Clarkston High School quarterback D.J. Zezula prepares to pass during morning practice. (Jose Juarez / Special to The Detroit News)
D.J. Zezula loves being part of a powerhouse offense and plans to help defending Division 1 state champion Clarkston light up the scoreboard again during his senior year at quarterback.
Clarkston — The News’ No. 1 team — returns six starters on both sides of the ball, including three offensive linemen, from a team which defeated Detroit Catholic Central, 32-14, in the championship game while running 60 plays and piling up 442 yards of offense.
“The last few years, everyone talks about our offense, saying it’s comparable to a collegiate offense in the way of how many plays and points that we put on the board,” said Zezula, who operated an offense which averaged 41.7 points after its lone loss, a 12-7 setback to Rochester Adams in the season opener. “It’s a powerhouse offense and it all starts on the offensive line.
“We have big guys on the line who are also great athletes. We can run option, zone, power and we also have multiple weapons where we can spread it around. Cole Chewins, our 6-foot-7 tight end who committed to Miami of Ohio, caught only two passes, but he will have a bigger role in the passing game this year.”
Clarkston coach Kurt Richardson has high praise for Zezula (6-0, 185) who threw for 2,156 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, including a 10-for-15 performance (154 yards, 2 TDs) in the title game win. He has an offer from Saginaw Valley State on the table. EMU and Princeton also have showed interest.
“It’s huge to have a quarterback like D.J. back,” Richardson said. “D.J.’s a phenomenal leader. He sets the pace for the entire team by the things he does every day. He has no Division 1 offers and that’s so hard for me to believe. He can make all the throws and only had one interception all year.”
Clarkston averaged 44 points during its five postseason games, including 61 in a state semifinal win over Flint Carman-Ainsworth, when Ian Eriksen rushed for 355 yards and six TDs. Eriksen has moved on to Eastern Michigan University, but Richardson believes 5-9, 200-pound junior Centrus Williams and Ian’s brother Nolan will do a good job running the ball.
In addition to Chewins, Zezula will have receivers Shane Holler and Austin Egler to work with. Holler had a 15-yard TD reception to start the scoring in the title game.
Senior cornerback Merrick Canada will lead the defense. Canada, who has 4.5 speed, had seven tackles and forced a fumble in the title game.
Don’t expect to hear Richardson talk about the past with the season opener coming up. He said there will be no banner raising ceremony prior to the opener on Friday against Macomb Area Conference Red Division champion Macomb Dakota at Clarkston.
“We already had the banner-raising ceremony,” Richardson said. “We don’t talk about that. No, that’s all done with. But, we’re not shying away (from going after another one).”
No, there’s no talk about the past, but Zezula knows how Clarkston earned the title, a big reason another long playoff run could be in the near future.
“Last year, we knew it was our best chance to make it to the state title game,” Zezula said. “Our motto was, do things that have never been done before. We worked hard, had film sessions with our receivers in the morning to work on routes and stuff, and look where that got us. I know what it takes to get to Ford Field. We all do and we’re going to work hard to get back.”
2. Detroit Cass Tech (12-1), A
Cass Tech could be Clarkston’s biggest roadblock in its attempt to win consecutive state titles.
In fact, Cass Tech was the last team to repeat as Division 1 state champions (2011, 2012) and had its attempt to win for a third straight year come to an end with a semifinal loss to Detroit Catholic Central.
Standout running back Mike Weber was sidelined with an ankle injury against Catholic Central, but is now healthy and will try to build on last season’s 1,659 yards and 24 TDs. He’s committed to Michigan.
Coach Thomas Wilcher has more talent than any other in the state — eight players with Division 1 college offers — and points out that Weber has an outstanding offensive line in front of him. Joshua Alabi (6-foot-5, 290) committed to Ohio State and junior Michael Onwenu (6-2, 310) has offers from Ohio State, Michigan and Miami.
Linebacker Michael Oliver (Central Michigan) leads a defense which includes four-star junior defensive back Lavert Hill, who also has offers from Ohio State, Michigan and Miami. He runs a 4.3 40.
All eyes will be on junior Rodney Hall, who will be at quarterback the first few games while Jayru Campbell completes his jail term for his assault on a security guard in January.
Hall will have several weapons to work with in three-star junior receiver Demetric Vance and sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (6-1, 180). Vance, who has size at 6-3, has been offered by North Carolina State and Peoples-Jones has offers from Ohio State, Penn State and Miami.
