As a large group of sophomores evolves into a large contingent of juniors and the many underclassmen from year’s past mature into leadership roles, the Valparaiso University football team enters 2013 with a “win now” approach.
Since taking over as the Crusaders head coach, Dale Carlson has seen his team win two games over the last three seasons. As the expectations begin to climb, the word frequently uttered by Carlson during the team’s media day on Tuesday was “execution.”
“Defensively last year, a lot of times we either missed an assignment or we were right there and we didn’t execute a technique,” Carlson said. “We really worked very hard defensively over the spring and the summer to find out where we were supposed to be, executing the proper technique and executing the fundamentals.”
Carlson said he has seen improved execution in training camp and is hopeful that it will carry over to game action.
Current junior Jake Hutson, who is a sophomore by eligibility after redshirting his freshman season, immerged as a force to be reckoned with in the backfield last season, running for 753 yards and eight touchdowns. Hutson has remained at the university throughout the summer, practicing, working in Michigan City and lifting on a daily basis.
“I feel like I have more experience right now,” he said. “I have more say in the team, more leadership. I can help the younger guys out more; I can help the team out more just with what I know. I have more knowledge about the offense and defense than I’ve ever had before.”
Hutson’s solid numbers a year ago have not gone unnoticed by opposing coaches, meaning the Crusaders must have other options available to avoid defenses keying in on the Blanchard, Mich. native.
“I think people are going to be gunning for him,” Carlson said. “What we have to do is just play our game. If teams load up on the run, we can execute the passing game. If they’re trying to stop the pass, then we can run against them.”
Much of the passing game will be dependent on the development of quarterback Eric Hoffman, who started nine games under center a year ago. He completed 65.5 percent of his attempted passes last season totaling 1,943 yards and a touchdown.
Carlson tabbed junior wide receiver Kent Warren, who had four catches for 78 yards in 2012, as a player on the verge of a breakout season.
“He had a good spring and has had a good camp so far,” Carlson said. “We’ve had a couple of young players and we have to see how that plays out as we go through this next week. I think rather than looking for guys to have breakout years, we’re just looking for guys to consistently execute.”
The Crusaders were picked to finish 10th of 12 in the Pioneer Football League ahead of Mercer and Stetson, both first-year football programs. The coaching staff will have a different look as Mike Gravier takes over as the assistant head coach, Kenton Evans becoming the quarterbacks coach and former Chesterton High School head coach John Snyder joins the staff as a running backs coach.
“There’s a lot of input from the new coaches,” Hutson said. “They gained my respect pretty much automatically with the things that they say and the football knowledge that they contain. They’ve brought a lot more knowledge.”
Carlson expects the offensive line, which features seven experienced players, to be a strength of the team.
Valparaiso opens the season with a difficult test in a trip to North Dakota State on Aug. 29. North Dakota State is a fully funded scholarship program, while Valparaiso is a non-scholarship program.
“As I told our players, they’re a Division-I FCS football program; we’re a Division-I FCS football program,” Carlson said. “Their conference gets an automatic berth in the playoffs; our conference gets an automatic berth in the playoffs. These are the types of teams that we’re going to play if we can get to the postseason.”
The Crusaders visit Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer on Sept. 7 before the home-opener against William Jewell on Sept. 14 and the PFL lid-lifter against Campbell on Sept. 28. Last season, Valparaiso frequently found itself trailing early in games.
“We’ve done some things trying to put our players in different situations in practice where they have to perform right away out of the gate,” Carlson said. “Part of that is youth sometimes, but we’re not young anymore.”