking to extend an impressive run of four successive seasons of 300-yards-or-more of total offense. Sophomore Alex Downard (Indianapolis, Ind.) came off the bench during his freshman slate and proved to be one of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference’s top gunslingers, averaging better than 100 yards per game and compiling just south of 800 yards through the air in only seven games played. Senior Mark Osmialowski III (Cloverdale, Ind.) is also a possibility due to previous varsity and junior varsity playing experience, while Jensen noted there are several newcomers with potential coming into camp.

“This position is like all others,” he said. “Someone will have to win it. We tell guys that all the time … you cannot expect to just come back the next year and have your former slot. It’s about proving yourself and seeing what you’ve learned during the spring and accomplished during the summer.”

The individual selected for the signal caller slot has the keys to a high-octane group of receivers and running backs to work with. Senior Bailey Partington (Lapel, Ind.) made the most of increased reps as a junior with eight receptions for over 60 yards, Bourff has receiving tools to offer after hauling in a pair of touchdowns among four catches as a junior and sophomore Austin Roberts (Indianapolis, Ind.) turned heads as a freshman by averaging more than 16 yards per reception. There is also another returnee adding his name to the list as senior Dakota Nelson (Fairland, Ind.). His resume is dazzling. It includes ranking third in career receptions (157) and receiving yardage (1993) while holding the single-season receiving yardage mark (1116); first team all-Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference and Special Teams Player of Year and D3Football.com all-Great Lakes region awards from his sophomore season along with second team all-HCAC accolades as a freshman; and leading NCAA Division III in all-purpose and return yardage per game during his sophomore slate.

“It’s obviously exciting to get Dakota back due to his ability to turn a three-yard catch into a 60-yard play and what he can do on special teams,” Jensen admitted. “However, we want to get the ball spread around. Bailey, Jared, Austin and several others afford us opportunities in the passing game.”

Juniors Tyler Pruitt (Springfield, Ohio) and Lucas Lorian (Reelsville, Ind.) and sophomore Donovan Henderson, Jr., (Hollywood, Fla.) headline the rushing attack going into the preseason. Lorian, a former state leader during his high school days at South Putnam, showed glimpses of the same as a sophomore just missing the 300-yard season mark over eight games in a back-up role; Pruitt proved to be tough for opposing defenses to bring down when he got his legs churning going over 200 yards and scoring a touchdown in 2016; and Henderson was a pleasant surprise during his freshman season as he tied for the rushing touchdown lead by reaching the end zone five times.

“Holy smokes,” Jensen said taking a step back. “We have a lot of guys back at running back. It’s a good problem, and we couple that with some first years that have potential.”

Defense

A plethora of possibilities at linebacker and a deep secondary headline this area, according to Jensen.

The linebacker area features senior captains Mitch Oskam (St. John, Ind.) and Jack Kay (Williamsport, Ind.) and classmate John Trenshaw (Goshen, Ind.), junior Quantae Miller (Dayton, Ohio) and sophomore Justin Thomas (Lowell, Ind.). Oskam, who has over 100 career tackles and honorable mention all-league honors on his chart, has proven versatile across the entire unit after playing in the backfield his first season; Kay is the HCAC’s top returning tackler after averaging better than nine a game in route to second team all-conference accolades last fall; Trenshaw’s appeared in 15 games the last two seasons averaging better than a tackle per contest; Miller showed strong signs after being moved from his former defensive back slot last spring; and Thomas did get into two contests as a freshman.

“It’s probably our strongest group defensively,” Jensen said. “Mitch and Jack will provide strong leadership after having seen guys like (former all-league standout) Nathan (Birk) do so in recent years and understanding what is needed.”

The backfield has just as much returning success. Junior Dillon Nelson (Fairland, Ind.) has been a player that opposing quarterbacks haven’t enjoyed seeing the past two years with 10 interceptions to his credit as part of two all-conference awards; senior Wayne Smith (Columbia City, Ind.) played in all 10 games a year ago totaling just shy of 30 tackles and two interceptions; senior Cody Shelton (South Bend, Ind.) proved valuable in the area as a junior with an interception and 20 tackles; junior Austin Coughlin (Fairland, Ind.) is ready to return after injuries sidelined him a year ago; and sophomore De’Lon Barnes (Los Angeles, Calif.) continues to show potential to the coaching staff.

“I’m excited to see what these guys can do,” Jensen noted. “I feel like they are on the verge of a big season with what they’ve learned last spring and their progression through that process. A great example is Dillon … you look at his interceptions going down from his first year but that was because quarterbacks threw away from him. He still managed to get in the way and get touches though like a lot of guys did.”

The linebacking and backfield positives will need to shield what will be a young defensive line.

“We lost five strong starters from a year ago,” the Black and Gold’s head coach said. “It’ll be a little scary, but we do have (senior) Noah (Edelman of Clarksville, Ind.) and (senior) Justin (Fidnarik of Hobart, Ind.) to lead the group. Both are four-year team guys. We can also add in (junior) Jacob (Cooper of Fairland, Ind.,), (junior) Garrett (Walker of Valparaiso, Ind.), (sophomore) Nolan (Sipe of Fort Wayne, Ind.), (sophomore) Logan (Poll of Hastings, Mich.) and (junior) Josh (Denney of Indianapolis, Ind.) available that have experience.”

Special teams

While the return game could one of the conference if not region and beyond’s best, the kicking duties could fall on a pair of newcomers, according to Jensen. Keegan Schimmelman (Tarpon Springs, Fla.) and Kody Graham (Indianapolis, Ind.) are those two, while sophomore Reid Kammerdeiner (Fairfield, Ind.) may add to the mix.

“There could be others but right now Keegan and Kody are at the top of the list due to what their high school resumes show,” Jensen said. “That doesn’t mean someone else might step in after preseason camp. Reid could be an option, but he is also vying for a defensive line spot, so we want him to focus in that area first.”

Looking at intangibles towards Black and Gold success, Jensen and his staff look no further than the team’s mantra T.O.U.G.H.

“It stands for toughness, overbelief, unity, greatness and humility … all facets that are among our overall SHIELD concept,” he said. “We’ve got to be tenacious on both sides of the football. It will help address issues with turnovers that hurt offensively and being able to get defensive stops in close games, two areas that hurt us last fall. I would go even farther with this as the overbelief, unity, greatness and humility will really be put to a test in preseason camp. We have to gel with our numbers, plain and simple.”

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