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The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Lakeland College football team saw a major change when camp started this August with a brand new coaching staff, led by first-year head coach Kevin Doherty. But one thing that isn't as new is the faces of many players, as the Muskies welcome back 13 of 19 all-Illini-Badger Football Conference honorees from last fall.
The Muskies were picked third in the IBFC preseason coaches' poll after a 5-5 finish last season, 5-2 in the IBFC good for a second-place tie.
Senior Brad Wilk (Roselle, Ill./ Lake Park) will pilot the Muskies at quarterback. Wilk was an all-IBFC first team selection last season as he led to the conference in passing (174.2 yards per game) and total offense (189.5 yards per game) and threw 16 touchdown passes. He was named to the IBFC coaches' Preseason Top 10 Players to Watch list this fall.
"He's a great student of the game," said Doherty. "He has good football savvy and understands how the college football game is played. He is doing a great job and I don't expect anything but improvement game-to-game with him."
Wilk will be protected by an offensive line that features a mix of veterans and newcomers.
The line is anchored by senior offensive guard Joe Puhl (Ontonagon, Mich. /Ontonagon), an all-IBFC honoree as a sophomore and first team selection last season. Senior Tom Kelly (Oak Lawn, Ill./Harold L. Richards) returns at center position, and senior Josh LaBelle (Negaunee, Mich./Negaunee) will start at the other guard after spending three seasons as a starting defensive lineman.
"I really like our three seniors at guard, center, guard," said Doherty. "I really like how they look right now."
At tackle, the Muskies will be filling some holes left by seniors last season.
"We have some good prospects: freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors that we are replacing for guys that graduated," Doherty said. "Right now we have a nice battle going for the starting positions."
Junior Brent Woodruff (Logansport, Ind./Logansport), an all-IBFC honorable mention last season, is back at running back.
"He has a lot of starting experience and he's very physical," said Doherty." He can catch the ball a little bit, has good athleticism. He plays with a very hard-nosed, blue-collar mentality."
Senior Paul Resop (Appleton, Wis./Appleton West) will return to the offensive backfield at tailback after playing linebacker last year.
"He played running back his sophomore year," said Doherty. "He really looks good. He came into camp in great shape. He's running the ball good, has great vision, puts the shoulder down and knows how to run the football."
Freshman Ben Lombardi (Whitewater, Wis./Mukwonago) will back up Resop.
The Muskies have a lot depth in the wide receiver department with four quality wide receivers that offer a mix of athleticism, size and strength.
Leading the group is MacArthur White (Zion, Ill./Zion Benton), an honorable mention All-Region North honoree a year ago who was also the co-IBFC Receiver of the Year and first team all-conference. He was picked No. 1 on the IBFC coaches' Preseason Top 10 Players to Watch list.
White led the league in receptions and receiving yards per game, averaging 5.7 receptions for an average of 73.8 yards per game last season. He was also fourth in the conference in all-purpose yards, averaging 103.3 per game. White, who was honorable mention all-IBFC his sophomore season, also earned IBFC Offensive Player of the Week honors once last season.
"MacArthur White is probably the best athlete on the field," said Doherty. "He's a special athlete, works hard and is a good leader."
Also returning is sophomore Isiah Calhoun (Pontiac, Mich./Pontiac Central), who started last year as a freshman.
"He's still learning, but he's still really good," said Doherty. "That's what scary about Isiah, and he's only going to get better. He's got great skill and he's doing a good job."
Junior Matt Pawlyk (Marinette, Wis./Marinette) is expected to see a lot more playing time at wide receiver this fall, and sophomore Jake Heinemeyer (Shiocton, Wis./Shiocton), who is competing at back-up QB, is also in the mix at the receiver spot.
"Matt worked his butt off in the off season and put a little weight on muscular wise," said Doherty. "He runs good routes. At 6-foot-5 he's a great target so he can get the ball.
"Jacob is going to be on the field in some capacity. He's our starting kick and punt returner, an outstanding athlete who has great skill."
Losing just two starters from a year ago, the Muskies' defense returns a wealth of experience and talent.
"I'm really excited from the head coaching standpoint that we have more defensive players than offensive players," said Doherty. "Sometimes it's hard to coach because our defense plays with so much emotion. We're out here in a lot of space and it echoes quite a bit, so sometimes it's hard to communicate with offense because our defense is so emotional and so loud. "
"They really run to the football well as a team," added Doherty. "They're strong and physical and still getting in shape. They are relentless and just love to get the ball. If we can create some turnovers, our defense is going to be giving some opposing offenses some problems."
The linebackers, one of the deepest positions on the team, are led by junior John Wagner (Kewaunee, Wis./Kewaunee). A member of the IBFC Preseason Top 10 Players to Watch, Wagner was a third team All-Region North honoree a year ago and a first team All-IBFC honoree. Wagner was second in the conference in tackles averaging 10.8 per game and second in sacks with nine. He grabbed two fumble recoveries and registered 10 tackles for a loss.
"He's only a junior, but he's a captain and he's a leader that gets everyone going," said first-year Lakeland defensive coordinator Colin Bruton. "He's going to be a leader, call the defense and we expect huge things from him this year."
