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Second-year head coach Kevin Doherty leads the Muskies into the debut season of football in the Northern Athletics Conference, one season after capturing a share of the Illini-Badger Football Conference title with Concordia (Wis.) by posting a 6-1 league record and finishing 6-4 overall. The championship marked the third time in the past four seasons that
The Muskies, projected to finish second in the 2008 NAC preseason coaches' poll, return 11 all-conference honorees from a year ago and expect to retain their place atop the league standings.
The biggest question mark will be at quarterback, where senior co-captain Billy Hughes (
"Billy has looked pretty good so far in camp and has really improved as a quarterback," Doherty said. "His throwing motion has improved, he is throwing a better ball and his arm strength, on the whole, looks to have increased significantly."
Sophomore Jake Dworak (
A pair of underclassmen will handle the majority of duties at running back for the Muskies. Ben Lombardi (Whitewater) appeared in nine games at tailback in 2007, netting 276 yards on the ground for an average of 4.3 yards per carry.
"Ben is a very capable player," Doherty said. "He has excellent perimeter speed and has gotten stronger in the off-season."
Freshman Jeremy Williams (
Freshman Ben Duenas has tremendous upside and will also get a look at the position.
At fullback, senior Brent Woodruff, an honorable mention All-IBFC selection from a year ago, will see the majority of snaps to begin the season. A
"Brent catches the ball very well out of the backfield so he has some talent as a receiver," Doherty said. "As a runner, he is very good at pushing his momentum ahead and falling forward."
Junior Blaine Hornes (
Despite the loss of MacArthur White, who graduated as
Senior co-captain Matt Pawlyk returns as a first-team all-conference selection from 2007. Pawlyk, a native of Marinette, was the Muskies' second-leading receiver with 360 yards and five touchdowns last season. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, Pawlyk will use his size and underrated speed to break down opposing secondaries.
"Matt is a go-to guy for us, a big target who has deceivingly good speed," Doherty said. "He is one of our best players, not just on offense, but on the team as well."
Junior Jake Heinemeyer (Shiocton), another co-captain, was second on the team in receiving yards and was a huge threat in the punt return game. A second-team All-IBFC honoree, the coaches believe Heinemeyer could play three or more positions due to his superior athleticism and energy.
"Jake is probably the top athlete not only on the football team, but at the entire school," Doherty said. "He is very polished and can be a major force on the offensive side of the ball as well as special teams."
Senior Paul Smith (
At tight end, sophomore Traves Robinson-Worthington (
"Traves has been kind of bothered by a hamstring injury here in camp, but he'll be 100 percent very soon," Doherty said. "He is in the mold of a Shannon Sharpe - he can block well and has very good speed."
Sophomore Tyree Curry (
With three all-conference starters gone from the interior offensive line, Doherty is looking to find able replacements at the center and two guard positions.
So far, he sees two leading candidates for the three spots. One of them, junior center Tom Baehnk (
Both tackles saw extensive playing time last season. Junior Ben Stellmacher (
With eight of 11 starters returning, the
"We're dominated by upperclassmen on our defense, so our players know what's going on, it's not new to them," Doherty said. "I am very excited about the style of defense that our kids play, their intensity and their enthusiasm. That goes along with having good skill and makes for a good defense."
The linebacker corps, which defensive coordinator Colin Bruton believes is the deepest position on the team, will be critical to its success. A trio of four-year senior starters, also the team's top three tacklers from a year ago, will provide a vast quantity of experience and savvy to this talented defense.
The team's finest defensive player is senior middle linebacker John Wagner. A Kewaunee native, Wagner is a two-time all-North Region third team honoree by D3football.com. He was also named the IBFC's Outstanding Linebacker last season, leading the conference in tackles. There is no reason to believe anything will stop Wagner, one of the team's five captains, from having another fantastic season.
"John has excellent quickness and a nose for the ball," Bruton said. "He is a very intense player - probably the most intense player I've ever coached."
Senior co-captain Brent Miller (Menasha) also looks to lead the defense. A second-team All-IBFC selection last season, Miller is a leader who will help align the defense on each possession.
"Miller is a very smart player, very heady, and does a good job of being a leader out there, keeping things calm," Bruton said.
Stephan Johnson, another senior and four-year starter, will play as an outside linebacker that will rush the passer in the team's 3-4 defensive alignment. The
"He's probably our most explosive player and a guy who really, the sky's the limit for what he can accomplish this year, as a pass rusher and an overall linebacker," Bruton said.
Junior Jamie Schramm (
On the defensive line, senior nose tackle Matt Stuebs (Two Rivers) will set the tone for an experienced unit. Stuebs will be expected to be a run-stopper and space-eater for a relatively undersized unit.
Senior Mike Nerat (Menominee,
"He's a guy that's very good both against the run and in passing situations," Bruton said of Nerat. "He's definitely a high-motor guy, a senior, one of the leaders down there."
After missing last season, junior Gary Clark (
In the defensive secondary, sophomore cornerback Keith Woodson (
"I believe Keith has the potential to be the best corner in the conference," Bruton said. "He played last year as a part-time starter, and really probably could have been a full-time starter … he has great athletic ability, but this year he's learned to develop a work ethic and just become a better all-around player."
Sophomore Randy Hamm (
Senior Justin Medard, who hails from
"He's a very physical player, very good against the run, and even though he's only about 165 pounds, he's probably one of our best hitters on the team," Bruton said. "He should really be a big-time playmaker for us this year."
At the other safety, the Muskies look to replace Josh Schramm, a first-team all-conference player from a year ago. Bruton has plugged in junior Isiah Calhoun (
"We expect him to be a centerfielder back there, just to kind of roam, make plays, just be an overall athlete," Bruton said.
The young secondary rotation is rounded out by sophomores Joey O'Brien (
The Muskies return a solid core of special teams players and will not see much change in the kicking or return game.
Hughes will handle punting and kicking duties for
The return game will be anchored by Heinemeyer. He finished seventh in the nation last season with 374 punt return yards. He also notched two touchdowns and 191 yards on kick returns.
The Muskies open their 2008 campaign with a challenging non-conference slate. On Sept. 6,
"If things go the way we want to and we make the playoffs, that's the caliber of team we're going to have to get used to playing in the first round," Doherty said. "It's a great test for where we're at and a great test to give us an early peek at what a playoff-caliber team would be like."
The Muskies' home opener is Sept. 13 against the
Following a bye week,
The winner of the NAC regular season title will receive an automatic berth to the 2008 NCAA Division III Championship Tournament.