Despite a 7-2 record as coach against rival Grand Valley State, including a win last season, Ferris State’s Tony Annese found himself looking up at Grand Valley in the 2018 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference preseason coaches’ poll, slotted second behind his foe.
It’s the sort of thing other coaches might use as bulletin board material, maybe installing a countdown clock for the big clash or some other physical manifestation of the perceived slight.
But Annese has never been that type of coach.
“I don’t mean this out of disrespect, but I don’t believe in rivalries when it comes to our approach,” Annese said. “I’ve never believed in that at any level of coaching. If you worry about a single opponent, you think ahead, and you might lose that week to someone else. I’ve said it from the beginning, I’m not going to focus on them (other teams). If we had a countdown clock it would be for us, not the opponent.”
Annese has certainly earned the right to do things his way.
In 2012, Annese’s first year, Ferris State beat Grand Valley for the first time since 1999, ended a 10-year losing streak to Michigan Tech and defeated Wayne State, the defending national runner-up that season.
Ferris State has been at or near the top of the GLIAC ever since, with four-straight appearances in the NCAA Division II Playoffs, highlighted by a trip to the national semifinals in 2016. Last season Ferris went 11-2 (8-1 GLIAC) and made it to the national quarterfinals.
“We hope that we’re reloading every year instead of rebuilding,” Annese said. “You never want to take a season for granted because at any point it can turn south.”
A reload will be necessary on defense this season. Ferris State lost its top nine tacklers and returns only two players with starting experience.
Senior defensive tackle Jamil Pollard — who had 3⅓ tackles for loss last season — will lead the defensive line.
“Even though they’re young from an experience standpoint, we’ve got guys that have been in the program for a long time,” Annese said about his defense. “Some guys that left are great players, but we feel like we’ve got guys that have been in waiting a while that have GLIAC experience. Those kids have paid a price to be on a good college football team competing for a championship.”
Things are brighter on the offensive side of the ball.
Preseason All-American senior offensive linemen Nic Sawyer and Devon Johnson return along with two other returning starters on the line, giving Annese loads of comfort in the trenches. Plus, a pair of All-GLIAC performers at wide receiver are back, seniors Malik Taylor and Keyondre Craig.
“Malik (Taylor), in particular, is much more vocal this season,” Annese said. “He’s trying to be a positive leader on our team, and that’s different for him because he’s always been a quiet kid. I think he’s the leader of that position group.”
Who will be throwing the ball to this talented group of pass-catchers is still unknown.
Annese is fostering a quarterback competition between junior Travis Russell, who split time behind center last year, senior Bret Mooney, a backup last season, and junior transfer Jayru Campbell.
Campbell led Detroit Cass Tech to two Division 1 MHSAA titles and was committed to play football at Michigan State but wound up in jail after body-slamming a security guard at Cass Tech. He spent two years at Garden City Community College in Kansas and helped lead the school to a junior college national championship before transferring to Ferris State.
“He’s as hard of working of a guy as I’ve ever been around,” Annese said. “He’s got a great heart. He cares about other people. He wants to do well for himself, the team, his family and the city of Detroit. He has high expectations for himself.”
Annese knows expectations are remarkably high for his team. Ferris State is in the top five on many national preseason polls.
But he doesn’t need to look far for national championship inspiration. The Ferris State men’s basketball team just won the Division II national championship in March, the school’s first national championship. Annese is hoping to instill a lot of lessons from that team and was especially impressed that coach Andy Bronkema used such a deep bench. His starters bought in, sacrificing playing time for the good of the team.
If Ferris State football is going to deliver the school’s second national championship, Annese knows it will take that same kind of buy-in.
“We learned from our basketball team,” Annese said. “They grinded out some tough wins and won a national championship. They had to sacrifice their own small desires for the greatness of the team. I’ve talked to these guys about putting their selfish desires behind them. I want our guys to know it’s in their hands.”
Ferris State opens its season on Thursday against East Stroudsburg.
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer
Eric Coughlin of The Detroit News provides a team-by-team outlook for GLIAC teams Davenport, Ferris State, Grand Valley State, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Northwood, Saginaw Valley State and Wayne State. (Schools listed in alphabetical order.)
Last season: 1-10 overall, 0-9 GLIAC
Coach: Sparky McEwen, 2nd season (1-10, 0-9)
Notable: The first season in the GLIAC and second season ever for Davenport football was not an easy one, as it was outscored 329-128. Sparky McEwen’s squad has six returning starters on offense and will be led by junior quarterbacks Deondre Ford and Haiden Majewski. Team MVP Nate Couturier will play his third season at wide receiver. On defense, eight starters return including three All-GLIAC performers in senior defensive tackle Derrick Calloway, senior cornerback Brian Williams and junior linebacker Kye Black. The defense will probably be better, but the quality of the offense is an open question.
