By Greg Bates
DE PERE – An electric offense and opportune defense created the perfect mix for the De Pere football season a year ago.
After an eight-win regular season, a deep postseason run was anticipated for the Redbirds. However, the squad was upset in Level 2 in overtime on a last-second defensive stand by visiting Hartford Union.
But De Pere is back, ready to make some more noise this year. It will ride a solid group of seniors who have played a huge role in changing the program.
The Redbirds, a combined 16-2 in the last two seasons, have back offensive stars Gabe Herman, Noah Gehin, Ross Rowland and Devin Koskey and defensive stalwarts Michael Alexander and Brennan Kincade.
There is plenty of promise for the reigning Fox River Classic Conference-North champions.
De Pere is under new leadership at the top. Chad Michalkiewicz took the Kimberly head coaching job and De Pere hired former Wisconsin Badgers defensive back Ben Strickland.
Just a few practices into the season, Strickland was still learning the guys and figuring out what makes them tick.
“They’re a group that’s driven. They’re a group that understands what it takes to win in terms of preparation,” Strickland said. “They’re a group that works hard and they’re determined. I think also they enjoy being around each other, which is the great part about the chemistry of the team. Obviously, the seniors have been together for quite some time, but then you’ve got the sophomores that are now becoming juniors that are sprinkling themselves in.”
Strickland, who has experience as an assistant coach at the Division I college level but is a first-time high school head coach, has a clear vision of how he wants to utilize his key returning players.
“I’ve talked to our guys just about kind of the four pillars of our program being trust, love, commitment and belief,” Strickland said. “A lot of times when you stick into situations where you haven’t won, belief is the hardest thing to pull out of kids, especially if they’re not used to winning. These guys are used to winning, they know what it takes and so I think it’s just building on that belief of not just that they’re that caliber of a team, but every time they step on the field, regardless of earlier in the year, later the year, they’ve got a chance to win the game.
“With those guys, entrusting them with more responsibility and accountability to be able to lead by example, because they’ve been through that before and they’re pretty easily coachable. They’ve had experience, but also getting them to realize that every year’s a new year. What happened last year has no bearing on what’s going to happen this year. This is a new group, this is a new unit and so we’ve got to make sure we do what’s right by this year’s team, take the confidence, take the moment that they’ve had over the last couple of years and sustain it and then build on it.”
The Redbirds’ start with Herman, who is entering his third season at quarterback.
At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Herman is a prototypical dual-threat quarterback. He’s solid throwing from the pocket and excellent at eluding tackles and breaking away for long runs.
The FRCC Offensive Player of the Year in 2021 was 79-for-138 for 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air. On the ground, the bruising runner amassed a team-leading 658 yards on just 94 carries and 13 touchdowns.
“With Gabe, he’s obviously a college-level quarterback — to what level, we don’t know yet — so he’s still got a large amount of development to continue to happen between now and whenever his playing career is done, not just here, but elsewhere,” Strickland said. “So, I think it’s just continuing to raise that level within him. But, again, playing to his strengths and things that you feel like can enhance his game, keep pushing him down that road. He’s a kid that obviously doesn’t need to get pushed, but he’s a guy that you need to be transparent with, you need to be objective in terms of your perspective and what you’re seeing so that you can rely that to him so he can improve, because he wants to get better and be the best quarterback for this team.”
Koskey is also back after rushing for 597 yards and four touchdowns. His younger brother, Lucas, will also be in the mix this season to get carries. Alexander was a viable option last season as a running back and tallied 140 yards and four scores.
“He’s a Swiss Army knife where you can use him wherever and he’s going to pick it up,” Strickland said about Alexander. “I think we’ll have an adequate amount of backs in the backfield.”
De Pere has to replace Herman’s favorite target from a season ago, Jack May. The speedster had 32 catches for 520 yards and eight touchdowns. Also gone is Anders Davidson.
Tight end Gehin, who was second on the team with 12 receptions for 183 yards and two touchdowns, will be relied on more heavily in the passing game this season.
Ben Willihnganz was planning to be a big target for Herman, but he got hurt during basketball season. His timetable to return is up in the air.
“Gabe has confidence in the guys that he’s grown up playing ball with,” Strickland said. “You’ve got Grant Hohol, then you’ve got Jack’s (May) brother, Hayden. I don’t expect him to be like his brother, I want him to be himself. But he plugs into a spot and he’s been showing improvement all the way through, so that’s been good to see.”
Seniors Mitch Derenne and Grayson Fezatte are both looking to earn playing time at receiver.
The Redbirds’ offensive line could be its most talented unit. Led by Rowland, who has been a first-team all-conference center the last two seasons, De Pere is in good hands.
Also back is starting left guard Jackson Bromberek, right guard Milo Upton and right tackle Grant Smits.
Strickland said a couple players are vying for the final starting O-line spot.
“Those guys along the line have to have versatility, so if one guy goes down, the next best guy comes in,” Strickland said. “I think offensively, we haven’t kept it overly complicated for the guys up front so that they can plug in and do that, regardless of what position they started off in, they can play five along the line.”
The Redbirds’ offense averaged 29.5 points per game a season ago, while the defense surrendered 14.2 points. In the team’s nine wins, the defense allowed just 8.3 points.
“The defense is continuing to grow and, like I said, we’ve got some offensive guys flipping to defense, so that just pushes the competition there,” Strickland said. “I think there’s a lot of competition on the defensive side of the ball, because they know spots are up for grabs. You see some of the older guys really taking ownership and taking hold of it, so that’s been fun to see.”
The heart of last year’s stout defense centered around linebackers Alexander, Caleb Rinard and Luke Brosig — the team’s top three tacklers.
With just Alexander, who had a team-leading 92 stops, back on the inside, he will be relied much more.
“It’s given that he’s a leader on the defense, him and Brennan, obviously two returning guys, but also two good leaders, two good seniors that care about how they do on the football field,” Strickland said. “It’s about making sure that there’s not too much pressure on them. They’ve got to be themselves and they’ve got to build that trust within the linebacking corps, the D-line, the secondary, to make sure that everybody’s on the same page.”
“I think we’ve got a team that flies around the football, because they’re hungry. So, that makes up for a lot of things.”
With an open competition at linebacker, Strickland is seeing some fierce battles. He said Landon Pulvermacher, Derrick Bunkelman and Aidan Hill are in the mix.
Kincade emerged last season to be a difference-maker at defensive end/outside linebacker. Strickland believes he’s going to take another step forward as a leader on the line.
Gavin Busse has taken ownership at nose tackle and Bromberek and Upton are good options to play on both sides of the ball on the line.
De Pere’s secondary is young after graduating all four starters, led by Jack Jorgensen.
Early in practice, Strickland has been trying out Grant Faber and Easton Arendt at the two cornerback spots and Fezatte and Brett Maier at the safety positions.
Strickland, 37, is excited to get going for his first season at De Pere. He is a 2003 graduate of Brookfield Central and played at Wisconsin from 2003-07.
He’s looking to keep De Pere in the hunt for the FRCC crown and be a program to be reckoned with in the state.
“Chad did great things here and I want to build off of that and keep this thing growing,” Strickland said.
DE PERE’S REGULAR-SEASON SCHEDULE
Aug. 18 vs. Neenah
Aug. 25 vs. Wausau West
Sept. 2 vs. Pulaski
Sept. 9 @ Green Bay East
Sept. 16 vs. Green Bay Southwest
Sept. 23 @ West De Pere
Sept. 30 @ Green Bay Preble
Oct. 7 vs. Bay Port
Oct. 14 @ Ashwaubenon
Note: All games begin at 7 p.m.