FRANKLIN – The old adage is that offense wins games but defense wins championships. The Grizzlies boast one of the top offenses in the country, but early in camp it's the defense that has gotten rave reviews from head coach Mike Leonard.
Franklin returns five starters on the defensive side of the ball in 2017 with a collection of players that saw valuable playing time a year ago ready to assume larger roles. That experience, along with a talented group of incoming student-athletes, has expectations high for the Grizzly defense in defensive coordinator Mel Mills' second year at the helm.
"We're really excited for what Coach Mills has cranked up on the defensive side of the ball," Leonard said. "He's had a year under his belt as the defensive coordinator and we have a lot of guys that filled holes for us last year that are ready to make their mark this year. Our guys are hungry to earn playing time and we're really encouraged by what we have seen so far."
Up front is where Griz fans can expect to see the most familiar faces in 2017. Seniors Zachary Turner and Grant Bryan are set to anchor the line after both earned All-HCAC honors a year ago. Fellow senior Nathan Adams brings a wealth of experience to the line and junior Zak Prater will also battle for more snaps after a strong sophomore year.
Senior Lucas Clark, juniors Michael Eisberg and Tyler Reed and sophomores Tristan Shelley & Ben Woodward are all program mainstays from a year ago that will compete with six newcomers for playing time up front.
The linebackers will be headed up by last year's leading tackler in senior Jared Wesley, along with fellow senior Jay McClain. Wesley finished with 58 tackles and one sack on his way to earning a Second Team All-HCAC nomination while McClain finished eighth on the Griz with 32 stops.
Playing time will be up for grabs at the other linebacker spots following the graduations of Austin Day and Hunter Smith. Seniors Nathan Warman and Logan Hale are joined by St. Joseph's College transfer Austin Fleming as three players who bring a wealth of experience in middle of the field.
The area of the Franklin defense that will look the most different is in the defensive backfield, where five of the team's six top tacklers in the secondary were lost to graduation. Senior and two-time Second Team All-HCAC selection Ryan Conner is back to anchor the defensive backs while juniors David Masayile, Tim Kreczmer, Tyrone Thomas, Chaz Hill and Bryan Wells are all program mainstays that will battle for playing time.
"Up and down the lineup, we need guys to contribute if we're going to win," Leonard continued. "We are going to have guys playing bigger roles on defense this year and everyone has come to camp ready to go on that end and they've all gotten better as camp has gone on."
Those who don't crack the two-deep are going to have plenty of chances to contribute on special teams this year. Under the guidance of associate head coach Steve Rock, the Grizzlies are accustomed to sending out one of the top special teams coverage units every year full of players looking to prove themselves.
Additionally, Franklin welcomes back specialist Stephen Colligan, who served as the team's top option in the kicking game. Return ace Brad Bonomini is also back in the fold after racking up 401 yards in the return game a season ago.
"Our special teams units are going to be a strong point for us," Leonard quipped. "Those guys who may not see time on offense or defense, they're going to get an opportunity to contribute on special teams. We've got a great specialist back in Stephen Colligan and Coach (Steve) Rock does a great job with our special teams units every year. This year is going to be no different."
The Grizzlies will face a stiff test in their opening game when they hit the road to face Thomas More in a rematch of last year's thrilling opening game that saw the Griz erase an 18-point second half deficit for a 43-39 win over the #11-ranked Saints.
Kickoff for the 2017 regular season is set for Saturday, Sept. 2 at 1:00 p.m.