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Learning done as Huskies hit football field

Michigan Tech running back William Marano turns upfield during a game against Northern Michigan on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, at Kearly Stadium in Houghton. The Huskies held their annual spring game on Saturday for the first time in three years. (David Archambeau/For the Gazette)

HOUGHTON — The Michigan Tech Huskies football team took to the field Saturday afternoon for their first spring game in three years, and their first under new head coach Dan Mettlach. While not every pass was crisp and every cut and turn perfect, the Huskies were pleased to be able to work out in front of a supportive crowd while working outdoors on sunny afternoon.

“It’s great,” said running backs coach and special teams coordinator Phil Milbrath. “The weather has been really nice over the last week and a half, two weeks. So, we’ve actually seen more of the community coming out and seeing our open practices we’ve gone through this spring, but to be able to get fans back in the crowd, and have 24 of our incoming guys coming today and check out the spring ball, and the excitement that was around today with the weather that goes on, I think it was a pretty successful day here.

The fact that the Huskies had not had a chance to hold their spring game the last three years was not lost on the coaching staff.

“(It’s) actually an interesting fact that we talked about with a couple of our guys going back to COVID over the last couple of years, and then the blizzard that came through last year, we didn’t have a spring game,” Milbrath said. “So the guys were pretty juiced up to get out today and put a stamp on the end of a pretty good spring.”

According to the NCAA, the Huskies could only practice 15 times over a four-week period leading up to the spring game, but Mettlach felt that some important progress was made throughout the workouts.

“We felt like from practice one until practice 15, we got better,” he said. “A lot of our guys got valuable reps whether they are veterans, or the young guys we’re trying to build depth with.”

The Huskies showcased a pair of freshmen quarterbacks vying for the starting role left open by the pending graduation of Will Ark, who was a four-year starter for the Huskies. Throughout the afternoon, Huskies fans and parents in attendance had a chance to see Alex Fries and Drew Collins show what they have to offer in the role.

Mettlach liked what he saw from both Fries and Collins, but feels there is still a lot of growth that will need to happen before the start of the fall season.

“We still have a long way to go up front on the offensive side replacing a four-year starter at (quarterback),” said Mettlach. “So, there’s going to be some growing pains from a mental standpoint with Alex and Drew taking over that spot now.”

Unlike Ark, who was a more traditional pocket passer, both Fries and Collins showed confidence in being willing to roll out in either direction and gain ground, either by passing on the run, or simply taking the ball and running with it themselves.

“I think the thing that stands out right from the get go is their athleticism,” Mettlach said. “Both of them can make plays with their feet. So, we’re going to be able to do some things that we haven’t done here in the past in terms of the quarterback being involved in the run game. (It) just makes us more dynamic on the edge that way.”

Fries was quick to acknowledge that he has learned a lot about college football from watching Ark for the past two seasons.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be under Will for the past couple of years,” said Fries. “So, there’s a lot of guidance there. But, I’m finally getting comfortable with the position, with the offense. I’ve been blessed to be around this offense long enough where it’s finally starting to click. This spring was definitely beneficial to get a lot of reps so that I’m ready for the fall.”

While the crowd was very supportive on Saturday, Fries knows there is still a long way for him to go if he wants to lead the Huskies from under center.

“I feel like I’ve been doing a pretty good job in the weight room and getting my body ready,” he said. “My next step is definitely going to be mentally preparing myself for the fall, acknowledging defenses better, and just really slowing the game down as a whole.”

While he was taking snaps second to Fries throughout the afternoon, Collins also made his way into the offense at tight end, something that Mettlach has seen him do a little before, and wants to keep working with him on, because the offense will benefit from having him on the field.

“Part of that is a necessity,” said Mettlach. “We’re a little thin at that position. He had some reps there last year as a freshman. He’s a big, physical, strong kid, so he can handle it.

“If Alex ends up being the guy that’s going to play every single snap at (quarterback), Drew has to be on the field. He’s just too good of an athlete to be standing on the sideline next to us. We will use him in some h-back-type situations, just to be able to get his athleticism on the field from there.”

While in the fall, the offense will be led by a player with less experience than perhaps the coaching staff would prefer, they can take pride in the knowledge that their message of “taking care of the football” was heard all spring long.

“What I liked a lot today is that, in between our periods and our sessions today, whether we were doing our red zone stuff, coming out of our own goal line, that the guys really understood the situation really well, whether it was third down, second down, coming out, going in, taking care of the football, doing a good job there, and then ultimately playing with high energy,” Milbrath said. “So even some of the younger guys that might have had some questions on exactly the scheme and the play calls, they went and flew around at 100 miles an hour, did what they could, and played physical. That’s all we can ask.”

On the other end of the field, the Huskies’ defensive starters, led by Sam Kinne, looked ready for the challenge that will come this fall once the season starts. Mettlach loved what he saw from his starters, but wants to keep developing depth wherever possible.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that have played on the back end, (Michael) Bates and Sammy Ahearn take care of a lot of grass on the hashes. Then we’ve got a lot of veterans that are playing at corner as well, so we’re excited about that part,” Mettach said. “Obviously, those guys have to have a good summer as well to be able to create some depth so I’m not continuing to speak about 11 guys. We can start talking about 15 to 22 guys; to create those guys that can come in and play when those guys (the starters) are not in the game.”

For Mettlach, confidence on defense might be what helps lead to development on offense.

“There’s no question that our leadership, our heart and soul of our team going into August, is going to start with those 11 on that side of the football,” he said. “We are going to have to piggyback off that on (the offensive) side, until those guys grow up front and at quarterback.”

Up next

The Huskies’ spring season is over, but they will continue to have players workout and focus on their individual skills so that, when they return to school in August, they can step in and work their way through up-tempo practices to get into game shape quickly.

The Huskies will open their season at home with Hillsdale on Saturday, Sept. 9, at 1 p.m.

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