by Rob LaPlante
SUN PRESS NEWSPAPERS
St. Michael-Albertville football fans may need to grab a program early on in the season to identify who is starting at each position.
With over half of his starting roster from a year ago lost to graduation, STMA head coach Jared Essler admits he has his work cut out for him and the rest of his returning coaching staff prior to the start of the season Aug. 29 at Buffalo.
The Knights lost seven all-conference players including the Mississippi 8’s Offensive Lineman of the Year Sean Scharlau. Mike Kessler, Allen Giller, Bennie Wilson, Erik Johnson and Cole Krutzig all joined Scharlau on the M-8 all-conference squad.
“We definitely will be a little green in a lot of positions to start the season,” Essler said. “We may be green in experience, but the talent level is still there. I think once they get that chance to gain some experience and handle adversity, things will be fine.”
The glaring question is who Essler will fill in to replace two-time, all-conference starting quarterback Cole Krutzig. Essler said that is yet to be determined, but the job is to be won by either senior Henry Berning or junior Jackson Greenwaldt.
Berning saw his only extensive time last season in a 10-0 playoff win at Monticello. A Krutzig head injury forced Berning into action. Greenwaldt was the signal caller for the junior varsity squad a year ago.
“It’s an open competition,” Essler said. “Jackson is a tad bit taller and faster and Henry may be a tad more accurate. I would feel comfortable playing both kids.”
Also taking a hit is the wide receiver position. STMA loses starters Brian Ferry, Tony Bork and Jamey Kolles. Essler is hoping senior Dallas Freeman and junior Landon Bridell will provide a solid 1-2 punch at wideout. Bridell is coming off a shoulder injury he suffered last month in a 7-on-7 league. Also, vying for positions at wide out are senior’s Austin Wick and Tyler Zahler. Junior’s Tyler Berg and Josh Tracy will likely see action at tight end.
Senior’s Matt Krutzig and Cody Fox, return this season to the offensive line, but Essler has his hands full trying to replace linemen Sean Scharlau, Mike Kessler and Jeff Hackenmueller. Senior’s Calvin Sackey and Joe Sherry are front runners in filling those shoes.
While the Knights look to replace several key components on offense, running back is not one of them.
They did lose to graduation 2011 all-conference tailback Ryan Lyzhoft. But they pretty much were without their top runner all last year after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in STMA’s second game at Duluth East.
Amazingly, STMA’s running game never suffered as returning senior Chris Kartes exploded on the scene and rushed for 806 yards and eight total touchdowns in Lyzhoft’s place. Kartes skills were highlighted in a 28-14 win at Rogers when he broke two long runs for TD’s and had a career high 189 yards on the ground. Kartes was clocked this summer at 4.5 in the 40-yard dash.
“Chris got a lot of reps when Ryan got hurt,” Essler said. “He has the ability to hit the hole and has great speed. I feel good about our depth at that position. Senior Noah Evans saw some time last year and junior’s Antoine Akundu and Jordan Joseph will get some time too.”
The Knights rushed (1,722) for nearly twice as many yards a year ago than they passed (987). Essler expects the ground game to remain a focal point of the team’s offense.
The Knights ranked third-best in the Mississippi 8 a year ago in least points allowed. Linebackers Bennie Wilson and Erik Johnson were a big reason for shutting down other team’s top stars. Kessler, Allen Giller, Owen Gammell and Austin Brouillette were part of a solid defensive line.
Fox, along with junior’s Craig McDowell and Erick Barthel will likely get the nod as starting linemen. Sherry — a 6-2, 280 pound offensive lineman — will likely play both ways this season. Senior’s Joe Kilian and Matt Brown are the most experienced returning linebackers.
“Defense is something we emphasize every year,” Essler said. “We have some big shoes to replace on both the O and D-lines. It will come down to kids who are fast enough and strong enough to play the positions.”
Senior Andrew Winans, Freeman and junior’s Garrett Hahn and Jacob Moran will likely see the most action at defensive back. Freeman is coming off an all-conference year and led the defense a year ago with six interceptions and finished third with 23 solo tackles.
One area that concerns Essler out of the gate is special teams. Losing his starting kicker, punter and long snapper would cause any coach to be uneasy. Gammell was a steady long snapper. Johnson averaged 33.2 yards per punt and Justin McLain was a perfect 23-for-23 in extra points.
A year ago, Akundu and Bridell each saw time early in the season as kickers.
“We’re nervous about filling all those voids,” Essler said. “We came up with a plan, but it’s too early to tell yet.”
Freeman likely will be the conference’s most dangerous top kick/punt returner. A year ago he broke three returns for touchdowns and his 34.2 yards per average on kick returns were tops in the conference.
The Knights will kick off the season Aug. 29 at Buffalo in a battle for the “Muddy Crow” trophy that is awarded to the winning team of the two rivals. The Bison currently possess the trophy after a 15-13 win last fall over the Knights.
“If we can catch a few breaks and stay healthy, we have a good shot at winning the conference,” Essler said. “Every week is going to be tough and teams in the conference don’t change much year-to-year. If we can stay healthy, I like our chances.”