Wildcats to rely on strong defense
A much-improved defense has Baker University football coach Mike Grossner excited about the upcoming season that begins Saturday.
The Wildcat defense will have a tough competitor in Benedictine College for its season opener on the road.
"I think our defense is much improved," Grossner said. "Hopefully, that proves to be true Saturday."
One player that will once again help the Wildcat defense is senior Jeremiah Gress, who led the Heart of America Athletic Conference in tackles last fall.
He fought for an extra year of eligibility after playing in one junior varsity game as a freshman in 2002 before being sidelined with a sinus infection.
"That was huge," Grossner said of getting Gress' eligibility. "For the rest of my coaching career, I will remember our athletic director Dan Harris coming out to the field and showing me a piece of paper. I looked down, smiled and said 'you've got to be kidding me.'"
Grossner said it was a hard time for Gress, because he was never sure whether he could play again.
"Imagine at one time you think you are playing and then you are told no," Grossner said. "Then we appealed it, so lets practice. He is conditioning and practicing, but doesn't really know if he is eligible. Then, all of a sudden, he finds out all of his hard work is going to pay off."
Gress will be joined in the linebacking crew by Micah Mason, a 2004 Baldwin High School graduate.
Another area of the defense that has Grossner excited is the secondary. He said several players are improved and should play well this fall. One of those is sophomore Eric Allen.
"Eric Allen has played as well as anybody I've seen at the corner position," Grossner said. "He has matured and grown up. He has put on 20 pounds. He is making plays on the ball."
Grossner said the Wildcats also found a place for senior Brandon Hubbard, who has tried several positions in his four years. Grossner said Hubbard has felt very comfortable at free safety and should make an impact as possibly the best athletic player on the Baker team.
Other members of the secondary that Grossner expects to play well are senior Bruce Rogers, junior D.J. Carter, freshman KeJuan Taylor, freshman Rodney Harris and freshman Macklin Nusz.
Grossner is hoping his defense, along with NAIA preseason All-American kicker, junior Ryan Smith, can help the Wildcats win the field position battle during games.
"With that come better field position and maybe some turnovers," he said. "We've got a great kicking game, which can compliment a very good defense, to where we can gain some field position on opponents."
Then, that field position will help the offense that is looking for a leader to step up early in the season. There are two players that are battling for the quarterback job, junior Kendall Bradley and freshman Mack Brown.
Brown played in the Wildcats' scrimmage against Fort Scott Community College on Aug. 19, which helped him a bit.
"Mack kind of got the edge there," Grossner said. "He took the lead a little bit and has done a nice job of leading the football team. Kendall has the experience factor. I know what he can do, plus he is improved."
Grossner said Brown will be starting the game Saturday, but he knows Bradley can come in and help the team if needed.
The running back position is not locked up either. It will be a running back by committee, along with the wide receiver spot on the roster.
"Micah Mason is a back burner type player," Grossner said. "If we need him for some tough yards, we are going to throw him in the back field, even though he is our starting linebacker.
"At receiver, I think we go eight deep right now, which is a nice luxury to have " Grossner said. "It's tough to get the ball to all of them and keep them all happy. I happen to think we have a pretty good nucleus and they are all team guys. They all can break it and make plays for us."
Grossner said the offense needs to be able to move the ball down field and keep the ball in possession.
"Offensively, we need to protect the football," Grossner said. "But, we are also going to stay aggressive. We are going to attack. We've been successful against them throwing the football. We haven't had a whole lot of success running it against them. Hopefully, that can change."
Grossner is ready to see his team get on the field Saturday.
"We are all ready," he said. "The players are ready and the coaches have been ready. Football is a funny game, because you get 11 shots at it and this year we get 10. You work year-round for 10 shots and you are judged by those 10 Saturdays. We get really geared up for each of them."
The Wildcats kick off at 2 p.m. Saturday in Atchison. Their home opener is at 6 p.m. Sept. 9 at Liston Stadium.
"I'm excited to see us perform," Grossner said. "It's been two long years. Now we feel like we have the parts in place and we should be smiling this year and enjoying this."