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Valparaiso shakes off growing pains
Let’s be realistic. You don’t go from 1-10 to a Pioneer Football League championship in one year.
Valparaiso’s Crusaders took some baby steps in coach Dale Carlson’s second season, but nobody’s pounding their chests and making boastful promises about the future.
Progress has been painfully slow, which makes me wonder how Carlson can spin straw into gold for players going through 15 spring practices.
Seeing the glass as half-full isn’t easy for a team that was outscored by an average of 45-16, but Carlson is reminding his troopers that those numbers improved to a respectable 30-22 in the last three games, which included a 34-31 upset of a contending Campbell team.
Signs of life in November morphed into April workouts, which focused on developing consistency. That’s coming on both sides of the ball, which is encouraging.
“It’s been a good spring, not one dominated by one side or another,” said Carlson, who is back in the saddle after a bout with vertigo last week.
A significant increase in manpower should jump-start Valparaiso’s mini-renaissance. A year ago Carlson nursed only 48 players through spring practice. Now he’s grooming 72 for combat.
“Our numbers are up, but we’re still not there,” said Carlson, who wants 80-plus Crusaders eventually suiting up.
Currently missing are running backs Jabril Baker, who sat out last season with an injury, and Gabe Ali-El, who led VU in rushing and receptions (35). A torn tendon in a finger which required minor surgery shelved Ali-El. Both should be primed and pumped in time for St. Joseph’s nocturnal visit to VU on Thursday, Aug. 27.
In their absence, freshman-redshirt Jake Hutson shaked and baked Saturday with dazzling runs of 40, 29 and 11 yards in VU’s next-to-last scrimmage.
“We’re in pretty good shape with our running backs,” said Carlson, deep enough at that station to switch Dale Cook from offense to the secondary.
Valparaiso’s top three receivers return and Kent Warren is adding his 6-4, 210-pound frame to the mix, having been converted from tight end to wide receiver. Quarterbacks Eric Hoffman, Ben Lehman and Quinn Schafer, who received equal reps in scrimmage, present experienced arms.
Last season Hoffman introduced himself by passing for 2,302 yards and 13 touchdowns. Lehman and Schafer also gained experience, but Hoffman’s 60 percent completion percentage gives him the inside track.
“Eric’s the incumbent, but Schafer has stepped up his game and Lehman got some reps as a freshman,” said Carlson, who’s pushing those competitive buttons. That’s a nice situation, not a huge dropoff from 1-to-3.”
As usual depth remains an issue. Only 28 to 30, who will be in his two-deeps, can be considered game-worthy. Hopefully that will increase before the season opener, but not having capable backups means one or two injuries can wreck a season. Example: in 2009 VU’s ground game disappeared when powerful running back Ross Wiemer suffered an early season-ending ankle injury.
Undoubtedly the Crusaders will be picked to bring up the rear in the preseason PFL poll. To change that negative Carlson is targeting “could-have” victories.
“Your goal is always to win conference championships,” he said. “But our next step is winning could-haves. Last year we had some of those, especially in the second half of the season.”
One in particular that jumps out was a season-ending 30-22 loss at Davidson. In that one the Crusaders led 14-10 before giving up a game-changing touchdown in the closing minute of the first half.
Carlson is counting on senior leadership to keep the Crusaders focused on reviving the non-scholarship program. Cornerback Alan Porter and wideout Eric Slenk, both seniors, understand the need to put the pedal to metal. They view the coming season with a sense of urgency.
“I’m the old man,” said Porter, grinning. “We’ve got a lot of new faces, freshmen coming up. It’s all about fighting for wins, wanting it.”
His highlights include 60 solo tackles in the last two years and a 61-yard return on an interception against Franklin.
“I need to step up,” he said. “Everybody has to be on the same page for the university and for us.”
Slenk missed two games last season with a concussion, but still caught 23 passes.
“We have two senior wideouts and a bunch of underclassmen,” he said. “That’s pretty much the case with the team as a whole, but my expectations are real high.”
During the off-season, Carlson added Tyson Silveus and Alex Bailey to his coaching staff.
Slenk is impressed with Bailey, who is tuning up the wideouts. He was enticed from league rival Dayton, which won the PFL title in 2010 with his help.
“Alex brings some of the things that made Dayton a power,” said Carlson. “He’ll impact what we’re doing.”
Silveus and Carlson renew a relationship that dates back to his eight years (1995-2002) at Tri-State.
“Tyson was the coach at Angola High School when I was at Tri-State,” he said. “He used to come over to our practices all the time and I knew I would attempt to hire him at some point.”
Silveus spent the previous five years at Northwood University, where he served as offensive and defensive coordinator. At VU he’s working with special teams and the secondary. His student background includes one year of football (1992) at Valparaiso. After an injury cut short his career. Silveus transferred to Purdue.
With all the additions a realistic goal might be a .500 season without any blowout losses. Is that asking too much?
By John Mutka, Post-Tribune