The Saline varsity football team opens the 2017 season at 4 p.m., Thursday, against Rockford at the University of Michigan Stadium.
Saline (11-1 last year) comes into the game on a 25-game regular winning streak. Rockford (7-4 last year) has made the playoffs for 22 straight years.
As much hype as there is about playing in the “Battle of the Big House,” Coach Joe Palka and his team are more worried about the task at hand against Rockford.
“It’s a great opportunity and it’s something I think players will remember all their lives. But it’s the kind of thing you’ll think about after the season, or when you’re older. For us, it’s another big game. Rockford is a good football team and that’s what we’re focused on,” Palka said.
(Tickets can be purchased at Gate 1 and Gate 2. Visitors who need ADA access should use the Jack Roth Stadium Entrance C. Parking at U of M and Pioneer is $10.)
Citing last year’s records doesn’t carry a lot of weight. Saline graduated a ton of talent. Talented players appear poised to step into bigger roles, but they’ve got to prove it.
Three-year starting QB and Northwestern commit Jason Whittaker is the star of the Rockford attack. He’s protected by a very big and experienced offensive line. Coach Palka said the key to stopping the Rockford attack is stopping the run.
“We have to stop the run or they’ll have their pick with what they attack you with all day,” Palka said. “If we can stop the run, we can put the quarterback into uncomfortable positions.”
Palka said Saline’s offense is going to have to be patient against a defense that loves to pressure and loves to gamble.
“They’re returning six players on defense and two line backers. They love to send the linebackers quite a bit. If we can get our running backs to the second level, and get our receivers open and stay patient, we’ll have the opportunity to score some touchdowns,” Palka said.
Senior Cole Daniels, the ace of the state champion baseball team’s pitching staff, won the quarterback job after a three-way competition that began during 7-on-7s and continued into last week’s scrimmages.
“He’s an excellent thrower and when he runs he’s hard to bring down. He’s got a lot of familiarity with the offense,” Palka said. Last year Daniels completed 11 of 11 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed nine times for 57 yards and a touchdown.
Daniels missed a lot of the summer work because of baseball, so Palka sees a lot of room to grow.
“He just keeps getting better. He was a little behind because he missed a lot of the summer work. But I think as the season goes on, he’s going to get better and better,” Palka said.
When Daniels is passing, one of his favorite targets will be Emmett Turner, the hardnosed, 6’4 220-pound receiver. Turner caught 24 passes for 374 yards and three touchdowns last year. Other targets include split end Vinnie Patteri, J Drew McGovern and Andrew Diuble. Diuble, who saw considerable time last year, is returning from a shoulder injury. Diuble caught 36 passes for 363 yards and two touchdowns last year.
Another target is Brendan Murphy, the downhill-running, 6’1, 230-pound tight end.
Brendan Munday is expected to lead the rushing attack. He rushed 41 times for 399 yards and seven touchdowns last year. He’s got big shoes to fill now that the human highlight reel known as Connor Hibbard has graduated.
“He’s a really good back and he’s excellent at making the right cut. He’s 6’1, 200 pounds and a little faster than everyone things,” Palka said. “Nobody replaces Connor Hibbard. But in a lot of ways, I see similarities with where Munday is now and where Hibbard was when he started his junior year.”
Marco Harris, who comes to Saline from Indiana, also figures to play a big role in the running attack. Harris turned a lot of heads in camp with his ability to find holes and break the long run.
The backs will be protected by an experienced and strong offensive line. With relatively inexperienced skilled players starting on offense, the Hornets are counting on their O-Line to make their initiation a little easier.
“Our O-Line is established. It’s the strength of our offense,” Palka said. “They’ve had a really solid camp. It’s got good size. We hang our hat on the O-Line. They’re going to be a big help as our guys get up to speed.”
Zach Drevno (6’ 230) is the center. He’s a preferred walk-on at Michigan next year. Guards are Alex Lampman (6’ 280) and Zach Bratschi (6’5 275). The right tackle is Michigan State University commit Dimitri Douglas (6’4 290). On the left side is senior Greg Pool (6’5 250).
On the defensive side, the line is probably the team’s biggest question mark.
Danny Weidmayer (6’0, 210) has the most experience. He’ll line up at defensive end. Brad Wisniewski (6’4, 220) starts as the other DE. On the inside Kingsley Amadi (6’3 250) and Trevor Garbo (6’1 275) have earned starting jobs on opening day. Jake Stein will also play end and Trevor Tye will play tackle.
“Our line doesn’t have a lot of size, but we have some quickness. They’ve had a great camp,” Palka said.
The strength of the defense is linebacker group, which is led by CJ Gildersleeve (6’2 215). The senior has been a key part of the defense since his sophomore year. Last year he led the Hornets with 60.5 tackles and had six tackles for losses. Ethan Collick (6’1 195) also returns at linebacker. Last year he had 39.5 tackles and six tackles for losses. They’ll be joined by Connor Terech (6’2 205).
In the secondary, Saline has one of the state’s best prospects at cornerback. MJ Griffin, who came to Saline from Belleville, is being recruited by some of the country’s best college programs.
“A lot of people like him because he’s only a junior and he’s got size (6’1 190), and he’s fast (40 yards in 4.5 seconds). I like him because he’s though. He comes to work every day and doesn’t act like an individual,” Palka said.
He’ll be joined at corner by junior Drew Richardson, who has done nothing but impress his new coaches and teammates since coming to the Hornets. Senior Brad Feldkamp will also play corner.
At safety, Tommy Raupp returns. He’s a little undersized but more than makes up for it with heart-and-soul play. Sophomore Alex Morrison is expected to start at the other safety spot. Cam Richardson also figures to see time there.
The Hornets have an embarrassment of riches at kicker. Vinnie Patteri returns to handle kick offs and field goals. JT Turner will see use on extra points. Both kickers displayed clutch, late game heroics last year. Patteri is expected to handle punting duties. Drevno provides the Hornets a great long snapper, too.
Munday, Morrison and Griffin will handle kick-off return duties. Collick will return punts.