Expectations high for FSU on eve of fall camp

BIG RAPIDS — The anticipation of Tony Annese’s first season at the helm has been replaced this year by the anticipation of just how good the Ferris State football team can be in the head coach’s second season.

The Bulldogs’ returning veterans and newcomers will all check into camp on Tuesday with the squad’s first official practice set for Thursday afternoon at Top Taggart Field.

The Bulldogs return more than 40 letterwinners and 17 starters from a year ago when they finished with a 7-4 overall record in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) during Annese’s debut campaign.

READY TO ROLL: Ferris State coach Tony Annese is prepared to lead the Bulldogs into another season of GLIAC football. (Pioneer file photo)

With a small class of just seven seniors expected to return for the 2013 and 20 between the junior and senior classes, Annese said the staff worked to bolster those numbers during the offseason through transfers and the junior college ranks. There are now 20 seniors on board for this season, Annese said, creating a better balance on the team moving forward.

“It’s hard to monitor (our progress) because we can’t have contact with the players during the summer months,” he said. “But just running into them around the office and in the building, you can tell that the enthusiasm is high. They are still doing the things they need to do to prepare for the season and I think a lot of them have put themselves in a position to be ready to go.”

FSU will need to be ready off the bat, with two-time defending Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) National Champion on Sept. 7 at Gate City Bank Field inside the Fargodome at Fargo, N.D.

It may seem like an insurmountable challenge for a Division II team to pull off the upset against a team ranked No. 1 once again in the FCS, but Annese believes the tough challenge early on will give his players better focus from the start of the first practice.

“It better create a sense of urgency or we could be involved in quite a bloodbath,” he said. “They’re obviously one of the top programs in the nation at any level. It should make us keenly aware of the fact that we need to utilize every hour of every day smartly with the time we have to prepare for them.”

The Bulldogs return a number of critical pieces from an offense that averaged better than 34 points per game last season while setting a school record for rushing yards in a season with 3,369. It starts under center with redshirt sophomore quarterback Jason VanderLaan, who was the GLIAC’s Freshman of the Year last season. The freshman set a school record with 1,338 yards on the ground, while passing for 1,493 yards through the air.

Up front, seven of the team’s top eight offensive linemen return, losing only Trevor Smolinski to graduation, while the Bulldogs bring a wealth of talent to the running back position with Kaleb Ringer and Jamaal Jackson returning.

Annese said the offense has the potential to be potent once again this season if it can limit turnovers and develop the type of vertical threats at the wide receiver position that can stretch the field in the passing game.

“We’ve done some things out of our system already like breaking the school rushing record in that first year that gave us something to build on,” he said. “We just want to continue to grow and be more diverse while doing the things that we did well again this year. Some of the things like strengthening the passing game and limiting some turnovers are big factors if our guys are going to take a step forward this season.”

The team may need to replace the most in the front seven of its defense, with the loss of starters like defensive ends Brad Iskow and Jordan Morgan and linebackers Tayo Moss, Alex Brajak and Mike Elias.

Annese believes there is plenty of talent at both of those positions to create great competition for the open spots.

“That will be where some of the battles will be incredible,” Annese said of the defensive end position. “Linebacker is still a work in progress, but we like the guys that we have there. We have some guys returning and we brought in some guys that will be able to help us there.”

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