Valparaiso hope depth on offense can help end conference skid
By John Mutka Post-Tribune senior correspondent August 16, 2012 11:04PM
Members of the Valparaiso University football team line up for photos during the team's media day Thursday Aug. 16, 2012. Photo sessions were moved inside the Athletics Recreation Center due to rain and high winds. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 18, 2012 6:28AM
VALPARAISO — Last place in the Pioneer Football League. That’s the preseason obit for Valparaiso.
Candid coach Dale Carlson isn’t complaining about the negative ballot.
“I would too,” says Carlson, who couldn’t vote for the Crusaders in the preseason poll. “You’ve got to win some games.”
Ain’t happening so far.
On the bright side, Valparaiso did snap a 29-game losing streak with a 30-22 victory against Campbell. The Crusaders were also competitive in a season-ending 30-22 loss at Davidson, but limped home with a 1-10 record.
Thirty-eight returning lettermen, including 16 starters, are invested in raising this Phoenix from the ashes.
Offensively, they seem better equipped physically and mentally to take a step in the right direction.
Quarterback Eric Hoffman, who passed for 2,302 yards, can target VU’s top receivers in sophomore running back Gabe Ali-El (35 catches, 365 yards), wideout Tanner Kuramata and tight end Mike Gerton (30 receptions each).
In his rookie season, Ali-El received more than 100 touches. Look for more of the same.
“In our offense you want to get the ball in his hands as much as possible because he’s so versatile,” said Carlson, who unveiled his experienced skill players Thursday on media day.
“We’re legitimately two deep (skill positions) and in some spots, maybe even three with players who can do some damage with the ball.”
Hoffman did that, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, 13 for touchdowns. Unfortunately, he was also picked off 14 times.
Ben Lehman and Quinn Schafer back him up, but, barring unforeseen circumstances, it’s Hoffman’s job
“Eric did some good things, but the big thing we’ve got to do is get the touchdown-interception ratio reversed,” Carlson says.
Hoffman’s assets include mobility in the pocket, improved mechanics and the smarts to check off and audible.
“He’s starting to see the ins and the outs, when to check plays and read coverages,” Carlson said. “He needs to do more (audibling).
“All the guys coming back in our receiving group have played significant minutes.”
Eric Slenk, Tim Bennett and Gerton are seniors going through their third year in Carlson’s system.
“I really thought Gerton in the last four or five games was the best tight end receiver in the conference,” Carlson said. “The way he runs routes, the big catches he made. I’ll bet 20 came in the last four games.”
Receivers Kuramata and Cole Anderson learned survival skills as freshmen. Being comfortable should translate into a productive sophomore season.
Valparaiso should be stronger in the offensive trenches, particularly with tackles Sean Cook and Bill Bodzianowski. Both three-year starters have packed on at least 30 pounds since their sophomore season. Stuart Barkley rotated quite a bite in his freshman year, both at tackle and guard.
The Crusaders return eight starters on defense, including linebacker Chris Howard (Crown Point), who has recovered from knee surgery that cost him half of last season. He’s listed as a hybrid linebacker because he’s versatile enough to play inside or out and at defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
Valparaiso brought 36 newcomers into camp. Among the early bright ones are linebacker Alex Green, defensive lineman-linebacker John Guilford, wide receiver Bradley Sicula, running back Max Delia and offensive lineman Tom Ehrlich, a JUCO transfer with three years of eligibility.