MARQUETTE - The Northern Michigan University football program will welcome 13 new defensive recruits come August when it opens training camp in anticipation of the 2013 season.
Having lost a number of key defensive components from the 2012 squad, chances are a few of those freshmen and transfers will vie for starting jobs.
Winning those jobs won't be easy, however, especially after the spring put together by NMU's returnees.
Northern Michigan University defensive backs Brock Reynolds, back left, and Derek Beltrame of Ishpeming, left, tackle running back Wyatt Jurasin out of Ishpeming High School, center, during an April 8 spring practice inside the Superior Dome. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
"We have a lot of your guys who are really coming along, some pleasant surprises," said Brian Newberry, NMU's second-year defensive coordinator.
"I think we're building on what we did that last five games in the fall and we've got a ton of guys back. Those guys have confidence now and they think they can compete with anybody. They're getting better."
After finishing 2012 ranked 12th out of 16 teams in the GLIAC last year in four different defensive categories - overall, scoring, rushing and passing - the Wildcats have put together a spring season that has left Newberry, head coach Chris Ostrowsky and the rest of the coaching staff with a great deal of confidence going into 2013.
NMU Spring Football 2013:
- Friday: NMU football team lift-a-thon, 6 p.m., Vandament Arena
- Saturday: Spring Football Game, 3:30 p.m., with Warm-up wit
Despite not playing with any of the 13 new recruits yet, Northern has improved defensively from within over the last four weeks leading up to the 3:30 p.m. Saturday spring football game inside the Superior Dome.
According to Newberry, the defense is much further along than is was a year ago and the mistakes of 2012 are being rectified.
"We've improved significantly," Newberry said. "The things that we weren't good at in the fall, we've really emphasized this spring. I think we've gotten better at those things. We've tracked them, we've emphasized them, we've drilled them. We've improved. Our goal going into the spring was to get a little bit better every day. With the exception of maybe one practice, we've done that."
Newberry's defense shined particularly bright during an afternoon scrimmage inside the Superior Dome on April 5, holding the first-team offense - led by senior quarterback Cody Scepaniak - and second-team offense - led by transfer QB Dustin Thomas - to nothing but three-and-outs early.
Corner blitzes eventually forced both Scepaniak and Thomas to throw interceptions and both QBs were unofficially sacked a combined six times, at least.
Those kinds of results continued Wednesday inside the Dome during the team's final padded practice prior to Saturday's intrasquad game.
That's fine for Ostrowsky, who not only wants to see his defense improve, but test his offense to the max as well.
"Our defense is articulate," Ostrwosky said. "It's sometimes very hard to decipher who is coming and when they are coming. It's been great for our offense to see that.
"It's been awesome to see (the defense) execute and be physical."
NMU's final weekend of spring football begins at 6 p.m. on Friday at Vandament Arena with a lift-a-thon.
Saturday's festivities begin at 1:45 p.m. as fans ages 5-13 can warm up with the Wildcats before the game in an instructional mini camp with players and staff. Participants will receive a 2013 schedule poster that can be signed by players after the game.
The offense will battle the defense in four 15-minute running-clock quarters with the pep band, dance teams and 1965-72 NMU football reunion members a part of halftime.
"We've gotten a lot of football plays in and we have evaluated a lot of film and I think it's been a successful spring," Ostrowsky said.
"We want guys to have fun. That's what I want to accomplish. I want guys that truly love to play college football and are having fun."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens