Healthy Wildcats looking forward to 2016 campaign


Wayne State football coach Dan McLaughlin has had to deal with more than his share of injured players the past couple of seasons, which is why he’s hopeful that this year’s Wildcat team will be more successful than last year’s 4-7 record showed.
Key injuries last year put a damper on what was an optimistic outcome in 2015, but the 12th-year Wildcat mentor said he’s looking forward to seeing what a healthy Wayne State team can do this season.
“I know we’ve had a couple of poor years in terms of wins and losses, but I think injuries have been a huge factor in that,” he said. “People who know who we have had on our rosters know that we weren’t shooting our guns with a full set of bullets the last couple of years, and I’m hopeful that ugly specter doesn’t raise its head again. I hope we can keep our kids healthy, and if we do that I think we’ve got a great shot.”
Nowhere is staying healthy more important than it is at quarterback, and that was made evident last year when Zach Osborn suffered a season-ending broken thumb on his throwing hand in the first series of the second game against Minnesota Duluth last year.
The injury quashed what was looking to be a breakout season for the junior, but a medical redshirt and a clean bill of health has the Harlan, Iowa native looking forward to this season.
“Coming off surgery you always have some doubts, but they did a good job over there at (Dakota) Dunes and rehab went well, and it’s probably better than it was the start of last season,” Osborn said. “I think we have an opportunity to be a lot more balanced than we were. Our passing game can set up our running game and our running game can set up the passing game, so they work hand-in-hand and I think we have a chance to have a really balanced attack.”
Osborn isn’t the only “wounded warrior” who is returning to the Wayne State lineup. In fact, several key players are among those who missed some or all of last season, which has McLaughlin excited.
“Nate Rogers started as a freshman and sat out last year because of academics, and he’s had a tremendous fall so far,” he said. “Ryan Porter sat out last year because of injuries and he’s back and doing an outstanding job on the offensive line, Rashad Tremble started as a freshman at running back and had ankle surgery and was out a couple years and he’s back, Logan Weinandt is coming off an injury at defensive end and is back. We have a lot of kids that you may have forgotten about because of injuries who are back, so there’s a lot of reason for optimism.”
In all, seven starters return on offense and six on defense. Osborn and NSIC South Division first-team selection Shane Finley (offensive line) lead the returners on offense, while Weinandt and linebacker Dewayne Scott are back in the fold as well.
Wayne State’s biggest concern on offense will be replacing Ryan Ludlow, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored seven touchdowns last year. Trimble and junior Alex Kline are both expected to carry the load at running back, while sophomore Nick Arlt and freshman Isaiah Otis could also see time. Houston Huss also returns at fullback.
Marcel Dunson is the top receiver back for the Wildcats after scoring six touchdowns and recording 544 yards in 45 receptions. Nick Roth and Jacob Hjorth also bring their experience back at receiver this year as well, and Shymere Williams, Sam Wegner and Zach Glidden could also be potential targets for Osborn and backup quarterback Taylor Reedy, who started in place of Osborn for much of the season last year.
Keaton Slaughter returns at tight end for the Wildcats, backed by M.J. Blankenfeld and Laurel native Justin Saunders, who moves to the position from outside linebacker.
On the line, Finley is joined by Mike Milenkovich and Kevin Camacho as returning starters. Porter and Matt Doeschot look to be key players on the line, along with Tyler Garrett, Austin Pelc, Jayle Hinkle, Michael Bentley and Marquise Jones.
Defensively, Weinandt is one of the WIldcats’ players to watch in the NSIC this season at defensive end. He will be joined by senior Jarrod Bazata, with Kory Fitch, Richard  Stevenson and Ryand Bryan also looking to make their mark at defensive end.
DaQuan Samuel and Jonathan Bland look to be the leaders at defensive tackle, with Trevor Carstens, Austin Gubbels and Justin Pleasont pushing for playing time. Key players to watch at linebacker include DeWayne Scott and Christian campos in the middle, Taylor Hoffman, Emeka Etta and Kolbie Foster at the Sam position, and Tyler Thomsen and Cody Eischeid at the Will linebacker spot.
Most of the defensive secondary returns for the Wildcats, including Cam Montgomery at strong safety and Tyri Bethea and Jamaal Conway-Smith at cornerback. Players like Nick DeBuhr, Ian Ailts, Corbin Foster and Kevin Ranson also should see time in the defensive backfield.
The Wildcats open on the road with a Thursday night game at MSU Moorhead on Sept. 1, and play their home opener on Sept. 10 against Minot State. McLaughlin said it will be important to get off on the right foot, especially with four games against preseason-ranked opponents this season.
“Morehead is vastly improved, so we’re certainly not going to overlook them,” he said. “I think our conference is the toughest in Div. II, so we’ll need to be prepared every week, but if you can’t win those first couple the season can get tough, so right now our focus is on Morehead.”