Junior Stephan Johnson (Evanston, Ill./Evanston Township) has moved from the defensive line to outside linebacker this fall. He was an honorable mention All-Region North defensive lineman last year and an all-IBFC first team honoree that finished second in the conference in sacks with nine and second in the conference in tackles for a loss (1.55 TFL per game).
"At outside linebacker, Steph is a freak of an athlete," said Bruton. "He's going to be a pass-rush guy and drop-back linebacker as well. He's going to be hard for offenses to deal with because you really can't have anyone block him. We're going to use his speed, athletic ability and real strength."
Senior Phil Sims (Kansas City, Kan./Sumner Academy), an All-IBFC second team honoree last season, is another key returnee at linebacker.
"He's a little older and has some experience," said Bruton. "He leads by example, and I'm expecting big things out of him as a senior. "
Junior Brent Miller (Menasha, Wis./Menasha) is another returning two-year starter at linebacker, an all-IBFC honorable mention pick last season.
"He is a very solid, intelligent player," said Bruton. "I expect him to move inside this year and expect big things from him."
Senior Craig Van Dera (Kaukauna, Wis./Freedom) and sophomore Jamie Schramm (Cuba City, Wis./Cuba City) add depth to the linebacker corps.
On the defensive front, junior Matt Stuebs (Two Rivers, Wis./Two Rivers), who blocked a pair of kicks last season, will be the big body inside for the Muskies.
"He's tough to block and has looked really good in camp," said Bruton.
Senior Kevin Hildebrand (Lemont, Ill./Lemont) and junior Mike Nerat (Menominee, Mich./Menominee) will also be key players on the defensive line.
In the defensive secondary, the Muskies will look to sophomore Jake Schnetzer (Menasha, Wis./Menasha) and redshirt freshman Keith Woodson (Evanston, Ill./Evanston Township), a transfer from St. Francis, at cornerback.
"Woodson is showing a lot of athletic ability," Bruton said. "Schnetzer started last year as a freshman and has been the most impressive defensive player so far. He's in great shape and is a great lockdown corner for us. He is becoming a leader in the secondary for us."
Senior Josh Schramm (Cuba City, Wis./Cuba City) will continue to play the safety position for the Muskies. As a sophomore, Schramm earned all-IBFC second team honors, and last season he led the team with five pass break-ups.
"Josh is a three-year starter and a veteran leader for us back there," said Bruton. "He doesn't look like the most athletic kid, but he's always in the right spot and knows how to play the game. He is heady and brings a good deal of experience as a 30-game starter. "
Senior Cleveland Pierce (Zion, Ill./Zion Benton) gives Lakeland additional depth and experience at safety, and senior defensive backs Kempton Freeman (St. Louis, Mo./Soldan) and Ahkeim McKnight (Pontiac, Mich./Pontiac Central) also help make the secondary one of Lakeland's deepest spots.
The face of the Muskies special teams will remain relatively the same with a group of familiar races returning. The Muskies will join the rest of the country in adjusting to a new rule that moves the kick-off back five yards to the 30 yard line.
Junior Billy Hughes (Brooksville, Fla./Nature Coast Tech), an all-IBFC second team punter last season, returns as the starting punter and kicker. Sophomore Nic Horstmeier (Random Lake, Wis./Random Lake) will remain in the mix again this season as well.
"Our punter has to be the second most valued player because field position is the name of the game. I feel really good about them," Doherty said.
The return game is led by Heinemeyer, an all-IBFC second team returner as a freshman.
"He is going to continue to be a punt and kick returner along with White, who is the fastest guy on our team," said Doherty.
The Muskies will face a tough schedule which includes a Sept. 1 season opener at home against UW-Whitewater (the nation's No. 2-ranked team), four straight road games and some other challenging non-conference opponents.
"We start out against the No. 2 team in the nation," Doherty said. "It'll be a great test to see where we're at as a team, and not just physically. Everyone talks about physicality in college football, but I want to know where we are mentally. This team has played Whitewater the last few years. A lot of expectations are on them to see how they handle this game.
"If things don't go our way against the No. 2 team in the nation, I want to see how we respond. I don't worry about the physical part, I worry about discipline, mental attitude and how we handle adversity and decision making."
After the opening, Lakeland hits the road for four straight weeks, including non-league dates at Carthage and UW-Oshkosh and conference games at Greenville and Benedictine. Oshkosh is picked third in the always-tough state league, and Greenville was tabbed second in the IBFC Coaches poll.
The Muskies will play four of their final five regular-season games at home, beginning with an Oct. 6 date against Eureka for Homecoming. Lakeland heads to Mequon for the annual Cheese Bowl against the defending conference champion Concordia University, Wis., on Oct. 20.
One big date in Doherty's mind is the Nov. 3 matchup against Aurora on Senior Day. Doherty is a 1995 Aurora graduate, a former QB for the Spartans and the program's offensive coordinator for the past four seasons.
"That one is a special one," said Doherty. "It's not about me, though, and how I want to beat a certain team. It is the last game of the regular season."