July 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

The News' Top 20 preseason football teams: Clarkston poised to repeat as champion

D.J. Zezula, shown throwing during a 7-on-7 tournament at Eastern Michigan, is back for a third season as Clarkston's starting quarterback. He threw for 1,500 yards last year. (Mark Bialek / Special to The Detroit News)

Clarkston — Before coach Kurt Richardson began the winter weight-training program for his players, he addressed their mental aspect.

He was worried they might think highly of themselves and gloat after going 13-1 and winning Clarkston’s first state championship (Division 1).

Richardson wasn’t about to allow that to happen.

“We’re going to be pretty good this year,” said Richardson, in his 28th year as a coach at the school. “We fought off the big-head syndrome in the offseason.”

With that out of the way, he turned his attention to the offense, which starts with quarterback D.J. Zezula, a three-year starter. Zezula threw for over 1,500 yards last season.

Richardson expects Zezula, who is 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, to call his own number more often on running plays.

“We expect him to do more with his feet,” the coach said.

Five others return on offense, with tight end Cole Chewins (6-7, 235) among the top threats. Other returners include slot back Shane Holler, guards Lance Linton and Adam Matich and and offensive tackle Chris Trimmer.

Defensively, Matich returns at nose guard, Chewins at linebacker and Merrick Canada at defensive back.

2. Detroit Cass Tech (12-1), A

No team has more talent than Cass Tech. Sound familiar? It’s been that way for the past four or five years. Cass Tech has reached the Division 1 semifinals the past four seasons and won the title in 2011 and 2012.

Six starters return on offense, but QB Jayru Campbell (legal issues) isn’t expected to play until midseason. Until then, sophomore Rodney Hall will start. Regardless, look for the state’s top running back, Michael Weber, to carry the ball often.

3. Muskegon (12-2), A

Muskegon returns four offensive linemen, three of whom will be juniors. Jalvin Walker will move from center to tackle and the best returner could be RG Derices Brown (6-1, 257).

Caleb Washington will be the featured back, and Division I recruit and basketball standout Joeviar Kennedy (6-3, 195) is at receiver. Shawn Pfenning and Cameron Copeland will battle at quarterback.

LB T.J. Smith led the team in tackles (106) last season and Brandon Oliver will move from linebacker to defensive line. Roland Sharp returns at defensive end and Al Coleman is back in the secondary.

4. Birmingham Brother Rice (14-0), A

QB Alex Malzone (Michigan) might be the state’s best player, Grant Perry is one of the top five receivers, and Justice Sanders and Bobby Dixon will share time at running back. Three offensive linemen return, and T Mark Miller (6-3, 265) might be the best.

This is the first season since 1969 that Al Fracassa will not be the coach, and Dave Sofran will have three starters back on defense — DE Jack Dunaway, DT Sean Kubit-Miller and Perry.

5. Oak Park (6-5), A

Greg Carter returns nine starters on defense and eight on offense, including QB Chauncey Loman. John Kelly (RB/DB/KR) is one of the state’s top players.

Carter said, “This is the first time (in three seasons at Oak Park) that we’ve had skill-position guys back. Our success will depend on our line play and we have confidence in them.”

6. Detroit Catholic Central (11-3), A

C.C., which has reached the Division 1 finals four of the last five years, returns a handful of starters, including TEs Nick Cococcetta and Cameron Hendershot.

Senior Joe Fanning is expected to start at quarterback, and LB Jordan Jenkins is back to add to his numbers (11 tackles in the state final).

7. Rockford (9-2), A

Two quarterbacks, four receivers and three linemen suffered injuries last season. A mix of 31 seniors and 38 juniors will provide depth.

Mason Plant is the lone linebacker returning, and Tyler Bradfield saw time at safety. Landon Haney and Bradfield both started, at times, at quarterback. Ethan LeCourt, Chris Bell and Nate Staley will share the rushing load.

8. Macomb Dakota (11-1), A

Coach Mike Giannone returns five starters on both sides, but must replace his quarterback. In steps senior Maurice Moon (6-1, 205).

Benji Marshall is the team’s top playmaker (slot, running back, returns), but the best players are on the lines — G Colin Shock , OT/DE Tony Balbani and TE/DE Daniel Crawford.

9. Warren DeLaSalle (6-4), A

The defense promises to be outstanding with the return of nine starters, spearheaded by E Michael Danna and LBs Ryan Smith and Eric Rogers.

Seven starters are back on offense, and a real plus could be the addition of sophomore RB Allen Stritzinger, who qualified for the state track finals in the 110-meter hurdles. There’s a bit of uncertainty at quarterback — senior Joey Garbarino played some there last season.

