Up for grabs

Defensive takeaways highlight encouraging spring game for Ferris State football team

BIG RAPIDS – Despite chilly weather conditions and snow flurries at times, the Ferris State football team showed off its new takeaway-minded defense in its annual Crimson & Gold spring game on Saturday.

The white team, which was led by current special teams coordinator Jack Schugars, rolled to a 50-14 victory over the red team in the modified scoring system.

Schugars’ White squad forced four turnovers and scored twice defensively while compiling nine first downs along with two scoring drives en route to the victory. The Red team, coached by volunteer assistant coach Bart Estola, also totaled nine first downs but could not find the endzone.

GRAB IT: Ferris State’s Shakur Sanders (82) goes up to make a catch during Saturday’s Crimson & Gold spring game. (Pioneer photo/Martin Slagter)

In a season where the Bulldogs will need to replace all-GLIAC defensive ends Brad Iskow and Jordan Morgan along with its starting linebacker trio of Tayo Moss, Mike Elias and Alex Brajak, new players stepping into roles showed plenty of rallying to the football while causing turnovers.

“The weather conditions were quite challenging, but we had a good day and it was an opportunity to get our guys out there and be successful,” FSU head coach Tony Annese said. “Our defense was able to knock the ball loose and make some plays, which will be critical to our success.”

Teams were split into two units and the game was played primarily under normal operating rules with additional points awarded for first downs by the offensive along with turnovers on the defensive side. A running clock was utilized for each 20-minute quarter.

The white team set the tone early by forcing a turnover on the game’s opening possession and eventually reaching the endzone for the game’s first score on a 6-yard TD run by tailback Kitwana Clark with 16:12 to play in the first frame. They quickly pushed their advantage to 21-3 soon after when redshirt freshman Jalen Couch returned an interception 47-yards for a score on a pick six midway through the period.

In addition to Couch’s interception return, the afternoon saw a fumble recovery that defensive tackle Donovan Carter took and

rumbled 30 yards to the endzone holding the ball like a loaf of bread and defensive back Sean O’Brien return an interception 60 yards off a deflected pass downfield.

Masiewicz shines in return

FSU also saw the return of quarterback Taylor Masiewicz, who sat most of last season with a hand injury that allowed Jason VanderLaan to emerge as the team’s starting quarterback and become the GLIAC Freshman of the Year.

Masiewicz showed good control of the Ferris State offense, particularly through the air, with a number of tight-spiraled passes downfield to keep the white team moving all day.

“Taylor had a good day and was poised with good command of the game,” Annese said. “We’re in a good place this spring. I think we’ve developed better depth than we had a year ago and have been able to expand some of our systems.”

Annese has mentioned that all positions will need to continue to compete for starting spots, and welcomed the competition for reps between Masiewicz and VanderLaan, who are friends and committed to helping the Bulldogs win football games.

“You could tell who the seasoned quarterback was and who wasn’t,” Annese said. “Trevor (Bermingham) is going to be a good player, you could just tell he wasn’t as poised as Taylor was. Taylor played very poised and he had great command over the game. He looked very good. Him and Jason (VanderLaan) have both been working their butts off and I think they admire one another. It’s been a good battle.”

VanderLaan got in a few practices this spring to grasp new concepts in the offense before having surgery to repair a sports hernia and is expected to be in a starting role, but Masiewicz’s performance solidifies the position with quality depth moving forward, while the Rockford native also could help as the team’s punter like he did last season.

“I feel like we did all right,” Masiewicz said of the team’s performance overall offensively. “Obviously we could’ve done better – the weather plays a little bit of a factor. But overall, I thought we did well.”

Masiewicz said he’ll also work hard to continue to push both himself and VanderLaan to be better quarterbacks heading into the fall.

“My first thought was just trying to get back into the groove,” he said. “I’m just going to work hard to try and get into that top spot.”

The red team trimmed the margin to 38-12 by notching its first defensive pick in the final quarter, but the white team’s defensive unit came up with a stop and the offense put together one of the game’s longest drives with five first downs before Masiewicz hooked up with wideout Aubrey Parrish on an 18-yard touchdown pass near the end of the game.

On a day that saw main ball carrier Korey Ringer with limited carries to maintain his health while fellow backfield mate Jamaal Jackson sat the game out, Clark used the opportunity to shine as the feature running back.

“We tried to stay away from Korey Ringer running to much,” Annese said. “I thought he looked good when he did carry it, but I went out there early and said don’t let him carry it too much. Kitwana is third on the depth chart right now and Jamaal Jackson didn’t participate (Saturday) and he would be our other guy rotating with Korey. (Clark) did a nice job though, and he’s a talented player.”

A successful spring

Overall, the afternoon gave Annese confirmation that depth in addition to talent is starting to arrive on the roster following the spring game that saw the Bulldogs put an end to a miserable couple of weeks of practice in which FSU had to battled the elements consistently.

“We survived it,” he said. “They were challenging conditions, but it was fun. We split the teams up as evenly as we could. We tried to get everyone in and have a chance to be successful.

“I think we’re in a good place,” he added. “We’ve built a better system of depth, not just the guys who are going to start, but our top 40-50 players are a lot better. If you would analyze our 50th guy and look at it that way, our 50th guy is better this year (than last year).”

Annese said he feels this year’s team also is more conscious of creating turnovers on the defensive side of the ball and coming together with a better and more thorough understanding of the offensive schemes.

“System-wise we’ve expanded some of the things we’re doing and that’s important,” he said. “Defensively, we’re more cognizant of where we need to be and we’re making plays, getting takeaways and things like that.”

Returning offensive lineman Zach Wiersma, who started at guard for the Bulldogs last season, said the team has a much better grasp of the offense after having a year to digest it with the new coaching staff.

“As we kept going during the season we became more comfortable with them,” he said. “Coming into spring ball we knew the offense, so we didn’t have to install as many things, we just had to tweak some things. We’re starting with schemes this year and we’re not playing catch-up, which is huge heading into the fall.”

During the festivities, Ferris State also honored two “Bulldogs” as longtime Gridiron Club President and alum Bill Scheible along with national champion runner Anna Rudd of the FSU women’s track and field squad served as the game’s honorary captains during the coin toss.

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