PAINESVILLE, OHIO – The first four years of football at Lake Erie College have provided plenty of thrills, but there also have been plenty of challenges and bumps in the road, too, as the Storm program developed. Since starting the program from scratch in the fall of 2006, Head Coach Mark McNellie has always had the younger and often less experienced team on the field. That was only natural as the team went through its infancy periods, initially as a start-up program, then as a first-year varsity team, followed by the initial foray into Division II and finally last year's debut season in arguably one of the toughest conferences in the country.
But 2011, the program's fifth year and fourth varsity season, has been one that has been optimistically looked too as Lake Erie's true arrival on the college football landscape. For the first time, there is a true senior class, with 25 fourth- and fifth-year players leading the way. And also for the first time there is substantial and experienced depth across the board, the result of so many young players seeing game action the past few years.
"For the past few years, we've been really young across the board but now that's not the case," McNellie said. "We have two classes of guys who have been here for a while now, guys who played in that first non-scholarship club year (2007) and guys who came in the following year and played right away."
The Storm also has the added experience of living through last year's 3-7 GLIAC debut (3-8 overall). Though after a slow start with a couple of close misses, Lake Erie played better down the stretch by winning three of its last four games.
"We had a mindset that last year was a learning experience and about finding out what the GLIAC is really all about," said McNellie. "The first few years of independent games, there were some weeks you could not be on your game and survive. That is not the case in this league. Our players learned that every week is a battle and you have to be prepared, both mentally and physically, to play at a high level."
"We found out a few times that if you're not mentally and physically prepared to give all you've got, then you will have a long day. There's a great quality of competition every week in the GLIAC and now that we know what is out there, and that we feel we have the right things in place, we're really excited about this year and where it can take us."
Throughout the program's infancy, the Storm's calling card has been its offense, and 2010 was no different. Lake Erie moved the ball to the tune of 426 yards per game last year – ranking second in the GLIAC. The Storm also ranked in the top 25 nationally for the second straight year in rushing. But despite the impressive numbers, turnovers and red zone woes repeatedly did in the Storm. Lake Erie's 38 turnovers lost last year were the second most in Division II and a main point of concentration in the offseason.
"Being among the league leaders in offense is something we're happy about, but leading the nation in turnovers is something you can't do if you want to be a successful football team," McNellie said. "We spent a lot of time working on our decision making and being more sound with the football. Some of those turnovers were bad bounces, some were bad choices. You can't control the bad bounces, but you can work to make better choices."
Lake Erie's spread attack has always been one of high risk, high reward, but the focus on ball control shouldn't slow things down.
"By no means will we be a conservative offense, but we do have to do a better job of holding onto the ball when we have it," said McNellie. "We're going to continue to work on, not necessarily doing more, but doing what we do better. And not giving the ball to the other team or sending the defense onto the field with its back against the wall, I think that will allow us to finish more drives and be more effective."
The Storm's offense starts and finishes with the quarterback position. The only person who may know the scheme better than offensive coordinator Jerry Hazzard is four-year starter Sean Bedevelsky (Brunswick, Ohio/Brunswick). The dual-threat veteran is the school's leader in nearly every passing category and is also the school's all-time leading rusher. Despite missing the final two games of 2010 with a concussion, Bedevelsky still led the GLIAC in total offense (290.1 yards per game). As a junior he completed a career-high 60.7 percent of his passes for 2,061 yards and 13 touchdowns while rushing for 550 yards and four more touchdowns, earning a spot on the All-GLIAC Team after the season.
"When Sean is on his game, we're a very dangerous football team," McNellie said. "He's a guy who makes plays inside and outside the framework of the offense. Sometimes as a coach, that can drive you crazy, but we never want to limit his ability to make plays. He's at his best when a play breaks down and he can show his great leadership and decision-making abilities."
When Bedevelsky went down, redshirt junior Matt Krumpak (McDonald, Ohio/McDonald) took over and did a solid job before suffering a foot injury in the season finale. In his first start against Tiffin, Krumpak completed 11-of-18 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Storm to victory. On the year, he was 30-of-59 for 402 yards and three touchdowns. He'll be in position to compete for time behind center heading into the season.
"We have two quarterbacks who we know can play in games and handle tough situations," McNellie said. "And we have a couple of young guys who are very smart, hard workers and I expect to see a lot of competition to see who the guy to push Sean will be."
Senior Kameron Alexander (Akron, Ohio/Buchtel) emerged from a crowded backfield towards the end of last season and grabbed a hold of the starting job. He added an exclamation point on the season with a school-record 214 yards in the win over Tiffin. He finished the year with a team-high 637 yards on 133 carries with two touchdowns. He also caught 16 balls out of the backfield for 147 yards.
