Ashland University's football team's annual offseason opportunity for practice, preparation and some fun begins anew on Saturday (March 21) with the first spring practice at 9 a.m. at Jack Miller Stadium/Martinelli Field.
The Eagles will have 14 practices and two scrimmages (March 28 and April 11 at 9 a.m.) prior to the annual Purple & Gold Game on April 18 at 7 p.m.
"There's an emphasis on coaching fundamentals," said Ashland head coach Lee Owens. "A lot of times, you're short on time trying to do that in the fall and the summer because you're getting ready for games. In the spring, you can really focus on fundamentals."
"It's a great opportunity to tweak your schemes – offense, defense, special teams – just to research and look for different ways to do things, and then get a chance to experiment with them in the spring. It's just a great opportunity for players to earn positions. You've got guys who have been through the weight program now for almost a year, so their bodies have changed. They're bigger and stronger and faster."
Some of the key position groups in terms of trying to fill holes in the spring include tailback, wide receiver, tight end, safety and linebacker.
"We need to find depth at tailback. We need to find out who's going to be our wideouts. We have a lot of candidates," Owens said. "We need to see who is going to be at tight end. Defensively, we've got some new safeties we need to take a look at, and the linebacker position. Those will be the key battles."
Michael Taylor will be used exclusively at tailback behind now-starter Vance Settlemire, and other backup candidates include Andrew Vaughn, Reid Masters, Zavier Buzard and James Rodenberg. Wide receiver possibilities include veteran Drew Brenner, Terrance Burt, Stewart Turner, Maxwell Shawver, Christopher Boykin, Darian Reynolds and Bryant Holloway, who Owens said is as good as the team has had athletically.
On defense, Owens said 2014 starting cornerback Donzale Ashley could move to safety, giving the Eagles three veterans in Ashley and starting corners James Ester and Dale Irby in the secondary. A transfer from Urbana, Terrell Hudson, is in the mix at safety after posting 69 total tackles, 5½ tackles for loss and an interception last fall for the Blue Knights.
At linebacker, Daivon Barrow will see more time on the outside, and Owens says Barrow is set to be an impact player on the other side of Adam Wallace. Inside, veterans Zach Olszewski and Brandon Gency will get the bulk of the time, along with Zach Bernhard and Austin Utter.
Along the defensive line, defensive end Chase Hoobler – the team's lone All-GLIAC first-teamer returning in 2015 – sits out the spring, but that presents more time for the likes of Zach Leftenant, Harrison Hoppel, Brandon Ehlinger and Tim Lehr, who Owens said is as big and strong as he's ever been.
"More depth. Every year, it seems like there's a little more depth – more players, more good players," Owens said.
As far as returning players go, one who will be watched is starting quarterback Travis Tarnowski, the reigning Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year. Tarnowski started all 10 games at quarterback for the Eagles, and finished with an 8-2 record. He was 168-for-288 (58.3 percent) for 2,167 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions, and was sacked just eight times.
"We didn't know last spring who the quarterback was going to be," Owens said. "There were three guys competing last spring. Now, we're in a situation where we have a pretty good feel with Travis being the returner and Austin (Bruns) being the No. 2."
On April 18, the annual Football Alumni Golf Outing will tee off at 10 a.m. at Brookside Golf Course. The full day of events includes a silent auction at 6:30 p.m. at the Troop Center, followed by the game at 7 p.m.
"All our alumni come back," Owens said. "We've sold that (golf outing) out the last four or five years. Being back at Brookside is a neat deal. We'll have 30 teams again, and they'll have a blast."
Included in the festivities on April 18 is the opportunity to get autographs from Ashland's two current National Football League alumni defensive linemen, Jamie Meder (Cleveland Browns) and Jeris Pendleton (Indianapolis Colts), and the awarding of the Martinelli Coach of the Year to Tom Williams of nearby Hillsdale High School.
At halftime, the team's scholar athletes will be recognized, and the Gridiron Club will announce the team's athlete of the year, based on on-field and off-field achievements.
"It just makes for a fun day," Owens said.