Last season: 11-2, 8-1
Coach: Tony Annese, 7th season (60-14, 51-9)
Notable: Ranked in the top five in several national polls, Ferris State is gearing up for a big season. The offensive line returns four of five starters including Preseason All-Americans Nic Sawyer and Devon Johnson. Senior wide receivers Malik Taylor and Keondre Craig are back after big years. The quarterback spot is a contest between junior Travis Russell, who split time behind center last year, senior Bret Mooney, a backup last season, and junior transfer Jayru Campbell from Detroit Cass Tech. The defense only returns two starters, but at this point in his career, Annese is reloading, not rebuilding. Even with uncertainty at quarterback, Ferris State will be at or near the top of the GLIAC again.
GRAND VALLEY STATE
Last season: 8-2 (7-2)
Coach: Matt Mitchell, 9th season (77-23, 61-17)
Notable: Quarterback Bart Williams leads 16 other starters into the 2018 season. Williams has thrown for 9,854 yards and 105 touchdowns with a 32-7 record behind center for Grand Valley. Senior wide receiver Nick Dodson has similarly prolific numbers, racking up 106 catches for 1,558 yards and 22 scores over his career. At running back, sophomore Dre’on Kemp and University of Pittsburgh transfer Chawntez Moss will probably get most of the carries. Junior defensive tackle Mike Pettis anchors the line after 41 tackles, 7½ tackles for loss and 3½ sacks last season. If Grand Valley’s high-flying aerial attack can overcome its tough schedule, a deep playoff run is possible.
Last season: 4-7 (3-6)
Coach: Steve Olson, 2nd season (4-7, 3-6)
Notable: Eight starters return on offense, including four offensive linemen. Sophomore Garrett Young will be the full-time starter at quarterback after starting three games in 2017. At wide receiver, senior Jake Wenzlick is back after an all-conference season. Senior defensive end Cody Goldsworthy had 9½ tackles for loss in 2017 and leads five other returning starters on defense. Junior linebacker Marvin Wright ranked third in the GLIAC in total tackles per game with 9.3 last season. Tech struggled on third down last year, but with a solidified quarterback situation and so many returning starters on defense, Tech has the pieces to make a move into the GLIAC’s middle class.
Last season: 1-9 (1-8)
Coach: Kyle Nystrom, 2nd season (1-9, 1-8)
Notable: After “blowing the program up” last season, Nystrom will see solid improvement in 2018. All 11 starters return on offense. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Johnson appeared in eight games and had 1,581 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Senior running back Jake Mayon was named GLIAC Offensive Back of the Year after rushing for 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns. Eight starters return on a defense that will be led by junior strong safety Troy Mayon and senior defensive lineman Abram Cook. Don’t expect Northern to be on top of the GLIAC this season, but its potent rushing attack will be even better, and if the defense improves, Northern could pull off some big upsets.
Last season: 7-4, 5-4
Coach: Leonard Haynes, 4th season (15-18, 13-17)
Notable: Nine starters return on offense, including junior quarterback Joe Garbarino from Warren De La Salle. The offensive line will be a strength with junior Chris Jacobs back, and junior running back Abdul Levy returns after missing all of last season with an injury. On defense, seven starters return. Junior Dimitri Abro from Macomb Dakota has six tackles for loss from defensive back over his career, and junior linebacker Travis Wiltjer was mentioned by Haynes as a player who was taking the reins from a leadership standpoint. Last season marked Northwood’s first winning season since 2009, but Haynes hasn’t won much since arriving in Midland, so it’s hard to envision Northwood improving much over the five conference wins it registered in 2017.
SAGINAW VALLEY STATE
Last season: 5-6, 3-6
Coach: Jim Collins, 11th season (57-53, 51-47)
Notable: A long way from its heyday of about six seasons ago, Collins will try to drag Saginaw Valley back over .500. Seven starters return on offense including a lot of experience at the skill positions. Junior quarterback Ryan Conklin threw for 2,329 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Senior Will Farr is back after only appearing in two games in 2017 before his season was cut short due to injury. Farr had 16 catches for 222 yards in 2016. Senior linebacker Mike Alexander has great instincts and leads five other returning starters on defense. Senior defensive back Dillon Dixon, from U-D Jesuit, also returns.
Last season: 5-6, 4-5
Coach: Paul Winters, 15th season (82-75, 69-71)
Notable: Senior running backs Demetrius Stinson and Deiontae Nicholas form quite the duo, with Stinson handling things on the inside and Nicholas, who averages about 15 yards per touch, on the outside. Winters said three quarterbacks are competing to be the starter, senior D.J. Zezula, sophomore Jake Amrhein and junior Dakota Kupp, from Waterford Mott. On defense, much will be expected from senior middle linebacker Anthony Pittman and junior outside linebacker Leon Eggleston. Pittman, from Birmingham Groves, was the only Wayne State player to be voted to the All-GLIAC First Team last season, and Eggleston registered 78 tackles and 4½ tackles for loss after only starting six games in 2017.