He'll expect to be pushed by transfer and former all-state selection A.J. Zitello (Mineral Ridge, Ohio/Mineral Ridge/Youngstown State) who joined the Storm in the spring and was with the team through spring ball. Redshirt freshman Anthony Elias (Cortland, Ohio/Lakeview) and senior Eric Burlingame (Columbus, Ohio/Cambridge) will also get a chance to earn some playing time. The freshman recruiting class is also very strong at the running back spot and a number of newcomers could make an impact in the backfield.
"On paper, Kameron is not the biggest guy or the fastest guy in the world, he is just productive. He makes plays with and without the ball. We're expecting big things out of him," McNellie commented. "Zitello did a nice job in spring and can be a change-up type of back, plus Burlingame and Elias are a year older and more experienced. And we wanted to load our depth chart with young guys back there and think we have a few who can play like Rodney Smith (Bartow, Fla./Bartow), Sandor Komos (Coldwater, Ont./Park Street Collegiate), Isaiah Johnson (Ocala, Fla./Westport), etc."
The most versatile members of the Storm offensive attack are arguably the wings. Fifth-year senior David Romeo (Eastlake, Ohio/Eastlake North) has been LEC's big-play maker throughout his career as a pass catcher and as a runner. The school's all-purpose yardage leader, he finished second on the team in receiving last year with 32 catches for 476 yards and also rushed for 151 yards.
Romeo will likely be joined in the starting lineup by senior Patrick Lunney (Mount Shasta, Calif./Mount Shasta/College of the Siskiyous). Lunney had an immediate impact in his first season with the team last year, catching 26 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns while adding 181 yards and another score on the ground.
Senior Nick Yeager (Madison, Ohio/Madison) made big plays against Findlay and Grand Valley last year and finished with 13 catches for 133 yards and a pair of TDs. He's been a consistent contributor throughout this career. Sophomores Mike Thomas (McDonald, Ohio/McDonald) and Zach Abbatiello (Cincinnati, Ohio/LaSalle) got better as the year went on last season and will be counted on heavily to fill in the steady and deep rotation.
"It's a coach's dream and a player's nightmare," McNellie said regarding the talent and depth at the position. "To say we have starters and back-ups at those spots is almost unfair. They all will play a lot. Dave's unquestionably the leader of the group and has been great as a receiver, a ball carrier and a team leader. But Lunney showed a lot of heart, desire and toughness there last year and made big plays in big situations. Yeager, Thomas and Abbatiello all showed signs last year and we have high expectations for them too. Plus we feel we're loaded in that area in the recruiting class with guys who can really push them for playing time, like Aaron Lindgren (Willoughby, Ohio/Willoughby South)."
One of the things McNellie and staff have targeted as an area to do better is the interior run game. The staff's desire to play occasional smash-mouth football is the result of an experienced and improved offensive line. In McNellie's first season, the Storm o-line consisted of a few undersized 17 and 18-year-olds. Now, the group features several 300-pounders and depth at each spot up and down the line.
Headlining the list are a pair of senior all-conference honorees in right tackle Mike Gritz (South Euclid, Ohio/Brush) and center Mike Hounshell (Willoughby, Ohio/Notre Dame Cathedral Latin). A gifted athlete for his size, Gritz has now started at both tackle spots in his career and is someone teams at the next level have had interest in. Hounshell is quick on his feet and with his mind as well, taking charge of the unit after sliding over from guard last year.
Redshirt sophomore Mike Price (Parma Heights, Ohio/Valley Forge) returns at the left tackle spot and after being hit hard by injuries last year, the guard spots now have incredible depth with five players vying for two starting spots. After losing redshirt junior Guy Cullison (Columbus, Ohio/Bishop Ready) early in the season, senior Chaz Brown (Euclid, Ohio/Euclid) and redshirt junior Greg Juhola (Ashtabula, Ohio/Lakeside)earned a majority of the time next to Hounshell. Because of nagging injuries, veteran senior Barrett Frederickson (Mayfield, Ohio/Mayfield) was in-and-out of the lineup and after a preseason knee injury, junior Mike McElligot (Warrensville Heights, Ohio/St. Peter Chanel) was relegated to a short late-season cameo. But all are healthy and competing as camp gets underway.
"We had to do some rearranging in the middle last year when guys started to go down, but now having all that experience back will be an advantage this year," McNellie said. "And I think the competition with this group will make them better. They've all put in a lot of work in the offseason and have shown the ability to work really well as a group, regardless of who is in the lineup. We're trying now to develop the mentality of attacking people and really coming off the ball at them. At times in the past we were really good on the perimeter, but didn't have the ability to line up and run it right at people. I think with this group, we have that ability."
