MARQUETTE - At the end of 2012, no position looked stronger or more experienced for the Northern Michigan University football team than wide receiver.
However, with a week remaining until the regular season opener against Findlay (Ohio) at noon Saturday inside the Superior Dome, senior quarterback Cody Scepaniak is looking at a nearly new cast of characters split out on either end.
"It took a couple of days, the new guys were a little rough, but they've really come along," Scepaniak said. "They're fast. The speed the new guys have is just unbelievable. Even the (second unit) is so fast and physical.
Northern Michigan University wide receiver Christian Jessie catches a pass during route drills during an Aug. 20 practice outside the Superior Dome. (Journal file photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
"We're really excited about that."
Three of Scepaniak's top five targets in 2012 are back on the roster in 2013, but those three aren't all healthy.
Julian Gaines, at 6-foot-6, 198-pounds, has been on the sidelines in warmups throughout all of training camp after leading the team in receptions last year. He finished with 33 grabs in seven games for 380 yards and just one touchdown.
Gaines missed the final four games of 2012 with an upper body injury and it has kept him out of action again.
"Julian is a growing player," NMU wide receivers coach Marcus Knight said. "Last year, he was developing into someone that we were hoping would become a dominant receiver in this league. He got hurt in the season and it didn't work out that way.
"He's come back, he's working hard and when he gets back on the field, I think he's a young man that's going to do a lot of big things for us."
While Gaines led the Wildcats in receptions, it was senior Christian Jessie who led NMU in reception yards (501) and receiving touchdowns (six) in 2012.
With veterans such as Christian Marble-King and Sterling Darling not back with the team in 2012, and Gaines sidelined for the time being, Jessie said he understands his role as a leader in a young receiving group.
"We lost a few guys from last year, so I'm really the main guy with the most experience," Jessie said. "They're going to be looking to me to make some big plays and teach the younger guys how to get stuff done."
After Jessie, only junior Kelvin Smart (16 catches, 144 yards, one TD in 2012), sophomore Austin Young (9-62), Terrance Dye (6-59) and Trey Hipke (2-23) bring experience back at wide receiver from 2012.
In addition, NMU added transfers Aaron Brown out of Central Michigan and Ahmad Bush out of Maine.
Bush, at 6-1, 222 pounds, is one of the new players Scepaniak said he has developed early chemistry with.
"Ahmad is more thick and solid," Scepaniak said. "You have to go through him to get the ball."
Young has proven to be as versatile of a player as Jessie, having lined up at running back last year and having been an all-state quarterback at Escanaba.
Knight has given Young the title of "Mr. Consistency", not just for what he does on the field, but off it.
"Austin is a great kid," Knight said. "I say Mr. Consistency and that's not just talking about on the football field. That's talking attitude-wise. That's talking the way his work ethic goes.
"He's a young man that stays the same. He's been great ever since he's been in this program."