With talented new junior signal-caller Bruce Mann stepping into Dow High’s high-scoring spread offense, coach Jason Watkins’s Chargers appear to be headed for another prolific year following an undefeated regular season and a 10-1 overall record last season.
“When we stay healthy and execute, we are capable of having a lot of success on both sides of the ball,” said Watkins, who’s in his seventh season as head coach. “Last year was a good example of what a good program is capable of when you’ve got a good, solid group of kids and you execute. So hopefully (this year’s team) will take those lessons from last year and believe that they can play with anybody in our league.”
Mann (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) joins Dow as a junior after transferring to Dow ºfrom Bay City Western at the beginning of the semester last January. Per MHSAA transfer rules, he was ineligible to play sports at Dow for that entire semester and is now athletically eligible at Dow.
Senior Josh Riepma (5-10, 165), who backed up graduated quarterback Alec Marty last year, will back up Mann at QB and will also play receiver and safety. Marty threw for 2,717 yards and 32 touchdowns last year.
“Both Bruce and Josh bring an awful lot (of talent),” Watkins said. “Bruce is going to be more of a running quarterback and more physical because he’s bigger than Josh is. Josh would win a lot of games for us as our quarterback, too, no doubt about it. So we’re in a good position.
“Bruce is picking things up fast (in our offensive system). And he’s a junior, so we get him for two years, so that doesn’t hurt either,” Watkins added.
Mann started at quarterback for Western last year and for part of his freshman year. He completed 63 of 150 passes for 724 yards and eight TDs and ran for 694 yards and eight TDs last season for the Warriors, who went 3-6.
At Dow, Mann will have an enviable trio of senior receivers, led by Division I recruit Mike Robb (6-6, 215), along with Devontae Stine (6-5, 195) and Justin Cook (5-10, 180). Last year, Robb caught 47 passes for 606 yards and nine TDs.
“Mike and Devontae are both so tall and so long,” Watkins said. “(When you throw) that high ball up in the air, there aren’t a lot of 6-3 and 6-4 corners in our league to defend guys that are 6-5 and 6-6. They both run pretty good routes, too, and they’re pretty athletic, and Justin is such a phenomenal route runner as far as his ability to change direction, and has good hands.
“I think that’s the purpose of the spread offense — to be able to spread guys out and have your weapons and isolate them in different spots. … We’re really blessed with a lot of weapons and a lot of experience.”
Riepma and senior Eric Hus (6-1, 165) will both see time at slot receiver for Dow.
With last year’s First Team All-State running back Caleb Richard (2,041 total yards, 25 total TDs) now at Grand Valley State, senior Johnny Wilson (5-9, 165) will take the handoffs.
“He’s going to be a different type of running back than Caleb was,” Watkins noted. “He’s probably not going to put his shoulder down and run somebody over, but he’s tough as nails with a hockey player mentality, and he’s going to make people miss. He’s just explosive coming out of a cut.
Dow’s offensive line is led by returning starters senior Travis Wilford (6-1, 225) and junior Kevin Murray (6-3, 220). Seniors Brad Drenckpohl (6-2, 195) and Spencer Hulbert (6-2, 200) and juniors Cesar Gonzalez (6-1, 225) and Ryan Merry (6-3, 200) are vying for other spots, Watkins said.
In Dow’s 3-4 defense, junior Devan Anzarut (5-10, 160) is a returning starter on the line and senior Zachary Peterson (6-2, 180) is an experienced returner. Wilford, junior Garrett Johnson (5-6, 185) and junior Alex Tomiko (5-10, 230) could also be in the rotation on the defensive line.
The inside linebackers are returning starters Spencer Stephenson and Brad Drenckpohl. Hulbert returns at one outside linebacker position, and senior Robert Jennings (6-2, 175) is the frontrunner for the other outside spot.
Senior Jared Mohamed (5-9, 165) and Hus are returning starters at cornerback, Cook returns at one safety position, and Riepma is at the other.
A young defense that played well last year should be even better this year for Dow.
“As good as we were on offense last year, I think the fact that our young defense was as ready to play early on as they were, was huge for us,” Watkins said.
Dow’s captains are Wilford, Riepma, Cook, and Stephenson.
Watkins doesn’t want his team to be satisfied with accomplishments of the past.
“We need to stay hungry and not be satisfied based on last year’s performance. (Our players) need to keep the positive attitude that they’ve got and keep working,” he said.
Dow opens the season on Friday at Mount Pleasant in a nonleague game at 8 p.m., following a game between Sacred Heart and Beal City on Mount Pleasant’s new turf field.
“We’re going to find out right away (how good we are against) a really good Mount Pleasant team in week one,” Watkins said.
Dow won the SVL Blue Division last year, and Watkins expects Flint Powers to pose a challenge this year and expects Saginaw Heritage, among other teams, to be significantly improved under new coach Joe Willey.
“The league as a whole was pretty solid last year, and I think it’s going to be even better this year,” Watkins said.