Some younger players who redshirted last year but figure to play a role on the line this year include redshirt freshmen Cody Furr (Lodi, Ohio/Cloverleaf), Chris Higgins (Alliance, Ohio/Marlington) and Corbin Jackimowicz (North Fort Myers, Fla./North Fort Myers).
The receiving corps is led by two-sport star and fifth-year senior Brandon James (Mentor, Ohio/Mentor). James earned all-conference honors in both football (honorable mention) and baseball (first-team) last year and is primed to close his gridiron career with a stellar season. A year ago, he led the team with 44 catches for 516 yards and five scores, surpassing the 100-reception mark for his career (143).
Opposite James will be classmate David Kryzs (Ashtabula, Ohio/Ashtabula). Another big, physical pass catcher like James, Kryzs hauled in 12 passes for 121 yards with a touchdown a year ago and has been a consistent contributor throughout his career.
"We have two guys who work as hard as anybody at their position in James and Kryz," said McNellie. "Brandon has a unique skill set, evident by him being an all-star in two different sports. His ball skills are as good as anybody's. And Dave is a consistently good route runner and a really good blocker downfield. He brings a lot to the team leadership-wise and in intangibles."
The coaches are also excited about redshirt freshman speedster Tommy Jackson (Hubbard, Ohio/Hubbard) who opened eyes with a 64-yard catch in the spring game. He provides an explosive playmaker outside that the Storm hasn't had. Sophomore Billy Croom (Columbus, Ohio/Beechcroft) will see more time at receiver after being the team's primary punter in 2010 and junior J. R. Forbes (Columbus, Ohio/Licking Heights/Tiffin) is also expected to play a larger role this year.
Veteran John Hokavar (Perry, Ohio/Perry) is back at tight end and when healthy has proven to be a key component in the passing game, catching 17 passes for over 300 yards and four TDs the past two years. Sophomore Cole Gordon (Naples, Fla./Naples/Georgia Southern) is also back and freshman Andrew Shickler (Doylestown, Ohio/Chippewa) could also see plenty of time at the end of the line.
The Storm defense was really ravaged by injury in 2010. Some kept key players out for large portions of the season, while other nagging injuries limited the performance of some of the team's top playmakers. McNellie hopes that with everyone healthy to start the year, along with the experienced gained by those who were thrust into a prominent role last year, the unit can continue to improve as a whole.
"We were so banged up on that side of the ball last year, but it forced a lot of guys to play," McNellie said. "But, we think they'll all be a year better experience-wise, as well as in the weight room. We've tweaked our schemes a bit to put them in position to utilize their skills better. And throughout the spring and early in fall camp, there's been some great, great competition."
No less than nine players should see time on a revamped defensive line. If some of the incoming freshmen can make an impact early on, then the Storm will be able to run multiple groups in and out of the line-up rather than having three or four players in thick of it for 80-plus plays a game.
Senior Derrick Clement (Seville, Ohio/Cloverleaf) is the likely starter at nose guard, though he'll be pushed by junior Bryant Loparo (Bellevue, Ohio/Bellevue). The duo combined for 46 tackles and 2.5 sacks in the middle. Fifth-year senior Mike Robare (South Euclid, Ohio/Brush) makes the move from offense to defense and will provide depth at the nose.
Senior Josh Freeman (Mentor, Ohio/Mentor) has been a stalwart in the starting lineup throughout his career, but the end positions are full of talent. Fifth-year senior Taylor Jonard (Galena, Ohio/Big Walnut) battled injuries last year but should be in the mix early along with juniors Taylor Leppla (Cambridge, Ohio/Cambridge) and Marty Newman (North Olmsted, Ohio/St. Edward/Eastern Michigan), in addition to redshirt sophomore Zane Huston (Bellevue, Ohio/Bellevue) and redshirt freshman Ty Law (Madison, Ohio/Madison).
Leppla led the group with three tackles for a loss and 24 total, followed by Freeman's 18 tackles. Two years ago, Jonard was a consistent force, registering 6.5 TFL's before missing a chunk of time in 2010.
"This is a deep and talented group," commented McNellie. "We have excellent freshmen coming in, too, and that will hopefully allow us to keep guys fresh and be able to play at a high level throughout the game."
The Storm linebacking corps is another group that will feature solid depth and great competition for playing time.
Senior Gus Armbruster (North Royalton, Ohio/North Royalton) tried to gut his way through a foot injury last year but was never fully healthy and ultimately missed the final five games of the year. When he went down, he was leading the team with 49 tackles and three sacks, but was not the same player he was when he picked up 89 stops as a sophomore. However, classmate Cameron Bryant (Lorain, Ohio/Admiral King) stepped in and more than filled the void. Bryant recorded double digit tackles in each of the last five games and finished the year with a team-high 73. He also intercepted a pass. Senior Matt Lott (Newark, Ohio/Newark Catholic) also saw extensive playing time towards the end of last season and had three TFL's. Those three, along with redshirt freshman Dakota Schwan (Bellevue, Ohio/Monroeville), should see the bulk of time at the two inside linebacker positions along with senior Mike Kren (Berea, Ohio/Berea), junior Matt Spelich (Cleveland, Ohio/Lutheran West) and redshirt sophomore Ben Bryan (Carrollton, Ohio/Carrollton).
