DII football: 11 players looking to make an impact in the 2017 season
The last practices of the preseason are underway. The first polls and rankings have been released.
The Division II football season is set to commence.
A ton of highly talented, game-changing players are coming back in DII football for 2017. To narrow it down to a select few is a daunting task.
As we approach an opening night that features No. 1 Northwest Missouri State against conference rival and No. 4-ranked Emporia State, let’s take a look at just a few of the players who can make a big difference in the upcoming season:
Braxton Marstall, QB, Emporia State
The Hornets have lost five games the past two seasons, four of which came at the hands of two-time champion Northwest Missouri State. The Bearcats have a new regime, with a new head coach and a new starter behind center. Emporia State has a big chance to send a message on opening night.
Marstall will lead the way.
Marstall had a monster 2016 season. He was third in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association in passing (3,599 yards) and tied for second in touchdowns (31). A true dual threat, Marstall added 521 yards on the ground to go along with a team-best eight rushing touchdowns.
While Marstall lost his primary weapon in Mitchell Foote, to graduation, he returns three leading receivers. Junior Justin Brown and seniors Morris Williams II and Louis Dailey combined for 1,654 yards and 17 touchdowns. Already with a full season of playing together, this offensive unit should be hard to stop.
Luis Perez, QB, Texas A&M-Commerce
The Lions finished last season the ninth-ranked team in DII. They open 2017 as the preseason No. 5.
A large reason behind that is the arm of senior quarterback Luis Perez.
Perez had a big debut season with the Lions in 2016. He led the Lone Star Conference in passing, throwing for 3,326 yards and a school-record 32 touchdowns. Perez was obviously instrumental in leading Texas A&M-Commerce to its LSC-best 39.8 points per game, resulting in its third straight LSC title.
Though his top two receiving threats are gone, he returns a handful of wideouts that played with him last season. Perez also has the luxury of playing behind one of the best offensive lines in Division II. The unit returns three starters including Preseason All-American Jared Machorro. The line allowed less than a half-a-sack per game last season, giving Perez time, and certainly helping in his decision making, which resulted in just five interceptions all season.
The Lions have a tough opener against 2016 national runner-up North Alabama. If Perez comes out firing like last season, you can bet a Harlon Hill finalist campaign is on the way.
Martayveous Carter, RB, Grand Valley State
GVSU is the preseason No. 2 for a reason.
The Lakers have four of their biggest offensive stars returning and an offensive line that features four returners, too. That line makes the holes for Marty Carter. And Carter takes those holes better than anyone in DII football.
Carter led DII in rushing last season, piling up 1,907 yards. He added 20 running touchdowns, while getting one more through the air. He finished fifth in the Harlon Hill voting. And he’s only a junior.
Carter isn’t simply important because of his athletic ability. His talent puts fear into opposing defenses and makes returning starting quarterback Bart Williams that much more effective. Williams has had back-to-back strong seasons, leading the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in passing yards (3,334) and efficiency (172.5) last season.
Last season, the Lakers finished with the 13th-best total offense in Division II. With a bevy of returners and the legs of Carter, they could jump to the top this season.
Brody Oliver, WR, Colorado School of Mines
Colorado School of Mines had the No. 1 total offense in DII football last season. They amassed 7,369 yards, nearly a thousand more than the next closest team. Oliver was a large part of that.
Orediggers quarterback Justin Dvorak led DII in passing last season with 4,584 yards and 53 touchdowns. Oliver was on the receiving end over 35 percent of the time. He led DII in receiving (1,627 yards) and receiving touchdowns (26), tied with California (PA)’s Garry Brown for the total touchdown lead.
The Orediggers will have a new quarterback this season, making Oliver's skill and experience even more important. The redshirt-junior captain is a big target, standing at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. With hands like glue, he should see plenty of opportunities in 2017.
Though Colorado State-Pueblo has dominated the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference lately, the RMAC looks to be a three-team race between the Orediggers, ThunderWolves and Colorado Mesa. An opening night matchup between Colorado School of Mines and Colorado Mesa should tell a lot about what to expect this season.
Jay Watkins, DB, Indiana (PA)
The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division is going to be a fight. Indiana (PA) and California (PA) are predicted to finish No. 1 and No. 2 respectively. They are also the Nos. 9 and 8 teams in DII.
As they say, defense wins championships.
Watkins is one of the premier defenders in DII football. Since missing all but one game in 2014 from injury, he has been a model of consistency. He was among DII's leaders in interceptions last season, picking off seven passes. The redshirt-senior also found himself atop the leaderboards in passes defended, breaking up 10. Watkins also had a fumble recovery for a touchdown. He's earned preseason All-American honors from many observers.
You do have to question IUP's defense in a very tough West Division. Last year they finished sixth in the PSAC in total defense, allowing 365.4 yards a game, while finishing fourth in scoring defense, allowing 22.4 points a game. Lenny Williams, Jr. will lead the Crimson Hawk offense to some high scoring affairs, but to hold off Cal (PA) and Slippery Rock, IUP's defense will need to clamp down. That all starts with Watkins.
Others to watch:
QBs Connor Jessop (Sheperd), Jonathan Baker/ Zach Martin (Northwest Missouri State) and Blake Hawkins (North Alabama)
No pressure here. Three of 2016’s top DII football programs will be beginning the 2017 season with new quarterbacks. If these teams want to see continued success they will definitely need to see an immediate impact from their new field generals.
Reggie Bell, QB, Ferris State
Ferris State enters 2017 as the preseason No. 3, a whopping 34-5 over the past three seasons. Last year was its second trip to the national semifinals and that was primarily on the arm and legs of Bell. Bell threw for over 2,000 yards and 11 touchdowns, while rushing for over 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns. He has some turnover problems (seven interceptions and five fumbles lost), but an early season DII Showcase against a tough Ashland squad will show what he can do in the spotlight.
Laurence King, WR, Fairmont State
King has big shoes to fill, replacing the school’s record-setting receiver Fabian Guerra, who King actually outperformed in his freshman campaign last season. He is diminutive in stature, standing at just 5-foot-7, but a monster on the stat sheet, considering he returns kicks and can run the ball as well. The Fighting Falcons posted just 28 wins from 2010 to 2015 before reeling off 10 in 2016. Now contenders in the suddenly strong Mountain East, King can help them take the next step with another big season.
Marcus Martin, DE, Slippery Rock
Something about The Rock says sleeper this season. Slippery Rock has a stout offensive line to help its position players, but an even more solid defensive front. Martin is the PSAC’s all-time leader in sacks and tackles for loss (ranking sixth and ninth in DII history in those stats). He could become one of the greatest defenders in the history of DII football this season. Talk about an impact.