Shannon Griffith seeks to chart a journey to success in 2014.
In doing so, he may need to turn to some fresh faces in the Manchester University football program.
MU's head coach and his staff saw the Black and Gold suffer large graduation losses when the Class of 2013 walked across the stage inside Stauffer-Wolfe Arena last May. However, he's hoping the tried-but-true adage of "next man up" will be the Spartans' motto this fall.
"There have been a lot of young men waiting in the wings for an opportunity," he said when he looked over the 2014 squad. "This is their chance. In the past, leadership duties might have gone, as an example, to a Courter, Cantwell or Webster on the offensive line or to a Kennedy or Dashner in the linebacker corps. Now it falls on some individuals who have worked hard in practices as scout team and back-up players (to get to this point).
"It's up to those guys," he admitted. "We'll see if they put the work in during the off-season to make the most of what is at hand."
The Spartans, coming off a rough-and-tumble 2013 campaign where they notched three wins and were just minutes away from three to four more, do have some returners dotted around the team map.
On offense, senior Austin Adams (Dowagiac, Mich.) will handle the main running back duties for a second successive season; the preseason camp quarterback battle is set between a pair of familiar faces in junior Logan Haston (Avon, Ind.) and senior Randy Frederick (Granger, Ind.) with Haston having played varsity ball as a freshman and sophomore and Frederick having seen a large share of snaps on the junior varsity level; seniors Collin Huffine (Centerville, Ind.) and Michael Love (Bloomfield, Ind.) and sophomore Dakota Nelson (Fairland, Ind.) who all saw heavy playing time and were very much involved in the Black and Gold offensive attack as pass catchers a year ago; and junior center D'ante Dorsey (Indianapolis, Ind.) who is back for his third year at center. Defensively, senior Stephen Coble (Edwardsburg, Mich.), and juniors Dustin Kult (Lafayette, Ind.) and Michael Hammer (Remington, Ind.) anchor the line which is arguably the deepest position on the field; senior Evan West (Hartford City, Ind.) is the lone returner in the linebacker area; and the backfield has junior Taylor Anglemeyer (Wakarusa, Ind.) as it's only upperclassman but has familiar faces in sophomores Jarvis Mitchell (South Bend, Ind.) and Nathan Birk (Indianapolis, Ind.).
Beyond that several areas, including a good share of back-up duties, two linebacker slots, two to three offensive line slots and all of the special teams duties, with the exception of the high-octane return tandem of Huffine and Nelson, are open going into camp.
"We may be working at finding out what our make-up is beyond camp and into the first couple weeks of the season," Griffith said. "I think there is potential there but it needs to come out."
Going around the field, here's the prospectus for the 2014 Spartans …
Griffith feels this is an early strength for the Spartans. It starts with Adams, Huffine and Nelson in the skill areas. Adams rushed for just under 400 yards and five touchdowns as a junior, while Nelson and Huffine were one-two in receiving with Nelson grabbing 56 receptions for 582 yards and four touchdowns and Huffine hauling in 30 catches for 263 yards.
"Austin was able to shoulder a lot of the carries for us last fall, but I'd like to see him run with the same intensity he did as a sophomore," MU's head coach admitted. "He used to find a hole and put his foot down and zoom through it. I think last year he tried to finesse it too much. We need him to get back to being a power back, especially with a young line in front of him.
"Our receiver area is one of the deeper units (on the team)," he added. "We've got good speed and playmakers in Huffine and Nelson as well as sophomore Matt Wirick (Granger, Ind.). For Dakota, though, it'll be interesting to see how he responds to such a remarkable first year after being named the conference's Freshman of the Year. He's not going to sneak up on anyone. He'll be the target of a lot of defenses. I also like the abilities of Love at the tight end spot. I think we can turn into what (former tight end starter Ryne) Lehrman was before he had to sit out with an injury a year ago. Honestly I see our receivers as one of the best units in the HCAC. "
Leading the skill areas will be either Frederick or Haston as a signal caller, pending the outcome of preseason camp, according to Griffith. They each saw playing time in 2013 with Haston firing for over 500 yards and five touchdowns.
"It may look obvious to some that Logan should be the guy right away," Griffith said. "However, Randy has earned a look for what he did in spring ball and also on the junior varsity level. I think, either way, we will have a strong person in charge of quarterback duties. I want to see how preseason camp goes before making the final decision."
Blocking for the strong skill positions will be the aforementioned youthful line. Dorsey is the lone returner among the starters with seniors Dan Voss (Lake Village, Ind.), Mark Sexton (Fort Wayne, Ind.), Josh Mitchell (Hoagland, Ind.) and Jordan Brouwer (Clinton, Ind.) and sophomore Eric Weiholter (Zionsville, Ind.) as possible heir apparents for the other spots. "As I said before, those four have been waiting for their chance," Griffith said. "We'll see how camp goes before making a determination. There are also a lot of first year players with strong credentials that may be able to work their way into the picture."
While the line on the other side of the pigskin may be in question, the defensive front is anything but, according to Griffith.
With the likes of Coble, who was a second team all-HCAC selection following his sophomore season; fellow senior Jon Scribner (Fort Wayne, Ind.), a three-year starter; Kult and Hammer who both saw a large amount of playing time a year ago; and sophomore Chandler Miller (Seymour, Ind.), there are many options and combinations possible.
"Coble and Scribner will anchor the group, and I hope to see big things from both of them," Griffith said. "Kult proved to be a good option a year ago, playing a key back-up role, while Hammer stepped in quickly, after being away from the program for a year, and a did a nice job, too. Miller showed good signs of potential moving in when we had some injuries last fall.
"I see our top five or six across the front as good as any other group in the conference," he added.
Behind that front, some questions will arise going into camp, the Spartans skipper admitted. West was the third-leading tackler last fall with 46 but is the lone experienced player in the linebacker area. Sophomore Jordan Kleber (Seymour, Ind.) showed promise with 12 tackles in seven games played as a freshman. Beyond that, it will be up to a large group of newcomers. The defensive backfield is in similar shape with Anglemeyer and Mitchell, who were each tested greatly a year ago at the corners, and Birk, who saw significant action at the safety, back but depth being needed across the area.
"There's leadership in both spots with West and Anglemeyer which is a positive," Griffith pointed out. "However, we need personnel throughout the linebacker and backfield spots. I see those two areas being as fluid as the offensive line situation throughout camp and possibly into the early stages of the competition season."
Vacancies will leave spots wide open at placekicking and punting, while Huffine and Nelson bring back their speed in the return game.
"It's good to have two guys like Collin and Dakota returning," Griffith said. "They cause a lot of problems for opposing special teams.
"After that, it's all up in the air," he added. "We'll be auditioning several individuals for placekicking and punting. It's such an important phase, too, because it can literally turn the field around in your favor, so we want to make sure we have our best choices available when we go into games."
MU's pre-conference slate and what looks to be another balanced HCAC schedule doesn't leave much time for the Spartans' youth to prepare.
"Trine is always tough, Buffalo State is a new team on the schedule and they are similar, and the conference will be strong each weekend," Griffith said. "With us trying to get things figured out in so many areas, we'll need to do some learning on the fly which I hope works out for the best. It, again, comes back to the players. They need to have been doing something over the offseason to be ready to go."
The 2014 campaign begins with the annual showdown with in-state non-conference rival Trine University Friday, Sept. 5. It also serves as the Spartans' home opener at Carl W. Burt Memorial Field.