MARQUETTE - The Northern Michigan University football team will begin four weeks of practices and scrimmages at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday outside the Superior Dome - weather permitting - leading up to the Sept. 14 regular season opener against Findlay in Marquette.
Over the course of those 28 days, chances are high second-year head coach Chris Ostrowsky will spend just as much time, if not more, coaching up the defense as opposed to working full-time in his natural habitat with the offense, specifically the quarterbacks.
NMU will have two young coaches overseeing his defense this season in first-year defensive coordinator Joe Ballard and second-year assistant Joe Coniglio, but Ostrowsky said he's confident in what those two will bring this season.
Northern Michigan Quarterback Cody Scepaniak (12) runs upfield against Grand Valley State on Oct. 13, 2012, inside the Superior Dome in Marquette. Scepaniak is one of the few Wildcats to have locked up a starting role this fall heading into he preseason with players battling for starting spots on the offensive line, at wide receiver and at running back. NMU will hold its first preseason practice at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday outside the Superior Dome. (Journal file photo by Zach Jay)
Ostrowsky's new-found inkling to join in on defensive drills has nothing to do with his coaches in fact, but with a fresh mind set and perspective after his first season as a head college football coach.
"When you win games 13-6, you know you are going to win championships. When you win games 38-35, you better hold on every week," Ostrowsky said at the end of last season after finishing 4-7 overall, but 3-2 in his last five games. "I didn't think that as an offensive coordinator, but as a head coach, I'll take the 12-9 win before I take the 38-35 win any day of the week."
Saturday's first practice won't be the start of a defensive turnaround for Northern, but the continuation of a spring season that saw a typically potent Wildcat offense get bested by its teammates on the other side of the ball.
The NMU football team reports to campus on Friday with the first official practice of the 2013 fall season scheduled to run from 3:45-5:45 p.m. on Saturday outside the Superior Dome, weather permitting.
That improvement shown by the defense over the offseason is why Ostrowsky promoted Ballard, who has served as an NMU assistant the past six seasons, to replace the NCAA Division I-bound Brian Newberry as defensive coordinator. Ballard will also coach the defensive backs while Coniglio, will coordinate the run defense.
Ostrowsky said he doesn't expect much to change schematically with the defense, though it will get a bit simpler, faster and more aggressive under Ballard and Coniglio.
"On defense, we're going to emphasize running to the football and being good tacklers," Ostrowsky said. "I think when you do that, you're successful.
"You can scheme with the best of them, but you got to run to the football and you have to tackle. As the head coach, that is something I will consistently look at every day when we evaluate film. Do I see 11 hats at the ball, and are we tackling?"
The offensive side of the ball will feature a number of players not only battling for a seat on the buses as part of the travel squad, but for starting roles as well - expect at quarterback where senior Cody Scepaniak has wrapped up the No. 1 spot.
At receiver, Ostrowsky said he has 10 receivers battling for eight spots on the bus while on the offensive line, eight guys are battling for five starting roles, including the one vacated by current Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie center Jace Daniels of Escanaba.
The most competitive battle on offense could come at running back, according to Ostrowsky, as three players - maybe more - battle for the title of feature back.
After going through six different running backs last season due to injuries and suspensions, Ostrowsky knows the value of having plenty of ball carriers.
"It's a talented group, no question about it," Ostrowsky said. "When you look at a successful football program, there's never just one (running back). That's a pound it out position. That's a place where you just get pounded. It's one of those deals where you better have more than one."