The defense was ahead of the offense even before University of Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley received his surprise. Now there's no question.
Donley believed his defense could be dominant heading into the 2017 season, but news that Western Michigan defensive lineman Nathan Braster intends to transfer to Saint Francis ups the ante.
“How are we going to replace (Lucas) Sparks? God answers prayers,” Donley said with a smile after Thursday morning spring practice.
Saint Francis has one more week of spring practice, culminating in the annual spring game at noon April 22 at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium.
Braster, a 6-foot-5 South Side High School alum, recorded 31 tackles, with 2.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss for a Western Michigan team that went unbeaten in the regular season and earned a bid to the Cotton Bowl. After the season, Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck left to take the job at Minnesota.
The addition of Braster adds more firepower to a defense that returns playmakers galore in linebackers Spencer Cowherd, Piercen Harnish, Eric Dunten and Marcus Stepp, as well as nose tackle Eric Hemmelgarn and defensive backs Lee Stewart III and Wilmer Cole.
The offense will need some time to mold into place, with offensive line and wide receiver spots open.
“Defensively, we're in the next galaxy,” Donley said. “We're really strong there, Fast, bigger, stronger. And we're probably going to need that as we progress and find our identity on the other side of the ball.”
Donley said he expects defensive end Jordan May to step back in and play a big role after being injured. Stepp moves to more of a rush end, much like Sparks, who was the Mid-States Football Association Mideast League Defensive Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Defensive Player in Saint Francis' NAIA national championship win over Baker.
“I think we're going to be better on defense than we were last year,” Donley said. “We're taking another step forward there.”
On offense, the Cougars must replace wide receivers Seth Coate, Montay McDowell and Akeim Kelsaw, as well as wingback Jason Nicodemus and offensive linemen Zach Minardo, Brian Gegner and Keegan Bruner. They could also be without junior-to-be running back P.J. Dean, who suffered a knee injury during spring practice that required surgery. He could be redshirted.
Quarterback Nick Ferrer returns, along with running back Justin Green and linemen Alex Woods, Connor Holcomb and Jaylen Gamble.
Wide receiver Rocky James, slot receiver Sean Boswell and tight end Zach Gegner are the most experienced returnees. Gegner has been injured this spring.
Nate Carson, Dan Ricksy, Will Chrisman, Duke Blackwell and returning-from-injury Andreas Gomez-Espino could be in the running for wide-receiver time. There are a number of incoming freshmen who could challenge, too.
“We've got four or five guys who are all 4.5 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) or better,” Donley said. “They're athletic. Throwing with the more lengthy receivers, the Coates and McDowells and so forth, it's a little different with the timing and the trajectory of the throws. These guys will need a lot of pitch and catch all summer.”
Ferrer, who will be a senior, will make sure that happens.
“He gets them out here on Sundays,” Donley said. “He'll call, 'The gates are locked. Can you open it up?' ”
Among the top candidates for more time on the offensive line are Nick Shoemaker, Shawn Moore and former Bishop Dwenger player Landon Myers. “We'll be young on the offensive line, but we've got size and we've got strength,” Donley said.
One area Donley said he has to get into preacher mode on is the need to put in the step-by-step work to make another championship run.
“We're in the millenials,” Donley said. “The technology – they can get an answer right now. We've got to get it in their heads it's a day-to-day process. You have to keep trucking along. It just can't happen. There are no shortcuts.”
For more on Saint Francis football, follow Reggie Hayes on Twitter at reggiehayes1