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Wildcats ready to move forward after scrimmage

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By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

With Saturday afternoon's first ever scrimmage to conclude spring practice, the Indiana Wesleyan University football team has moved past taking baby steps and ready to hit the ground running this fall.

"For three years I've done everything in firsts and now I'm a little bit over it," IWU head coach Jordan Langs said. "I'm ready to get into a routine and getting into it, and even for the players it's not a novelty any more and let's lock it in and let's be ready to play in the best conference in the country.

"I think our guys are ready for it," he added.

The Wildcats had a very successful inaugural campaign and finished 7-3 with a very young roster. It promises to become much tougher this fall when IWU becomes a full-fledged member of the Mid-States Football Association and plays in the same mid-east division with juggernauts Marian, Saint Francis, Concordia (Michigan) and Sienna Heights (Michigan).

"Things will settle in a little bit, which is good," Langs said. "But then, expectations also go up a little higher, which is what we want."

Justin (Juice) Johnson, the former Marion Giants standout, played a big role in the 'Cats success last year, and the sophomore cornerback said preseason practices conditioned the team to play at a higher level this fall.

"The focus is getting ready for this tough schedule we have," Johnson said. "We know last season our schedule was pretty tough and we got to play actual teams that were in our conference. This year, we're actually in the conference and five of the teams teams are (ranked) in the top 15. We know we have a pretty hard schedule and we're going to play as hard as we can and get to the (NAIA) playoffs."

Johnson was one of the scrimmage standouts and had the lone defensive takeaway with an end zone interception. Like the rest of the team, Johnson said he has improved since their last game on November 17 and made a smooth transition to the collegiate level.

"I feel like I have gotten a whole lot better from the fall and I'm maturing," he said. "I've got to know my new family and have grown socially.

"Football is football and any level you play at you may have to adapt to the level, but everybody puts their helmets on and straps up just like I do and it's pretty much same," Johnson continued. "But you have to get better, stronger and faster to play at a higher level."

Wide receiver Brayden Smith played at a high level last year regardless of the program's status and picked up where he left off Saturday. On the first play of the first series, Smith hauled in a 39-yard catch from quarterback Michael Jensen and finished the drive with a 12-yard touchdown reception.

The next drive, Smith streaked down the middle of the field and made a 70-yard catch-and-run TD. Jensen, filling in for injured starter Zack Blair, threw for 136 yards in the first two series and was accurate on his passes throughout the scrimmage.

"We put a lot of work in this spring and it was fun to put it all together," Smith said. "I've been trying to get bigger, trying to get better feet, just trying to be a better leader on and off the field, and it's good to see those results."

Throughout the scrimmage, Johnson was matched up with Smith and admitted it was a daunting task. But it was nothing different from a typical practice session and the experience has been beneficial to both players. 

"He's NFL-bound to me and everyone says it's good to go up against him," Johnson said, "and he says it's good to go up against me because we're very competitive in practice. We help each other out and we tell each other we're never going to see anybody like him or me in a game."

Noah Gray, a mid-term arrival, made an impact with a 66-yard TD reception from third-string quarterback Micah Butte. Jensen ran 26 yards for another score, and Langs was pleased with the play of the three quarterbacks that participated in the scrimmage, which also included Lars MacArthur.

"We all know what Brayden is and all three quarterbacks really played well," Langs said. "Coach (Eric) Terrazas has got those guys right making intelligent plays, confident throws and they had the chains moving.

"Zack's coming off a little injury so he didn't go," Langs added. "Every position's open all the time, and we know what Zack is. But Michael and those guys have made a ton of improvement, too, and those guys will be hungry and going after the spot and the best man will come out of it."

While Langs said player retention was high, two who won't be back are former Giants standouts Dontea Henderson and Tyrell Phelps. Langs did not provide any details on Henderson and Phelps' departure.

"Those guys are no longer in school," Langs said. "They have decided to move in a different direction. That's part of college football, and turnover is part of it.

"We retained close to 80 percent of our kids, which across the country is very impressive," he continued. "Most college football programs would be excited to retain 50 percent of their kids. We're really excited about the guys that are here and guys that have put themselves in position to be here."

The current roster is 75 players deep and another 36 have been signed for the 'Cats' second season. More prospective recruits were at the stadium to view the scrimmage and Langs said he expects to have around 125 report for the first practice on August 7.

"We will have about 50 kids come in and this is the first time we haven't had to worry about guys coming in and playing right away," Langs said. "We can recruit for depth and recruit for development. We'll have some guys who will impact right away, no doubt. But it's also nice that those guys will get to assimilate in our program before they get ready to play."