Expect Weber to carry a heavier workload than normal until Campbell returns.
3. Birmingham Brother Rice (14-0), A
Brother Rice has a new leader in Dave Sofran, who’s replacing legendary Al Fracassa, who retired with a state-record 430 wins and 13 state titles in his 45 years at the school. He had at least one title in each decade, including Division 2 state championships the last three years.
Sofran is familiar with the program, playing at Brother Rice in the ’90s, then coaching at the school for 14 years, the last three as offensive coordinator. He takes over a program which enters the season with a 22-game winning streak.
Sofran has one of the top passing combinations in the state back in Michigan-bound quarterback Alex Malzone (2,782 yards, 25 TDs) and receiver Grant Perry (50 receptions). The bigger the game, the better Malzone gets, completing 20 of 24 passes for 263 yards and 4 TDs in the 38-21 title-game win over Muskegon. Perry had nine receptions for 91 yards and 2 TDs.
Brother Rice also will be aided by the return of 5-8, 170-pound slot receiver Delano Madison (4.3 40), who missed all of last season after getting injured in the first practice.
ck Dunaway (6-3, 225) and Shawn Kubit-Miller (6-2, 260) will anchor the defensive line with junior Riley Maher at linebacker. Dunaway had two sacks in the championship game.
4. Muskegon (12-2), A
Muskegon is looking for a third straight appearance in the Division 2 title game.
It lost a lot of talent, including standout quarterback Deshaun Thrower, 1,000-yard running back Javauntae Thomas, defensive lineman Kenny Finley (Western Michigan) and offensive lineman Malik King (Ball State).
Still, a lot of talent returns, led by 6-4, 270-pound junior right tackle Juanye Johnson, right guard Derices Brown (6-1, 260) and Jalvin Walker, who moves over from center to tackle.
Shawn Pfenning will take over for Thrower at quarterback and has weapons to work with in receiver Joeviar Kennedy (6-3, 205) and running backs Caleb Washington and Algan Evans.
Linebacker T.J. Smith (106 tackles) returns to anchor the defense.
5. Oak Park (6-5), A
Greg Carter has a veteran team to work with in his fourth year as head coach at Oak Park, with nine starters returning on defense and eight on offense.
Carter has numerous highly skilled players back on offense, led by 5-11, 190-pound running back John Kelly, 5-10, 185-pound receiver Juan Hernandez and junior Chauncey Lowman at quarterback.
Kelly, who has offers from Michigan State, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Maryland and Western Michigan, has 4.4 40 speed and rushed for 1,258 yards and 15 TDs last season. Hernandez, who had 40 receptions, also has great speed (4.5).
Shahid Bellamy (6-3, 280) and Junior McMullen (6-2, 220) are also outstanding players. Bellamy, a two-way lineman, is committed to CMU and McMullen, a linebacker, to WMU. Marvin White will be a threat at receiver and kick returner while also playing safety.
6. Rockford (9-2), A
Rockford had a nine-win season and earned a playoff spot … and that was with two quarterbacks, four receivers and three linemen all suffering injuries last season.
Rockford enters the ’14 season healthy and experienced.
“Everybody gets nervous talking about playing two quarterbacks, but we could even play three and each has different skill sets,” said Rockford coach Ralph Munger, who has guided Rockford to 19 straight playoff appearances, including three Division 1 state titles in a five-year stretch (2004, ’05, ’08) and is just 10 wins shy of the 300-win mark.
Junior Tyler Bradfield, senior Landon Haney and junior Michael Peterson, who played JV last year, are vieing at quarterback.
Ethan LeCourt and Jake Sendzik will be among the running backs.
7. Macomb Dakota (11-1), A
Dakota is the premier team in Macomb County and the perennial MAC Red Division champion, reaching the state playoffs the last 13 years and winning the division with 5-0 records the last two years.
Coach Mike Giannone has to replace quarterback Tyler Crowell and receiver Angelo DiMaggio, but has playmaker Benji Marshall (slot, running back, return man) back.
Maurice Moon will take over at quarterback.
Dakota has outstanding linemen, led by two-way players Tony Balabani (6-3, 230), Daniel Crawford (6-3, 235) and Colin Shock.
