Ends anchor Tech defensive front

HOUGHTON – Since an injury-plagued 2009 season, the Michigan Tech football team has put together an enviable four-year stretch for Division II, posting a 28-13 record over the last four years.

To win on that kind of consistent basis, a team needs a plan of succession in place for the high turnover and graduation of athletes.

Steve Short gives way to Tyler Scarlett at quarterback. From Steve Worthy to Matt Curtin to Brandon Cowie at wide receiver.

And from Todd Storm and Drew Vanderlin as bookend defensive ends to Cameron Allen and Nelson Wienke.

This spring marks the third Allen and Wienke will start for Tech together on opposite sides of the defensive line, giving Husky coach Tom Kearly as versatile a pair of ends as there is in the GLIAC.

Any success the Huskies enjoy on defense – and there has been quite a bit in the last four years – often stems from these two positions.

“It starts with the two ends. Cam Allen and Ian Wienke both will be three year starters and both have had all-league recognition. Both are good pass rushers, both are physical, just good, solid football players,” Kearly said. “They took over the transition from the (Todd) Storm, (Drew) Vanderlin crew and have kind of blossomed.”

This spring, Kearly is hoping for continued improvement from Allen and Wienke, but also setting the table for the future pair behind them.

Freshmen Garrett Ross and Sam Kitts have made their presence known to Kearly, appearing as early frontrunners to keep that program position well stocked.

“They really have a chance to be good players,” Kearly said. “We like what both of them have done this spring.”

Currently, Allen and Weinke and the only two mainstays in the defensive front six – four down lineman and two middle linebackers – with injury and eligibility providing a lot of fresh faces this April.

Graduated captain Taylor Ziolkowski gives way to junior Paul Kuoppala, a natural playmaker, while the other starting middle Dan Perrault (L’Anse) is not on campus this spring as he weighs whether to return for a sixth season of eligibility.

Junior Ben Tauchen and senior Cam Shortz are vying to replace him, while freshman Derrick Diver is also pushing for playing time.

Kuoppala has picked up right where he left off from sub duty, according to Kearly, providing more of the game-breaking presence that has given him 3.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for a loss, two turnovers and four pass breakups in limited playing time his first two seasons.

“Paul brings quite a bit as a football player,” Kearly said. “He can run, he’s physical, a natural leader. Just a good, solid football player.”

To go from good to great, the Huskies must revert to 2012 form on run defense.

Last year Tech finished No. 8 overall in the GLIAC, giving up 186 yards per game on the ground, with Ferris State in particular (300 rush yards) giving the defense fits.

In 2012, Tech led the league in rush defense, allowing just 118 yards per game.

“My biggest concern right now is our interior run game,” Kearly said. “The last three or four ball games, we had people run the football on us inside. That concerns me.”

Tanner Agen returns at defensive tackle – though is missing this spring with an injury – as does backup Brandon Hutchinson, who has seen the field quite a bit.

The Huskies are looking for a solid rotation at DT, so Connor Cocking, James Jackson, Brock Pahlow and freshman Hilding Beaudoin (Kingsford) all have a chance to play in the fall as well.

Kearly is keeping his options open.

“We are looking for that stoutness inside,” Kearly said. “With Hutchinson and Agen returning, we feel we have made strides to secure that interior. But we need to do better against the interior run game.”