Tony Annese has turned Ferris State into a national powerhouse, winning Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles and making long runs in the Division II national playoffs.
In fact, the only thing Annese hasn’t done is win a national title with the Bulldogs. He won three state championships in a five-year span at Muskegon High School (2004, 2006, 2008), then two Division II junior college national titles in a three-year period while at Grand Rapids Junior College before moving on to Big Rapids.
Annese took over a program that was 18-26 the previous four years at Ferris State before his arrival in 2012, then developed it into a team capable of holding its own against GLIAC perennial power Grand Valley State.
The Bulldogs are 34-5 during the past three seasons, including a win over Grand Valley in the national quarterfinals last season before a semifinal loss to Northwest Missouri State.
Ferris State has been aided by the play of quarterback Reggie Bell, a transfer from Eastern Michigan who completed 60 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,085 yards while rushing for 1,217 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Bulldogs averaged 37.5 points last season with one of the most balanced offenses in football, averaging 253.5 yards rushing and 225.8 yards passing.
“He’s a do-it-all type of quarterback who is a very efficient passer with a live arm,” Annese said of Bell. “I would characterize him as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation at any level. He has every tool we look for, and when we put a formula together on who we’re looking for he has every skill to do what we do so he’s a perfect fit. We’re an option-paced spread team with a lot of reads, but we’re also a team that throws quick, gets the ball to speed in space type of thing … very similar to Louisville or Clemson, those kinds of teams.”
The Bulldogs were picked to finish behind Grand Valley in the GLIAC preseason poll, but Lindy’s preseason publication has them as the No. 2 team in the nation, with Grand Valley ranked No. 3 and NW Missouri State again leading the pack.
“We feel confident about our offense with four of five offensive linemen back, which is critically important, then our running back (Jahaan Brown, 996 yards, 6.4 average) is a four-year starter and of course Reggie and Malik Taylor (47 receptions, 1,017 yards, five TDs) who is one of the guys we really rely on, our top receiver from last year who is a game-breaker for us.”
The Bulldogs have some stars on the defensive side of the ball as well, including junior defensive end Zach Sieler, who had 191/2 sacks last season.
“We have our best defensive lineman back in Zach Sieler, who was the GLIAC Defensive Lineman of the Year,” Annese said. “We have most of our linebackers back and four seniors in the secondary so all of those things are critically important from an experience standpoint and now we just have to go out and do it on the field.”
Saginaw Valley State
Last season: 5-5 (5-5 GLIAC)
Coach: Jim Collins, 10th season (52-47)
Notable: Saginaw Valley will try to climb back up the standings after its .500 season, trying to make its first national playoff appearance since 2013. Linebacker Bryan Jones will lead the defense after getting in on 111 tackles to earn second-team All-GLIAC honors. Junior Dillon Dixon (75 tackles, five fumble recoveries) and junior Joe Newman (11 pass breakups) return in the secondary.
Top players: Bryan Jones, Sr., LB; Dillon Dixon, Jr., DB; Joe Newman, So., DB; Ryan Conklin, So., QB.
Last season: (4-6, 4-6)
Coach: Steve Olson, first season
Notable: Olson, the former defensive coordinator, was named head coach of Tech on Nov. 15, replacing Tom Kearly. Olson’s defense ranked second in the GLIAC in total defense (337.4 yards) and rushing defense (121.3) in 2015, but slipped (398, 191) last season. Tech returns Conference Freshman of the Year Travis Tidwell who had 62 tackles and four interceptions last season while breaking up 12 passes.
Top players: Travis Tidwell, So., DB; John Williams, Sr., RB; Cayman Berg-Morales, Sr., DL; Cody Goldsworthy, Jr., DL.
Last season: (3-8, 3-7)
Coach: Kyle Nystrom, first season
Notable: Nystrom was named head coach on Dec. 20, coming over from Ferris State where he helped the Bulldogs reach the Division II national semifinals as the program’s co-defensive coordinator. He was also on CMU’s staff under Dan Enos from 2010-14. He inherits a defense that gave up an average of 40.2 points last season. Junior running back Jake Mayon (1,064 yards, 13 TDs) returns, along with senior receiver Julian Crum (55 receptions, 389 yards).
Top players: Jake Mayon, Jr., RB; Julian Crum, Sr., WR; Darryl Williams, Sr., LB (92 tackles); Jaranta Lewis, Sr., WR (39 receptions, 400 yards).
Last season: (3-8, 3-8)
Coach: Leonard Haynes, third year (8-14)
Notable: Haynes hopes Northwood can turn its close losses from last September — three losses on game’s final play, including 27-26 setback to Ferris State — into wins this season. Joe Garbarino returns at quarterback after completing just 42.6 percent of his passes and throwing more interceptions (seven) than TDs (five). He is among nine starters back on offense, including sophomore running back Abdul Levy (553 yards, 5 TDs). Senior defensive back Nick Tripp (60 tackles) also returns.
Top players: Joe Garbarino, So., QB; Abdul Levy, So., RB; Nick Tripp, Sr., DB; Charles Williams, Sr., DL.