As head football coach Dave Cecchini enters the twilight of his first full season at the helm of the Crusader program, his team is in a considerably different position than twelve months ago. Endowed with 84 bodies heading into last April's spring game, Cecchini has seen that number dwindle down to 54 for the 2015 edition. A larger graduating class, injuries, and a small number of players having left the team have all contributed to the roster attrition.
Cecchini and his staff are still working to determine the optimal position for each player. 2014 saw some players swap sides of the ball (Jarrett Morgan, Colin Marcott, Bryce Dempsey). This past offsesason has seen a handful of players shift positions within a unit. A linebacker a season ago, Cody Cotton will be a defensive end moving forward. Jay Slone, also a linebacker in 2014, will see a similar migration. Frank Catrine's athleticism will be utilized at wide receiver as opposed to running back. Cecchini demonstrated ample appreciation of the underclassman's athleticism leading up to Saturday's exhibition. Tim Foley, who registered two games at defensive back as a freshman, will hop across the line and play wide receiver. Former tight end Matt Mallon is seeing extensive snaps at fullback.
Graduation affected the wide receiver position more than any other spot. Tanner Kuramata, Andrew Cassara, Fred Gladney, Kent Warren, and Tony Taibi have all caught their final passes as Crusaders. The Brown and Gold return 72 completions from a squad that hauled in 219 passes in Cecchini's first campaign. Eleven freshman wide receivers are expected to report to camp in August. A freak foot injury that required surgery has sidelined Austin Etzler indefinitely. These factors haven't helped the logistics of the spring game set to be played in less than 48 hours.
This year's Brown vs. Gold game will feature a more traditional offense vs. defense exhibition - the numbers require it. Modified scoring will be implemented. The defense can tally points by a number of different ways: stopping a fourth down, forcing a three-and-out, pass break-up/deflection, etc. In addition to accumulating points the traditional way, the offense can also score by gaining a first down, successfully completing a pass, converting on fourth down, etc. And while the coaching staff will keep an eye on the score, Saturday represents another opportunity for fans and alumni to witness the progress Cecchini and Co. have helped create and foster.
The quarterback position will undoubtedly be an area of focus heading into August. Ben Lehman handled the lion's share of snaps in 2014, but the Crusaders are in need of a new man under center as 2015 approaches.
"The level of play has really increased at the quarterback position. (Ryan) Clarke and (Dalton) Stokes have a much better grasp on the offense with a year under their belt," Cecchini said. Scott Staal (6 games played in '14) remains an option at QB. Each bring a separate, distinct strength to the table for Cecchini to use at his disposal.
Valpo has also received NLIs (national letters of intent) from local product Jake Paliga and 2014 Perry Meridian graduate Conner Smith. Smith was involved in an automobile accident last year which delayed his arrival to Valparaiso University.
The running backs bring a good deal of experience to the mix. Brandon Hall, who was given a healthy diet of the handoffs in the fall, will not participate in Saturday's scrimmage. A high ankle sprain that hampered him for much of 2014 eventually reached a point in which surgery was necessary. His road to recovery will be one closely monitored by Cecchini. Jake Hutson and Grayson Bastin's presence on the roster make Hall's injury a little easier to take. To parrot Cecchini, both can do the job.
The defensive backs received high praise from Cecchini.
"Top-to-bottom, it may be the best position on the team. We're very athletic, very physical there," Cecchini said. J.J. Nunes enjoyed a breakout 2014 campaign that saw the sophomore gather 85 tackles (2nd-most on the team), five pass break-ups, and five passes deflected. Melvin Graham III and A.J. Bradley possess the athleticism to play cornerback. (Bradley owns experience there.) Idode Kerobo and Kellan Hughes have also raised eyebrows during spring workouts.
The linebacker position represents few question marks. Back-to-back triple-digit tackler Alex Green will assume his post at MLB. Freshman standout Kye Hall (68 tackles, 4.5 TFL, INT, FF) was a natural at outside linebacker. Derrick Estell and Vincent McPherson have been duking it out at the other linebacker position. McPherson originally projected as a DB, but the freshman has moved closer to the line in recent weeks.
The numbers at offensive and defensive line are currently a little lower than Cecchini would prefer; however, Valpo returns a good deal of maturity on the offensive line with Nate Koeneman, Kyle Jones, Jonathan Hammond, and Brian Lang. The departure of Tom Ehrlich and Stuart Barkley has created stiff competition between Sam Manternach and Drew White.
Cecchini is pleased with the quality of his defensive line. Charlie Hackett and Slone will compete for time opposite Second Team All-PFL Defensive Team DE John Guilford (74 tackles, 13 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 5 pass break-ups, 5 passes deflected, 4 QB hits, FF). Michael Buchanan has "impressed." Patrick McArdle, Tristan De La Rosa, and Nick Scoville all figure to be in the mix at DL as well. Scoville, who was with the Crusaders in 2013, but not 2014, has returned to the team.
The Brown/Gold game is set to begin at 11:00 am CT this Saturday at Brown Field. The scrimmage is - as always - free and open to the public.