FSU football returns several key pieces on defense

LINEBACKERS: Ferris State University linebackers get ready for a play during spring practice on Friday. All three starting linebackers will return next season. (Pioneer photo/Ryan Zuke)

LINEBACKERS: Ferris State University linebackers get ready for a play during spring practice on Friday. All three starting linebackers will return next season. (Pioneer photo/Ryan Zuke)

BIG RAPIDS — Ferris State University head football coach Tony Annese has challenged his players during spring practice to become better versions of themselves.

His belief is that if each player can take a positive stride this spring, it will help mitigate the loss of two All-Americans in quarterback Jason Vander Laan and defensive tackle Justin Zimmer — players Annese said cannot be replaced.

The good news is the Bulldogs return ample starters on both sides of the ball, including nine on defense. Junior linebacker Anthony Darkangelo already has noticed significant improvement.

“We are going to be better than last year,” Darkangelo said of the defense. “We already are better. You just take nine guys who started and mature them one more year and create competition by bringing in more guys. We are 10 times better than we were last year and it’s only been seven practices into spring.”

Darkangelo, a two-year starter, is one of three starting linebackers returning, along with juniors Nick Huckaby and Brady Sheldon.

“That will be interesting,” Annese said. “They are a good group of kids.”

Darkangelo was second on the team a year ago with 73 tackles, while Huckaby was third with 63.

Along with Sheldon, the trio combined for 22.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Junior linebacker David Holley also added two sacks in 10 games played.

“It’s awesome any time you can have your crew coming back, the guys you played with the whole season,” Darkangelo said. “We are all pretty close, so there’s a trust and a bond you have with them already. You know where they are going to be, what they are going to do, how they think, which makes football even better.”

The production on the field is not the only thing the Bulldogs will have to replace with the loss of Vander Laan and Zimmer. Both were two integral leaders on the team.

“Obviously you lose the leadership part of him, just being a hard worker all the time,” Darkangelo said of Zimmer. “But we’ve adapted well in spring to develop as a defense.

“It’s not so much one person (stepping into a leadership role), it’s a little bit of the whole team leading together, which is special because everyone is talking, everyone is working hard. It makes leadership easy when everyone is doing the right things and holds each other accountable.”

The Bulldogs’ defense was second in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference allowing 22.4 points per game, but it also was the beneficiary of a dynamic offense that put up nearly 45 points per game.

With Vander Laan gone, seven quarterbacks are vying for the starting job in spring practice.

Darkangelo said the ambiguity at the quarterback position won’t affect the mindset of the defense.

“I wouldn’t say there is more pressure on the defense,” he said. “If we don’t let any team score on us, then we are going to win every single game. That’s how I look at it. The defense has to be good no matter who you have on offense.”

FSU is scheduled to have six more spring practices before its annual Crimson and Gold game on April 16 at Top Taggart Field.

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Posted by Ryan Zuke

Ryan is the sports editor for the Big Rapids Pioneer, covering local prep sports and Ferris State athletics. He can be contacted at (231) 592-8363 or rzuke@pioneergroup.com.

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