Only up from here: Northern Michigan University football team looks to turn corner for head coach Kyle Nystrom in Year 2

Northern Michigan University’s Jake Mayon, left, runs with the ball as Northwood’s Justin Cook closes in for a tackle during their game played Nov. 11 at the Superior Dome in Marquette. (Journal file photo by Corey Kelly)

MARQUETTE — To be relevant again.

That is what Northern Michigan University head coach Kyle Nystrom said during Tuesday’s media conference when asked what his team’s goal was this year.

The good thing for the Wildcats is that they have nowhere to go but up. Last season was Nystrom’s first year at the helm after taking over for the fired Chris Ostrowsky.

NMU finished 1-9 overall and 1-8 in the GLIAC, but made progress over the course of the season with their last two losses by three points or less.

“We had a lot of stuff to fix,” Nystrom said with a chuckle. “What were our problems last year? A lot of it had to do with skill set. The only way you fix that is to recruit and develop. So that’s what we’ve been working on.

Michigan Tech’s Jacob Wenzlick, left, hauls in a catch for a touchdown against Northern Michigan University defender Deante Young on Sept. 30 at Sherman Field in Houghton. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette file photo by David Archambeau)

“Are we perfect yet? No. It’s really one year. The first year we got here recruiting, I didn’t get here till January. So you miss November and December, so you’re starting behind.

“We didn’t have time to hire new coaches. We had to get on the road. So we evolved through that.

“Last year was our first full year of recruiting and it’s a really good class. Some of them are going to have to play. I don’t like playing them, but that’s where we’re at. I’d like to redshirt them all and develop them. Keep them here for five years but we don’t have that luxury right now. Hopefully, next year’s class we can get into that mode.

“So what you take away from last year is where are you deficient. Then you work on where you’re deficient and we had a lot to work on. That’s OK. The things that you thought you’re good at, you still manage and work on that. That’s where we’re at right now.”

Nystrom may have talked about playing younger players more, but he might not have to resort to that quite yet.

Northern Michigan University football players run leg drills in March during practice at the Superior Dome in Marquette. (Journal file photo)

The most notable returnee is running back Jake Mayon, last year’s GLIAC Offensive Back of the Year. Mayon finished with 1,377 yards on the ground to lead the conference and became the first player in Wildcats’ history to earn a spot on the D2CCA All-Midwest Region Second Team.

“He’s better than he was last year,” Nystrom said. “I don’t let him do a whole lot, I’m not going to lie. I don’t let him get hit a lot. I gave him a series in the scrimmage and we had a hard time tackling him.

“He’s strong and he works at it. He’s quick and he’ll have a good year. We just have to do a good job managing him and protecting him from himself.

“That’s the way he is. He’ll go so hard that pretty soon he’ll put himself on the floor. We expect good things from him.

“I never put boundaries on him as far as what will he do. I think he’ll be really good, though. The key with players like him is keeping them healthy and getting them to the games.

“There’s not a whole lot you need to grind him through. He’s been playing for a long time and he’s a smart player. He knows the system and he knows what he needs to do.”

Nystrom also has a solid quarterback in Ryan Johnson, who was thrown into the fire last year as a freshman, but got good experience starting. When asked what he wants to get out of Johnson this year, Nystrom said making fast, good decisions and staying calm in the pocket.

“He’s a totally different player than he was last year,” Nystrom said. “For a guy going into his sophomore year, he had a very good spring. When you watch him play and we go against each other, it’s not like you’re going against a newborn sophomore. It looks like he’s been around the block a few times.

“He’s got a pretty good command of things. Does he still make a blooper here or there? Yeah, but who doesn’t? That’s why we practice.”

On defense, Mayon’s brother, Troy, will anchor at safety. An All-GLIAC Honorable Mention honoree last year, Troy will move from free safety to strong safety, which will allow Nystrom to play him in more defensive schemes. As far as the rest of the defense, Nystrom feels like there’s potential there and they just need to get into the flow.

“What Jake is to the offense, Troy is to the defense, but Troy is a little bit bigger,” Nystrom said. “We played him at free safety last year and moved him to strong safety, which is good because it trains him at all the coverage techniques that you want to have when you play free safety. When you move him to the strong safety, you move him closer to the box so we can pressure with him, play man with him and play zone with him. He’s excellent.

“We’ve got a lot of unproven characters back there, but they’ve played some football and they’ve had a spring. So we’ve just got to put them out there together and there’s going to be a little bit of a ‘gel’ factor as far as that unit goes. That comes through playing games. So we’ll have to go through that, but we’ve got some guys who have played before.

“The corners have been in some games and both of them went through hard times last season and both of them went through good points in the season. Now they’re a year older and they’ve been through some of those hard-life lessons. We look for them to be good players this year.”

Looking at the GLIAC, Nystrom talked about the three traditional powers, Ferris State, Grand Valley State and Ashland, and said that everybody else is fighting for position.

“Everybody will jump on the top three,” Nystrom said. “You’ve got Ferris and they’re going to have to replace 90 percent of the defense, but they got a good quarterback (Jaryu Campbell). They’ve got a quarterback who talent-wise was committed to a Big Ten school when he was a junior so he’s probably pretty good. I don’t know though because I haven’t seen them play.

“You hear coaches talk about preseason on how you think you compare to everyone else. Well I don’t know. I don’t know what they look like yet.

“I know Grand Valley has their quarterback (Bart Williams) back and that they’ll be good on defense and they’ll be good on offense.

“Ashland is a good football school. Those guys have been there a long time, but they’ve got to replace the quarterback (Travis Tarnowski). He was really good. So we’ll see what they look like when we get to them.”

Nystrom hopes the Wildcats will find a way to be relevant again, to get back to their days in the 1970s and ’80s when they were a dominant force in the GLIAC. The good thing is that he feels that they’ve made progress and are on the right track.

“I hate when people say what record will make you happy,” Nystrom said. “I don’t look at that. Here’s what I want us to be, relevant again like we were in the ’70s and the ’80s. Our first year in the GLIAC, I think was in ’87, and we were the best team in the league and not just by a little bit, but by far. We were bigger, faster and stronger than everybody and it showed. We’re not like that right now. Not yet, but someday.

“They’re a fun group to work with. Only God knows what will happen this year, but I like the football team. They’re fun to work with. Our dynamics are a little better for football than they have been in the past. So we’re moving in the right direction.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.