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UW-LA CROSSE FOOTBALL

UW-La Crosse football: Spring camp wraps up with focus on growing depth

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UW-L football

UW-L football coach Matt Janus watches a drill between junior running back Joey Stutzman and defensive lineman Jake Gronwick on Friday at Veteran Memorial Sports Complex.

A Sunday practice at the Veterans Memorial Sports Complex wrapped up spring training camp for a UW-La Crosse Eagles football team that looks to build off a 9-3 season in 2021.

In a four-week program that began on April 3, coach Matt Janus and his staff have had a different offensive focus each week. After working on the base offense in Week 1, Week 2 was dedicated to third down and Week 3 to red zone. This past week has been a mix of different situations, including two-minute drills and overtime.

Sunday’s practice also marked “Family Day,” where player families and recruits could come watch practice and interact with the coaching staff.

The practices are a far cry from what they will become in summer and fall with Division III teams having to practice within stricter regulations during the spring.

“It’s been nice,” Janus said. “We’re still limited. We can’t do full 11-on-11 or full participation on certain drills, so we were able to do a lot of schematic things. We’re working a lot on technique and fundamental stuff at every position. Now we’re kind of getting into situational stuff.”

The spring has proved to be a good time for Janus to learn more about his quarterback group, testing out players at different positions and getting more reps from those showing potential.

QUARTERBACK COMPETITION: Janus said he’s aware that there’s a lot of questions surrounding the quarterback group following Jakob Parks’ departure to play in the German Football League. Parks started all but one game for the Eagles in 2021, throwing for 27 touchdowns and five interceptions.

The man that currently occupies the starting role under center, according to Janus, is junior quarterback Cade Garcia. Garcia threw eight touchdowns last season as Parks’ backup, including four in his lone start against UW-Eau Claire. The spring camp has shown the growing chemistry between Garcia and offensive coordinator Michael McGuire.

“With Cade, he’s just smart,” Janus said. “He’s on the same wavelength as Coach McGuire. (Cade) understands our playbook and he’s going to be a great coach some day. Honestly, sometimes we let him call some plays just to get more of a feel.”

Garcia is the front-runner to be named starter right now, but a pair of quarterbacks returning from injury are making their cases to rise up the depth chart. Junior Keyser Helterbrand was out for most of last year with an injury, while sophomore and Onalaska High School graduate Austin Larson is coming off a shoulder injury.

Helterbrand’s athleticism has stood out to Janus, while Larson continues to get acclimated to the offense.

“(Helterbrand is a) phenomenal athlete who’s come along at quarterback and is able to get us into the quarterback run game,” Janus said. “He’s really developed over the last three years here. He’s got a really good arm and a knowledge of our playbook from getting to observe last year because of his injury.

“Larson has had a really nice spring. He had some shoulder issues last year and you can see he feels better and more confident with the playbook.”

While Garcia’s experience makes him the favorite to start, Janus left the door open for a system with multiple quarterbacks and a competition that lasts into the season.

“Right now if we played a game, yes, Cade is our starter,” Janus said. “But I envision us probably using two at times and I envision that it won’t be settled for a long time. It’s going to continue being a competition.”

ON THE RISE: Several starters on defense — including two seniors in linebacker AJ Spychala, defensive back Elijah Alt and sophomore defensive back Cade Osborn — haven’t gotten their typical number of reps. Instead, Janus and his staff have tried to evaluate talent further down the depth chart to see who can fill in for departing players.

Janus highlighted defensive back Jake Schara as a breakout player of spring camp. Schara — who transferred to UW-La Crosse two years ago from Division II St. Cloud State — is starting to show the promise the Eagles saw in him.

“We knew we had a really good player,” Janus said. “He played almost every special teams snap for us last year and had an impact on defense. Now, to see him embrace moving over to free safety, it’s just made a world of difference for our defense. He’s got length, is physical and has got a lot of size.

Sophomore defensive back Charlie Kramer is another player Janus said has shined after being highly recruited out of Round Lake, Illinois and being out due to injury. Another change to the defense is in the coaching staff with defensive line coach Mitchell Colicott joining the program on March 23.

On offense, the wide receiver group has seen development from a pair of freshmen in Wyatt Lemoine and Jack Butcher. Lemoine and Butcher present a size advantage, both measuring at 6-foor-4.

Janus has taken particular pride in freshman wide receiver Tyler Stubbendick, the brother of junior wide receiver Max Stubbendick.

“I think three years ago we didn’t see a lot in (Tyler),” Janus said. “We weren’t sure he was going to make the team. Now we’re watching him and he’s gotten good. It’s been great to watch him grow in our program and now be in a position to play for us.”

MAXING OUT TALENT: One of the standout receivers of Friday’s practice wasn’t even an offensive player. Sophomore defensive back Brennan Goralski ran several routes in one-on-one drills and showcased his speed on a pair of long receptions. All the while, Goralski continued playing defensive back in other drills.

“With Brennan, we know we have an explosive young man,” Janus said. “We obviously know what we have with him at cornerback. We feel like he’s in the mix and could potentially do some kick returning stuff with us. We know out of high school he did a little bit of offense so we’re trying to get him some looks.”

Goralski isn’t the only one testing the waters of being a two-way player. Along with Garcia potentially being the starting quarterback come the fall, Janus said he could also double as a backup punter or kicker. Larson has also gotten reps as a long snapper.

“We’re trying to maximize the talent that we have on our roster as best we can,” Janus said. “We try to get our guys to play to their strengths. If that means we have guys who play both ways or both special teams, they very well might play every special team. We’re trying to put the best 11 on the field at one time that we can.”

James Krause can be reached at James.Krause@lee.net or on Twitter @jkrausepro.

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