Vander Laan working on encore

Ferris State quarterback hoping to bring balance to offense after record-setting freshman season

BIG RAPIDS — After redshirting during his freshman season under then Ferris State head coach Jeff Pierce, quarterback Jason Vander Laan had no idea what to expect when first-year coach Tony Annese arrived in Big Rapids with his run-oriented attack the following spring.

Vander Laan headed into his redshirt freshman season in a battle for the starting quarterback job with sophomore Taylor Masiewicz, who served as the team’s backup quarterback during the previous season.

AIR IT OUT: Ferris State quarterback Jason Vander Laan is looking to build off a successful freshman season that saw him earn the GLIAC Freshman of the Year award. (Pioneer file photo)

After Masiewicz suffered a hand injury early in the season, Vander Laan looked to make the most of his opportunity to run the new-look Bulldog

offense.

The results surprised even Vander Laan, who was named the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year award after leading FSU to a 7-4 record, including wins over in-state rivals like Grand Valley State, Michigan Tech and Wayne State.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen heading into the season,” Vander Laan said. “Obviously our offense ended up working out pretty well, so we want to build on that.”

Vander Laan led an FSU offense that ranked among the nation’s top 10 teams in both rushing offense and total offense as Ferris State shattered a school record with 3,364 yards on the ground and averaged 473 yards per game of total offense.

Vander Laan established a GLIAC single-season record for rushing yardage by a quarterback as he ran for a FSU rookie record 1,338 yards on 247 carries and 16 touchdowns. Accounting for 2,831 total yards (257.4 per game), Vander Laan erased any doubt that he was the right man to lead the Ferris State offense.

Looking back on a highly-productive freshman season from his first-year signal caller, Annese said Vander Laan came through for the team in ways most fans still don’t completely understand.

“He’s grown so much,” Annese said. “He got his accolades last year, but people have no idea of the burden that was placed on him last year. To be thrown in the fire like he was last year, he wasn’t prepared. It wasn’t his fault, but those were the circumstances.

“When you look at the numbers and what he achieved for us, it was incredible,” he added. “When you look at how much he’s grown, we’re really excited about what he can do.”

So what can Vander Laan do for an encore?

For starters, Vander Laan wants to improve as a passer after finishing the 2012 season 133-for-231 for 1,493 yards passing with 13 touchdowns. As some might expect, the Bulldogs ranked just 12th in the GLIAC in passing offense at 167 yards per game — a number Vander Laan hopes to improve on this fall.

FSU began working on developing the passing game in the spring and has continued to build on that with a new corps of receivers on board this season.

Vander Laan believes the difference in the FSU passing game this season should be significant.

“We want to top what we did on offense last year,” he said. “We want to be a little more diverse this year and hopefully build off the success we had.”

To be even more efficient on offense, Vander Laan knows the Bulldogs also must take better care of the football after losing 20 fumbles in the veer and spread option offense last season.

“Last year we lost a couple of games due to turnovers so that’s been our main focus offensively,” he said. “We just want to continue to do what we’re doing after being one of the top offenses in the country last year.”

Annese is a firm believer Vander Laan and the Bulldogs will have the opportunity to be even better this season, with seven of the team’s top linemen returning along with two of its top returning running backs in Korey Ringer and Jamaal Jackson.

The effort Vander Laan and the coaching staff have done to make the Bulldog offense a more balanced attack seems to be paying off already, Annese said.

“We had some installs last year, but we were remedial at best with some of the stuff we put in,” he said. “Coach (Sparky) McEwen has done a lot with the receivers and (offensive coordinator) Ryan Brady has done a lot with our quarterbacks. Ultimately, our ability to do simple things well has really improved. When you rush for 306 yards a game, you’re going to have people say ‘we need to stop that big horse quarterback.

“That’s going to open some things up for us,” he added. “Last year when we tried to open it up, it was just like ‘I can’t believe we can’t execute that.’ This year, I think we can.”

Annese, who affectionately compared Vander Laan to former Heisman Trophy quarterback Tim Tebow for his large frame and ability to run for tough yardage, said he won’t be surprised by anything the young quarterback accomplishes as a more complete and confident player.

“He’s an all heart guy,” he said. “If there’s a way to get it done, he’s going to figure out the way. I said to him the other day, ‘man you are so much more confident in that play.’ He said ‘coach, I’m more confident in every play.’”

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