Balabani, who will play at WMU, is a defensive end/offensive tackle. Crawford, who is committed to Northern Illinois, is a defensive end/tight end.
8. Southfield (7-3), A
Southfield arguably has the best secondary in the state, led by Dior Johnson (6-2, 200), Ray Buford (6-1, 190), junior Matt Falcon (6-1, 210) and Ja’Mar Antwine (5-11, 180), a transfer from Pontiac.
Johnson, a three-star recruit who is headed for Wake Forest, is a big hitter with speed (4.5 40) at the safety position. Buford, a corner with 4.5 speed, will play at Minnesota. Antwine, a CMU commit, will play corner. Falcon already has seven offers, one from Ohio State.
Falcon also will see action at running back after missing last year with a knee injury.
9. DeWitt (13-1), A
This could be the year for Rob Zimmerman to earn that state title at DeWitt after a state semifinal appearance two years ago and a trip to the Division 3 title game last year, when it lost to Zeeland West, 34-27.
Zimmerman, now in his 16th year as head coach, has six three-year starters, led by quarterback Jake Johnson, a CMU commit.
Johnson threw for 2,025 yards and 31 TDs last season. He has a lot of weapons to work with, including running back Ben Heinritz (5-10, 210), junior receiver Shonquise Trainor and sophomore receiver J.D. Ross. Heinritz rushed for over 1,500 yards and 17 TDs last season.
10. Warren DeLaSalle (6-4), A
DeLaSalle returns 15 starters from a state playoff team which lost 19-14 to Macomb Dakota in the first round.
“The strength of our team will be our defense and this is physically the strongest group I’ve had,” said Paul Verska, who is starting his 13th season as head coach at DeLaSalle.
Four-star recruit Eric Rogers, a 6-3, 230-pound junior linebacker, anchors a defense which includes defensive end Mike Danna (6-3, 240), linebacker Ryan Smith (6-0, 215), strong safety Mike Ostrowski and cornerback Cooper Gammon.
Joey Garbarino will be battling for the starting quarterback job and could be handing off to speedy sophomore running back Allen Stritzinger.
11. Detroit Catholic Central (11-3), A
Catholic Central has advanced to the Division 1 championship game four of the last five years, winning in 2009, then falling in the title game the last three years, in 2011 and ’12 to Cass Tech, and to Clarkston last season.
Catholic Central reloads and it will have to do just that with just four starters back on both sides.
Mach has to replace quarterback Sean Birney and Joe Fanning could fill that role. Junior Alex Bock (5-9, 170) will be a big weapon on offense, playing receiver and running back. Bock had a TD reception in the title game last year.
Linebacker Jordan Jenkins (6-2, 230) will lead the defense. He had 140 tackles last season, 11 in the championship game.
12. Detroit King (10-2), A
King has the majority of its starters back and is loaded with three-star recruits, led by MSU-bound defensive end Kyonta Stallworth (6-4, 270) and linebacker Tyriq Thompson (6-2, 225), two of the top 10 players in the state.
Three-star junior quarterback Mikale Washington (6-4, 180), a transfer from California, is expected to run the offense and have a big weapon in 6-2, 180-pound junior receiver Donnie Corley, a transfer from Wyandotte.
Sixth-year coach Dale Harvel also has an impressive offensive line, led by 6-3, 305-pound guard Dante Hollis, 6-4, 300-pound tackle Eric Martin and Stallworth.
13. Muskegon Mona Shores (7-3), A
Coach Matt Koziak is thrilled with the speed he has on this team and looks forward to watching four-year starting quarterback Tyree Jackson go to work with the offense.
Jackson (6-4, 200), a Buffalo commit, threw for over 2,500 yards and 31 TDs last season
Deontay Moffett (5-9, 205), a three-year starter with 4.5 speed, is healthy again after breaking his ankle in Game No. 3.
The defense will be led by defensive end Jack Hellman (6-4, 230) and junior linebacker Dom Shermeta.
14. Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (5-4), A
OLSM will be motivated to having a great season after failing to make the playoffs last season, ending a run of four straight years of playing in the Division 3 state title game.
MSU-bound Tyson Smith (5-11, 180) will lead the defense. A three-year starter at cornerback, he is quick and has great ball skills. He will be joined in the secondary by speedy captain Ross Moore and strong safety Lamon Mathison.
Josh Dabney (6-1, 270) and Jared Moseley (6-1, 245) will anchor the defensive line.
