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The Journal Gazette

  • Manchester University Athletics Manchester will rely heavily on senior running back Donavan Henderson Jr.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019 1:00 am

Manchester Preview

Star running back key to Spartans' success

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette


Thursday: vs. Trine, 7:30 p.m. 

Sept. 14: vs. Alma, 6 p.m.

Sept 19: at Defiance, 7 p.m.

Sept. 28: vs. Rose-Hulman, 1:30 p.m.

Oct. 12: vs. Mount St. Joseph, 1:30 p.m.

Oct. 19: at Franklin, 1:30 p.m.

Oct. 26: at Hanover, 1:30 p.m.

Nov. 2: vs. Bluffton, 1:30 p.m.

Nov.9 : at Defiance, 1:30 p.m.

Nov. 16: vs. Anderson, 1:30 p.m.

The Manchester football team knows how difficult it is to lose a quarterback, or two, to injury. But the Spartans know even better how much of a luxury is to have a terrific running back.

Whether the quarterback is healthy or hurt, experienced or not, being able to hand the ball off to the likes of Donavan Henderson Jr., can make for an effective safety valve or threatening offensive weapon.

“It helps with the quarterback, right?” asked Manchester coach Nate Jensen, who last year lost starting quarterback Alex Downard to an injury, then Bryce Tomasi to another, and wound up starting receiver Austin Roberts under center in what became a 4-6 season.

“Having Donavan takes the pressure off those young quarterbacks and gives them a chance to settle in a little bit. Sometimes it's just real easy to turn around and hand off the ball to No. 21. That helps, that helps a ton.”

Henderson, a 5-foot-7, 202-pound senior, rushed for a school-record 1,268 yards and a conference-leading 17 touchdowns last season, when he was a first-team All-Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference player. That eased things greatly on the quarterbacks – Tomasi played in seven games, Roberts in nine – and should be even more of a luxury this season whether it's Downard or Tomasi who emerges atop the depth chart.

Maybe even better news: “We're basically coming back with the entire offensive line, minus our senior center from last year. So having four starters back on the offensive line, I'm really excited about that,” Jensen said.

And the receiving corps is nothing to sneeze at with Harrington Greer, who had 27 catches for 392 yards and six touchdowns last year; Darren Lathrop, who had 10 catches for 186 yards and one touchdown; and Roberts, who had 20 catches for 343 yards and two touchdowns while playign receiver full time in 2017.

“I feel really, really comfortable with what's going on at the offensive side of things, and I'm pretty excited with that,” Jensen said.

Last year, the Spartansaveraged 330.5 yards and 29.9 points. The defense gave up 380.4 yards and 30.4 points per game.

Now, they hope, the defense will pick up more of the slack.

“I think our linebacking corps is probably the strength of our defense right now,” said Jensen, namely Justin Thomas, Willis Sands and Whitko graduate Conner Sherwin. “Those three guys are kind of the anchors of the defense.”

The defensive line is led by Nolan Sipe, a senior from Bishop Dwenger, but the secondary is young with junior Nick Tillman being the one with the most experienced.

“We had a really good spring with coming together as a team, the team-bonding stuff, and when we got back to camp it was like we took another step as a team and as a program,” Jensen said. “We need to keep building that bond amongst ourselves.”

The Spartans play host to Trine at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the annual season-opening game, which Trine has won 11 of 13 times, including 55-7 last year.

The teams will try to raise awareness for mental health issues; both will wear green shoelaces and T-shirts will be sold.

“Our guys wanted to bring awareness to this because it doesn't get talked about enough,” Jensen said. “Especially for student-athletes, we're supposed to be the ones that little things aren't supposed to bug us, right?”