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Column: Ostrowsky’s boldest preseason move not at QB, but on special teams

August 30, 2012
By MATT WELLENS - Journal Sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

Going into the 2012 Northern Michigan University football season, it's easy to fixate on the decision by head coach Chris Ostrowsky to go with redshirt freshman Ryan Morley over senior Cody Scepaniak as the team's quarterback.

I've been just as guilty as anyone focusing stories, blogs, podcasts and tweet after tweet after tweet - with a few Instagram pictures of my dog, Roxie, mixed in - about the battle and eventual decision.

The boldest, riskiest move made in August, however, by Ostrowsky had nothing to do with the man taking the snaps on offense this season.

Article Photos

Northern Michigan University free safety Brandon Parson is one of the many veteran starters head coach Chris Ostrowsky will be playing on special teams this season. Parson will return punts and kicks. (Journal file photo by Adelle Whitefoot)

It's about who would play on special teams.

Ostrowsky will not only throw offensive and defensive starters onto the field for punts, kick off and field goals, but some of the best players he has wearing green and gold.

When breaking down the special teams a week ago, Ostrowsky turned the tables on me and threw a question my way, asking why not?

"It's a play in a football game," Ostrowsky said. "If we felt like special teams wasn't as important as offense or defense, then it's a risk. If it's equally important as third and 3, than why am I playing them on third and 3?"

Ostrowsky must take a different approach than last season to special teams after what happened last season. While 2011 senior quarterback Carter Kopach was less than stellar last season with his 18 interceptions and tendency to scramble for yards more often than he should have, special teams killed the 'Cats momentum.

It was the NMU special teams that turned a 3-0 football team into a 3-3 squad whose season spiraled out of control.

It started during 45-16 loss at Ashland when the Eagles blocked a punt in the third quarter and recovered the ball in the end zone, turning a tight 11-point game into a three-score contest.

Northern's biggest special teams debacle came against the eventual NCAA Division II national runners up in a 30-28 loss to Wayne State the following week at the Superior Dome for Homecoming.

The Wildcats allowed the Warriors to return the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. Later in the first half, NMU completely botched a fake punt attempt on its own 37-yard line, leading to an easy scoring drive by WSU that put NMU down 24-0.

Wayne State could only muster a pair of field goals the rest of the day while Kopach threw four touchdown passes that would have led to a victory if not for the special-team blunders.

The following week, Grand Valley State handed Northern the third of five straight losses the following week in Marquette, 42-7, by blocking a Rockne Belmonte field goal and recovering a botched NMU punt return.

All of those blunders came with Northern's second- and third-unit players on the field, which is common in college and professional football. With bodies flying across the field as even faster speeds on special teams than say a draw play up the middle, teams hold back their star players in order to avoid injury.

It's why you rarely see starting receivers, running backs or defensive backs returning kicks and punts, even when they are the fastest and most elusive player on the team.

After last season's debacles, however, Ostrowsky has no choice but to throw starters like senior linebacker Eddie Knoblock, senior defensive tackle Zach Anderson, senior offensive tackle Jace Daniels, junior free safety Brandon Parson and sophomore wide receiver Julian Gaines out on punts, kick offs and field goals this season.

Don't be surprised if senior backup quarterback Cody Scepaniak is doing more than just holding the ball on field goals as well.

"Everyone who is on the field is the best one," Ostrowsky said breaking down special teams a week ago.

"That's the best we got. There's going to be a pretty good understanding of how important special teams are."

Ostrowsky is taking a huge risk by playing not only starters, but all-conference and potential all-American standouts whose injury could break this season.

It would be an even bigger risk, though, to trot second- and third-string players out on the field again hoping they don't allow Belmonte to have punts and kicks blocked right back in his face - I don't think we'll see any looney fake punts this season called by Ostrowsky.

The Wildcats face the toughest schedule in the country on paper, even with Division III Wisconsin-La Crosse visiting Marquette next week. A winning season against the best the GLIAC has to offer will be a tall task with a quarterback who has never taken a collegiate snap.

It would be impossible with a special teams unit that embarrassed itself at times last year.

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.



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