Coach George Porritt has a number of sophomores who will play key roles, including Josh Ross (6-1, 215) at running back/linebacker and K.J. Hamler (5-8, 155) at receiver. Ross has received offers from MSU, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma and Hamler, from MSU.
Ross will be counted on to contribute right away, filling the hole left with the departure of 6-3, 220-pound junior linebacker Daelin Hayes, a four-star player who left to finish high school in California (St. Bonaventure in Ventura) after committing to Southern Cal.
Junior Brandon Tabore and Evan Henry will compete for the quarterback job.
15. Caledonia (5-4), A
Tom Burrill returns as head coach after a six-year absence. He guided Caledonia to the Division 3 state title in 2005.
Burrill will make the move from the wishbone/pistol the program used in past years on offense to the spread. He has a pair of talented running backs to work with in Eddie Kelly (6-1, 215), a third-year starter, and Jalen Burton (6-1, 180).
Kobe Wilson will start at quarterback with Payton Kooiker as one of his receivers.
The defense will be led by three-year starters Jon Hubbell (6-1, 210 linebacker) and Logan Soule (5-10, 165) at safety.
Burrill believes junior Austin Watrous could make a difference in close games. Caledonia has a challenging schedule, opening with Battle Creek-Harper Creek and also playing non-league games against Rockford, Muskegon Mona Shores and Grand Rapids South Christian, along with OK White games against Lowell, East Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Christian.
16. Utica Eisenhower (5-4), A
Nine starters return on offense, including all five linemen, led by tackle Trevor Curle and Nick Ribbing.
Coach Chris Smith must replace his quarterback with Jake Bradsher possibly taking over the keys to the offense. He will have a trio of running backs to work with in Nick Osuch, Andrew Szalkowski and Kadari Johnson.
Logan Fredal (6-3, 220), a fourth-year varsity player, will return at defensive end with three-year starter Mark Szalkowski (5-11, 225) back at defensive tackle and Collin Koscielniak (6-2, 215) at defensive end. Linebacker Chad Sherry is another returning starter.
17. Saline (9-2), A
Coach Joe Palka has built a power in his first few years at Saline and should be a front-runner again with 24 seniors back from a team which lost to Temperance Bedford in the district, 35-29.
Three-star cornerback Tyrone Miller leads the defense. Linebacker Chris Terech (6-2, 205) and defensive lineman Brandon Baldus also return.
Dual-threat quarterback Trent Theisen (5-10, 180) returns after throwing for more than 2,000 yards and running for 300 last season.
“Our strength is on the back seven on defense,” Palka said. “Tyrone Miller has rare combination of being a physical player with excellent cover skills.”
18. Detroit East English Village Prep (7-4), A
Three-year starting quarterback and WMU-bound Anton Curtis is among 19 starters back for coach Rod Oden’s team which lost to Detroit King in the Division 2 districts, 28-20.
Curtis, a three-time city champ in the 400 meters, threw for more than 1,800 yards.
Two-way sophomore lineman Emani Mason (6-4, 270) is already one of the premier linemen in the state. He is joined by defensive end Kamahl March who had 30 sacks during the past two years and junior middle linebacker Andrew Demoss (117 tackles).
19. Lansing Sexton (12-1), B
Running back Avonte Bell and sack-master Rayshawn Wilborn are among 18 starters back from a team that lost to Marine City in the Division 4 state semifinals.
Bell, a 6-1, 220-pounder with 4.5 speed, rushed for 1,287 yards and 22 TDs.
Coach Dan Boggan also will be aided by the returns of three-year starting quarterback Malik Mack (1,843 yards, 21 TDs), 6-2, 185-pound receiver R.J. Parker and 5-6, 175-pound running back Javon Wray (1,200 yards, 20 TDs).
Linebacker Johnny Norton (5-10, 205) and center/nose guard Shane Shannon (6-0, 275) are also returning starters.
20. Grand Blanc (7-3), A
Dual-threat quarterback Tre’Von Avery is among six starters back on offense.
Avery (6-1, 170) threw for 2,178 yards and rushed for 976 to have a hand in 30 TDs.
Avery will have receiver Matt Mastromatteo (38 receptions, 429 yards) to work with.
Offensive tackles Nick Williams and Tim Benson return, along with defensive tackle Thomas Tucker.