10. DeWitt (13-1), A

Speed is the key for this team, especially with Jacob Johnson (6-2, 203) at quarterback. RB Ben Heinritz rushed for over 1,500 yards last season, and OT Jacob Wozniewski and C Josh Villegas are three-year starters.

LB Conner Grice and FS Ben Zamiara are three-year starters, and Josh Hannah brings his bulk (6-1, 265) back at defensive tackle.

11. Southfield (7-3), A

Coach Tim Conley returns Dior Johnson, a three-year starter at free safety. Johnson also will play receiver.

Conley could use a two-quarterback system with seniors Kanye Harris and Michael Thornton, and junior RB Matt Falcon (6-1, 215) is back after missing last season (ACL).

12. Caledonia (5-4), A

Tom Burrill will switch from the wishbone/pistol offense to the Auburn spread with RBs Eddie Kelly (6-1, 205), a bruiser, and Jalen Burton, the speedster. There’s competition at quarterback between Kobe Wilson and Tanner Christian.

Kelly and Mike Andrusiak return at outside linebacker and Jon Hubbell is back in the middle. Logan Soule is a three-year starter in the secondary.

13. Orchard Lake St. Mary's (5-4), A

Eight starters return on defense, led by DB Tyson Smith (Michigan State), DE/OT Jared Mosley, DT Josh Dabney and DB Lamon Mathison.

One of St. Mary’s best players is sophomore LB Josh Ross. Junior Brandon Tabore will contend with senior Evan Henry for the quarterback spot.

14. Utica Eisenhower (5-4), A

Nine starters return on offense, but coach Chris Smith must find a quarterback — likely senior Jake Bradsher. All five offensive linemen return, led by T Trevor Curle.
Nick Ribbing and Logan Fredal return at the receiver spot. There’s also depth at running back (Nick Osuch, Andrew Szalkowski, Kadari Johnson).

Seven return on defense, led by Es Colin Koscielniak and Fredal, Mark Szalkowski at nose guard and Chad Sherry at middle linebacker.

15. Detroit King (10-2), A

Coach Dale Harvel returns 80 percent of his starters, among them LB Tyriq Thompson, DB/SB Jesse Johnson and CB/WR Dontre Boyd.

Transfer Mahakl Washington (San Diego) and sophomore Martinez Callaway will compete for the quarterback spot, and the running back position will be filled by committee.

16. Grand Blanc (7-3), A

QB Tre’Von Avery returns after throwing for 2,000 yards and rushing for 950, and four offensive linemen are back, including T Tim Benson.

The defense will struggle, though DT Thomas Tucker and LB Autonio Roland return and DeAundre Simpkins is back after significant time at cornerback.

17. Lowell (10-1), A

Coach Noel Dean lost 18 starters, and the senior class is thin. Josh Colegrove is a four-year starter at defensive end and will play fullback at times, as will Max Dean (coach’s nephew). Karson Murley (6-3, 265) is one of the top guards on the west side.

Ryan Stevens and Zeth Dean (coach’s son) will battle for the quarterback spot.

18. Saline (9-2), A

Coach Joe Palka will field an inexperienced offensive line but returns one of Washtenaw County’s top quarterbacks in senior Trent Tyson. Kevin Gross (6-0, 185) will start at running back after missing 2013 with an ankle injury.

The defense is sound with the return of DB Tyrone Miller, LB Chris Terech and DL Brandon Baldus. Miller could be the team’s top all-around player.

19. Muskegon Mona Shores (7-3), A

Tyree Jackson executes the option, no-huddle offense as well as anyone in the state. Some playmakers graduated, but coach Matt Koziak does have RB Deontay Mossett and SB Hunter Broersma back.

Six starters return on defense, led by E Zach Hellman and Ts Mike Bordeaux and Christian Boyd.

20. Traverse City West (5-5), A

Seven starters return on defense and six on offense, including QB Jeff Turnquist, part of a strong junior class that features two outstanding Ts (Thiyo Lukasa and Jake Cerny). WR/DB Zack McGuire is a three-year starter.

Junior LBs Grant Ellison and Jacob Benker will be the main tacklers, and Keegan Kenny and Chase Cavric join McGuire in the secondary.

Quarterback Alex Malzone, who led Birmingham Brother Rice to its third ... (Mark Bialek / Special to The Detroit News)
Brother Rice wide receiver Delano Madison won the "fastest man" ... (Mark Bialek / Special to The Detroit News)