"When guys got hurt, there were other guys who got the chance to play," said McNellie. "And when they did, Cam Bryant especially, they stepped forward with really strong second halves (of the season) and proved they belong in the mix. I think we can have a really nice rotation at that spot."
Outside, veterans Kevin Chapman (Cincinnati, Ohio/Anderson) and David Dunne (Rocky River, Ohio/Rocky River) return after another strong season. Chapman was fourth overall with 54 tackles and had a team-leading 7.5 TFL's and shared the team lead with three sacks. Dunne, meanwhile, had 2.5 sacks and 3.5 TFL's after sliding down from safety where he was a starter his first two seasons.
"There are a lot of talented guys fighting for a small number of spots," said McNellie. "And I think we brought in some quality young guys who can bolster those positions and give us some needed depth."
The defensive backfield has plenty of experience at the safety spots, but the Storm could be a little green at the corner position.
Fifth-year senior Ryan Studer (Madison, Ohio/Riverside) is a year-removed from returning from a broken foot that cost him all of 2009 and senior Steve Bensinger (Poland, Ohio/South Range) is coming off his first full-year on defense, though he was hampered at times by a hamstring injury. Still, both had fine seasons in 2010, Studer making 62 tackles and Bensinger 46.
Sophomore Dylan Leymon (Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio/Cuyahoga Falls) played well down the stretch last year and redshirt sophomore DaVon Coman (Akron, Ohio/North) has adjusted after moving from receiver prior to last season. Plus, freshman Dayton Overstreet (Suwanee, Ga./North Gwinnett) has been impressive early in fall camp.
"It'll be interesting to see how things play out (at safety)," McNellie said. "We had some injuries there and guys were forced to play, so there is plenty of experience. Studer showed flashes of being his old self and Bensinger was strong when he was healthy. So we expect them to be back to where they were, plus Leymon finished strong at the end of the year.
Junior Nick Krantz (Mentor, Ohio/Mentor) can play both safety and corner and will likely start the season at the latter. He was limited to just five games a year ago, but averaged over four tackles per game. Senior Ryan Robinson (Maple Heights, Ohio/Maple Heights) moved over from offense in the spring and redshirt sophomore John Nicol (Delaware, Ohio/Delaware Hayes) has returned from injury. Sophomore Jevon Cook (South Euclid, Ohio/Brush) and redshirt freshman Miles Iverson (Madison, Ohio/Madison) could also figure into the mix along with newcomers Stacy Woodford (Dublin, Ohio/Dublin), Ramon Alexander (West Bloomfield, Mich./Walled Lake) and Dezmone Relaford (Cleveland, Ohio/Collinwood).
"There's plenty of skill and upside there, guys we think can play. But there is a lot of inexperience and we're going to be counting on young guys at those key positions," McNellie said.
After an up-and-down freshman year, Sam Marcotte (Chardon, Ohio/Chardon) blossomed into one of the league's best kickers as a sophomore. Marcotte connected on 15-of-19 field goals and 27-of-29 extra points for a team-leading 72 points. He booted a 47-yarder at Hillsdale and won the game at Findlay with a kick as time expired.
"I thought Sam was arguably one of the very best kickers in the conference last year, in terms of field goals and extra points," McNellie said. "He's worked very hard and he's prepared for a big season. And he's worked to improve and be better at pinning people deep in the kickoff game, which will be a huge asset for us."
Croom won the punting job as a freshman and performed well, averaging 35.4 yards per kick. He'll be pushed this year by incoming freshman David Bojalad (Saint Mary's Pa./Elk County Christian), an all-state performer and one of the top punters in the eastern U.S. in high school.
Bensinger was one of the best punt returners in the country two years ago and will likely get the call first in that area. He's averaged over 11 yards per return in his career.
The kickoff return game took a big hit with the graduation of Demetrius Gray, but there are a couple of players on the roster with return experience like Kameron Alexander. However, McNellie will likely look to one of the younger players to step up and take the reigns.
"It's probably going to be an area where we have open tryouts, really give guys a chance," McNellie said. "We'll look for guys who have knack at it and can pick up the yardage that's there."
Lake Erie opens the 2011 season on Thursday night, Sept. 1, at Jack Britt Memorial Stadium against traditional nonleague rival Gannon University. The Storm will play six home games in 2011, including visits from perennial powers Hillsdale, Grand Valley State and Ashland.