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MUTKA: Can VU overcome years of football struggles?

Scott M Bort/Post-Tribune Valparaiso University Head Football Coach Dale Carls Valparaiso University Football MediDay    PTSPT

Scott M Bort/Post-Tribune Valparaiso University Head Football Coach Dale Carlson Valparaiso University Football Media Day PTSPT

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Updated: September 5, 2013 7:04AM



VALPARAISO — Is Valparaiso University football ready to take that long overdue step toward respectability?

Two victories in three years suggest otherwise, but coach Dale Carlson believes the Crusaders are making progress. More than 100 varsity candidates reported for practice, which started Monday.

“It’s the biggest turnout in my four years,” he said. “We also had more players stay on campus over the summer than before.”

Having agonized through successive 1-10 seasons, I’m reluctant to buy into his optimistic outlook, but there are signs of life.

“What we saw last year — you have to look past the record,” he said.

Valparaiso was certainly more competitive than in 2011, coming within a whisker of beating St. Joseph’s (36-34) and Davidson (28-27, overtime).

Seniors remain a definite minority, dating back to Carlson’s decision to blow up the roster after that dreadful winless season in 2010.

More than 80 percent of VU’s traveling squad toward the end of last year consisted of freshmen, redshirt rookies and sophomores, but underclassmen should begin to benefit from playing prematurely.

Let’s start with quarterback Eric Hoffman. The redshirt junior has started 20 of the last 22 games, but struggled to put the ball in the end zone. Last year he passed for 1,943 yards but only nine touchdowns.

Hoffman ranks No. 1, but will be challenged by Ben Lehman and Ryan Gorski, a freshman redshirt. In the name of competition Carlson stopped short of anointing him.

“Lehman started a couple of games,” Carlson pointed out. “Nothing is guaranteed.”

Efforts in the Brown-Gold spring game were encouraging. How that translates on the Aug. 29 opener remains to be seen. North Dakota is armed with 18 seniors. Veterans of a program that has won 25 conference championships and a national title include receiver Blair Townsend, who helped the Bison set a single-game passing record with 13 catches for 152 yards.

“How many will we win?” Carlson shrugs. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”

What he wants is consistency. If VU delivers, the victories will come.

Lack of it cost VU dearly last year. A loss to Marist still sticks in his craw.

“In 64 snaps we gave up only 150 yards, but four big plays beat us,” he said. “Two of them were on missed tackles.”

Defense will go a long way toward deciding VU’s fate. The Crusaders are solid in the secondary with safety Alex Grask, their leading tackler, corner Alan Porter, healthy again after an injury-plagued season, and in a linebacking corps headed by outside backer Pat Derbak. The front line holds the key to unlock success

“We’ll see better play up front,” promises Carlson. “We’ll have a couple of newcomers, but will be stronger with recruits in the 260-to-270 range.”

Last year, freshman tackle John Guilford, who led VU in sacks, weighed in at 210. One of nine returning defensive starters, he’s beefed up to 240.

Offensively, the Crusaders expect big things from compact Jake Hutson, a surprisingly punishing running back considering his 5-foot-6 frame.

Last year he rumbled for 753 yards, doing most of the damage in the last half of the season. Also an excellent receiver, he boosted his all-purpose yardage to 1,216 with 35 catches and punt returns.

“He’s built low to the ground which makes him hard to tackle,” Carlson said. “He has that ability to turn a 5-yard gain into 10 or 12 yards.”

Hutson and Derbak made the FCS preseason watch list.

Hopefully, Valparaiso’s whole team will be worth watching. Carlson can’t wait.

“It’s time to get the program going in the right direction,” he agrees.



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