FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Saline Returns to Action With The Fastest Team of the Palka Era
Joe Palka begins his 10th year as head coach of the Saline football program knowing this about his team.
“Raw skill-wise, and raw speed-wise, this team is right up there with any team we’ve had - and maybe even faster,” Palka said.
Saline football watchers have been waiting for this senior class to mature since 2019 - or maybe even 2018 when QB Larry Robinson debuted with the Hornets. Along with Robinson, you’ve got RB Josh Rush and Receiver Caden Winston. That’s three-quarters of a 4-by-100 relay that would finish on the podium at the state track meet. And they’ve got 10 years of varsity football experience.
“Speed has been an emphasis here and the vast majority of our skill guys are in our track program, so we’ve been cultivating that speed,” Palka said. “If you look at our inside skill guys, our slot receivers, quarterbacks and running backs, we are a fast team.”
Defensive coordinator Duane Wilson might not want to hear it, but the Hornets having graduated so many of their front seven, and with all the experience coming back on offense, Saline might be in a position to win some shootouts this year.
As always, the goal in Saline is to win the state championship. And just like it was in year one of the Palka era, the way to get there is to “get better every week.”
Saline has won seven straight SEC Red titles. The Hornets haven’t lost an SEC Red regular-season game since Sept. 27, 2013. That’s 37 straight victories, not including playoffs.
“Expectations for us are always to win a state championship,” Palka said. “And to do that, you really have to win the league title. Those are always the stated goals - but you don’t focus on those right away. We really just focus on the continual improvement model we talk about every year - that we’ll be better at the end than we were at the beginning. And we usually are.”
Saline defeated Pioneer, Huron and Holt to win the district last year before falling to Rockford in the regional. The Hornets only regular-season loss came to Grand Blanc, 14-13, in the final week of the season.
By the time the playoffs resumed Jan. 8 after a nearly two-month pause for COVID-19, the Hornets were pretty banged up. They played Rockford without QB Robinson and LB London Parrish. The Hornets hung with them for a half before Rockford pulled away in the third quarter. Importantly, the Hornets glimpsed what their young freshman QB CJ Carr could do in a big game. Carr has been fielding offers from D1 colleges all summer. Robinson elected to continue his football career with Army.
Saline has two QBs that just about any Michigan school would love to have. Palka plans to utilize both.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun. They both bring a different skill set that is going to put a lot of stress on teams. Our opponents are basically going to have to prepare for two different types of offenses,” Palka said. “Both guys are capable of running the offense.”
Robinson is a jack of all trades with the kind of speed and elusiveness Palka loves in a QB. Carr is a more traditional QB, who stands tall in the pocket and hits targets with a great arm.
When Robinson isn’t quarterback, Palka plans to get the ball to him in other ways, either as a receiver or running back.
“Larry is capable of playing well at all the skill positions,” Palka said. “CJ is a little greener, but he’s got so much raw talent. Both guys are so talented that you can’t keep them off the field.”
Palka said the QBs are handling the situation well.
“They are great teammates and they are big supporters of each other. Every time I talk to them, they emphasize their commitment to winning,” Palka said. “I think they are both embracing the situation.”
Regardless of who’s passing, one key target is star receiver Caden Winston. Junior Roman Laurio is also showing exciting skills in practice. When Josh Rush isn’t running back, he can be used at receiver.
Senior Gavin Messman and sophomore Dylan Messman will play tight end. Receiver Justin Burton will also play tight end.
Running back Josh Rush is the incumbent. He’s shown great speed and elusiveness since his sophomore year. Unfortunately, he’s been injured and has missed part of the camp. In his place, you could see more Blaise Blastos and Ryan Niethammer - both of whom found room to run last year.
“We’ve got depth,” Palka said.
And they’re playing behind a veteran offensive line. Senior Garrett Beazley has moved from center to tackle. Senior Giuseppe Gottfried, who has committed to Air Force, has moved from guard to tackle. Senior Luke Masters remains at guard. Senior Jason Stierle lines up at the other guard position and senior Zaden Bratschi is at center.
The Hornets are considerably less experienced on defense - with most of that experience on the perimeter. Max Koehn returns at corner. Carter Smith and Garret Baldwin start at safety. Blake Wilson will also play at corner.
What you could see this year is more players going both ways. So Caden Winston or Josh Rush might get reps at defensive back to help depth on defense.
At linebacker you’ll see a lot of seniors Zach Antal and Dohnovan Chambell. Junior Sullivan Mills will also play linebacker. Antal was a regular for the Hornets last year. Chambell and Mills played against Rockford in the regional final.
The defensive line includes Joe Raupp and Ian Gifford at end. At tackle, the starters are Nathan Huddleston and Collin Krasko. Junior Andrew Hartley and some of the offensive lineman will also help on the defensive line.
“We’re a little thin there, especially as guys get dinged up,” Palka said.
As fast and skilled as the Hornets are, there are questions about depth and size on defense.
Blake Wilson is the punter. Several players are competing for the kicking job. Rush and Winston will return kickoffs. Baldwin and Sam Frush will help with punt returns.