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NMU football offseason outlook: Wildcats offense survives injuries, but Ostrowsky seeks more depth

2012 was a tale of two seasons, QBs for first-year head coach

November 30, 2012
By MATT WELLENS - Journal Sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - With Northern Michigan University quarterback Cody Scepaniak gaining a year of NCAA eligibility back and poised to return under center for the Wildcats in 2013, head coach Chris Ostrowsky could comfortably cross the quarterback position off his list of recruiting needs this offseason.

Scepaniak will be back again as a senior, sophomore-to-be Ryan Morley has recovered from his concussion and a pair of freshmen - Chris Nelson and Jay Tollefson - redshirted this season, giving the Wildcats a full stable of QBs.

Yet, Ostrowsky isn't satisfied as he and his recruiting staff hit the trail on Saturday, not after the amount of injuries NMU endured on offense in 2012.

Article Photos

Northern?Michigan University junior quarterback Cody?Scepaniak runs against Grand Valley State on Oct. 13 at the Superior Dome. (Journal file photo)

"I think our quarterback position is healthy," Ostrowsky said. "With that being said, I don't think you can be satisfied with what you got. I think we have to get out and keep recruiting.

"Before long, Cody is going to be gone, Ryan is going to be old and you have to have kids, you have to have symmetry at that position."

Of the 11 players who started on the NMU offense in the season opener at Findlay on Aug. 30, only six - four were offensive linemen - started in the season finale against Ferris State on Nov. 10 at the Superior Dome in Marquette.

Freshman running back Keon Collier broke his leg in the home opener against Wisconsin-La Crosse at the Dome in Week 2; junior offensive lineman James Bester went down in Week 3 against Ohio Dominican, as did Ishpeming sophomore Wyatt Jurasin in his first game playing as a running back instead of a linebacker; junior wide receiver Christian Marble-King and junior running back Trever Kruzel were next during Week 5; redshirt freshman Morley was knocked out of Week 7's contest against Michigan Tech and only returned for a snap against Ferris; and sophomore wide receiver Julian Gaines was lost for the season in between Weeks 7 and 8.

In addition to the list of one-time injured starters, senior running back Prince Young was suspended by the university for four games late in the season, but returned for the final two contests against Saginaw Valley State and Ferris.

All but Young will be back for 2013, while anyone injured before Week 5 - meaning Marble-King, but not Kruzel - is eligible for a medical redshirt.

Still, Ostrowsky wants to increase the depth of his offense after nearly running out of bodies this season.

"I want there to be a sense of urgency at every position we have," Ostrowsky said. "I don't want any one person to feel they have the position market cornered. We want everybody to feel like they are competing. When you create competition, you create success.

"You create a stable and you're not a prisoner to one player. That's what average programs become, prisoners to one kid."

Northern proved one person couldn't slow down the offense this season. Despite the injuries, NMU finished the last five weeks 3-2 and averaging 30.8 points per game. The Wildcats started the 2012 season 1-5 and averaging 12.83 points an outing.

"It was really a tale of two seasons and an extreme tale of two seasons," Ostrowsky said. "We were dead last in third down conversions after the 1-5 start, and after 1-5, we were first. So, worst to first, if you separate it. That's unheard of."

Morley started the first six games of the season before being knocked out of the loss to Michigan Tech, giving way to Scepaniak to close out the final five games as the starter.

Morley completed 50.6 percent of his passes (88-174) for 916 yards. He threw three touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Scepaniak completed 57.8 percent of his passes (74-128) for 1,055 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions.

On the ground, Scepaniak proved to be the greater threat than Morley, who's considered more of a pocket passer than his teammate,

Scepaniak finished the season second in rushing behind Young with 479 yards on 104 carries and six touchdowns. Scepaniak averaged 4.6 yards per carry.

"I thought Cody brought a great athleticism to the position that Ryan did not," Ostrowsky said. "I think Cody did a great job in terms of his character and in terms of his ability to hang in there. He brought a different dimension and there's no way to get around that. That's hard to detect in practice because you're not live on quarterbacks."

Considering the circumstances, Ostrowsky said he did not regret going with Morley over Scepaniak to start the season. Scepaniak was limited for much of training camp in August with an elbow injury and according to Ostrowsky, Morley looked to be the better passer.

"Ryan was as fluid, healthy and productive a passer as we could ask for through spring into fall camp. I thought he was the best choice. I don't regret it," Ostrowsky said.

"That being said, I think the injury and the wear and tear on his body was significant. It changed the player he was from Week 1 to Week 5. That's obvious to anybody.

"He started off against Findlay and it looked like this kid is going to be pretty good. By the end, he could barely lift his arm. He had neck issues, he had back issues. He had all kinds of stuff going on. Then the concussion took him out of it."

Along with Scepaniak, who had only thrown eight passes in 2011 as a junior college transfer backing up Carter Kopach, two other Wildcats had break-out seasons, taking advantage of extra playing time due to injured teammates.

Junior Casey Cotta, who transferred to NMU in 2010 but missed the previous two seasons to injury, emerged as the Wildcats' feature running back; Young was suspended and three others ahead of him on the depth chart sat on the sidelines injured.

Cotta, who had not taken a single snap prior to the win over Grand Valley State, finished 2012 as the team's third leading rusher with 398 yards on 73 carries and four touchdowns. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the five games he played in.

Young led the ground attack with 540 yards on 139 attempts, a 3.9 yards per carry average and five touchdowns.

"I don't think it's anything anyone could have saw that coming," Ostrowsky said about Cotta. "We needed him and he came up big. You got to have a bit of loyalty to that and we certainly will and do."

Junior wide receiver Christian Jessie led the Wildcats in receiving with 501 yards on 32 catches and six touchdowns, but Jessie showed in 2012 he's more than just a wide receiver.

During the second half of the year, Jessie was used as a running back and even took direct snaps in Northern's version of the "Wildcat" formation, gaining 34 yards - he lost 19 total for a net of 15 - on nine carries and a rushing touchdown.

He also returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the season finale against Ferris State while averaging 28.6 yards per return on kickoffs.

"As the offensive coordinator, when that hat goes on, it's endless what we can do with (Jessie)," Ostrowsky said.

"As many times as you can get the ball in his hands, it's critical.

"You talk about third-and-3 with the game on the line, who should be the quarterback? Maybe it's Christian Jessie? At least you lose with the best player with the ball in his hands."



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