HOUGHTON - For Michigan Tech football coach Tom Kearly, the priority for building a successful football team is simple.
The offense must be able to run the ball - especially given the Houghton weather conditions - and (intuitively) the defense must stop the run. Execute those two mandates, and the rest of the game will open up with a wealth of options to exploit.
Last season, the Huskies run defense held up their end of the bargain, finishing No. 2 in rushing defense in the 16-team conference both by yards allowed and yards per carry.
Michigan Tech’s Charlie Leffingwell challenges a Findlay tackler in the hole in a September game at Sherman Field. Leffingwell, who will be a junior in the fall, will be the only returning Husky running back with game experience. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
For the second straight year, however, the ground failed to fired on all cylinders, with Tech finishing the GLIAC championship season No. 11 in conference in rushing yards and No. 12 in YPC at a pedestrian 4.0. Those numbers were actually a slight improvement from the year before when the Huskies ranked No. 11 of 14 and second to last with a meager 3.6 yards per carry.
It's not hard to imagine what has been a point of emphasis this spring.
"We always believe on defense that if you can make a team one-dimensional, force them to throw the ball, then you have the advantage. Then you can do some things - blitzes, coverages - to take advantage on defense," Kearly said. "So for our offense it's the same way. We need that balance, otherwise (quarterback Tyler Scarlett) won't be as effective."
With seniors Cedrick Barber and Akeem Cason - combining for 716 yards - graduated, junior Charlie Leffingwell comes in as the only running back in spring camp with game experience.
At times, Leffingwell was the most effective runner last season on the Huskies roster, averaging over a full yard more per carry then Barber and receiving 34 more carries than Cason.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound bruiser only saw action in seven of 10 games, however, as various injuries kept him sidelined for a third of the season. In his freshman year, Leffingwell missed another five games to injury.
"Spring is always the time when we get a bit more physical, try to build that toughness," Kearly said. "In fall camp, we might scrimmage twice in full pads, because you can't risk a guy picking up a knock going into the season. But with spring and the summer to recover, we take that time to build that physicality and that toughness you need. ... The priority for Charlie will be to prove he can take a pounding and stay healthy. He is a very effective back when he is on the field, but we need him to stay on the field."
If Leffingwell can keep himself upright, the No. 1 runner spot is his to lose.
Kearly prefers to have a clear pecking order among the tailbacks - 20-25 carries for the starter, 5-10 touches for the backup and special teams work for the third-stringer - but hasn't enjoyed a true No. 1 over the last two years since all-GLIAC runner Phil Milbrath graduated.
"We do like having that No. 1 guy, that workhorse," Kearly said. "But someone has to prove they are that guy. We are not just going to force someone into that role if they can't handle it."
Behind Leffingwell, freshmen Jonathan Grace and Kevin Miller have received the rest of the reps in camp.
The battle between the two is still wide-open, Kearly said, and demonstrating improvement in spring ball will go a long way to determine the pecking order in fall camp.
"We like both of those guys quite a bit," Kearly said. "They are young, still have some stuff to learn, but they are both talented runners."
Kearly did want to emphasize that no matter what happened in spring, he would be keeping an open mind come the fall.
"We are looking for the guy who can help our football team the best," Kearly said. "Whether that's (Leffingwell), Grace, Miller or an incoming freshman - we have a couple recruits coming we really like - whoever proves themselves will get the reps."