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STATE CHAMPS! Preseason top 25 football teams in Michigan: West Bloomfield No. 1 again to start 2021

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, August 25, 2021, 11:14 pm

While you probably could’ve flipped a coin to determine the order of the top two teams in this rankings, generally speaking, our rule of thumb in this space has been to give the benefit of the doubt to the defending champs, until proven otherwise. 

And there’s no doubt that the Lakers — who graduated a ton of talent — could very well drop of precipitously, if they can’t find answers to a young front seven on defense, or if there are transition problems in the first year under Tyrice Grice, after running so smoothly for years under Ron Bellamy, now at his collegiate alma mater, the University of Michigan. 

Given how much talent returns, though, and how much the Lakers learned from having the target on their backs the past few years — as well as how much Bellamy, Grice and the rest of last year’s coaching staff made sure to develop the younger players when they could, rather than just pound away with their seniors and stars — that seems unlikely.

“Now our twos are our ones. Those guys played half the games sometimes, sometimes more than our seniors,” Grice said at the Oakland Activities Association media day. “We’re younger, but we’re ‘talented young.’ … It feels like they’re starters. Coming in, it feels like we know what we’re working with.”

The Lakers might be young, but the coaching staff is experienced enough to know what the high expectations can do to a young team, a lesson they learned in 2017, when they started 0-2, then reeled off 11 straight wins to make it to Ford Field, losing to OAA rival Clarkston, 3-2. 

“That time, the pressure — it was the first time West Bloomfield ever went into the season ranked No. 1 before the season, and the pressure was on us, honestly. The pressure was on the coaches, but more importantly, the players. Once we lost that, we were embarrassed that we lost two games we should’ve won. So we pulled it together, refocused. All the playing around had to stop. And we went on a run, and went back to Ford Field. This year, some sites have us as the preseason No. 1, but we don’t have that same attitude we had in 2017. From experience, we’re going to make sure that our players don’t get caught up in the hype,” Grice said, admitting last year’s team was in a far different circumstance.

“Last year, we went into the season, honestly, saying we have a championship quality team. … We’ll know in the first three games what kind of team we’ve got, whether we’re a championship team, or not. And, at West Bloomfield, that’s all we talked about, that we’re focused on a championship.” 

Here are the top 25 teams, starting with the No. 1 Lakers:

1 West Bloomfield (11-1, D1 state title)

The Lakers graduated a ton of talent, for sure, but they’ve got talent returning, too — seven starters on offense, four on defense — and more waiting in the wings, from a JV team that went 6-0, and a freshman squad that went 5-1. Malik Mathiea will be one of the primary ball-carriers, along with highly ranked Dillon Tatum, a Mr. Football candidate who can play almost anywhere on the field for the Lakers. Semaj Morgan and Duane Herring will be the primary pass-catchers for the new quarterback, sophomore Reqez Nance, while Deangelo Thomas returns from Texas to add to the pass-catching corps. The offensive line is led by Anvil Award candidate Amir Herring and Ryan Ross. The front seven on defense needs retooling, but adding in guys like end/linebacker Michael Williams — who missed the first nine games of last year, recovering from a knee injury — and sophomore end Brandon Davis-Swain will go a long way. Kyle Johnson is back at linebacker, along with safety BJ Rankin and defensive back Lorenzo Williams. 

2 Belleville (10-1, D1 semifinals)

If there’s been a team that’s been watching the state title celebrations over the last handful of years, thinking ‘Could’ve been us,’ it’s been the talent-laden Tigers. Ever since they broke through with their first district and regional titles in 2018, this has felt like a team on the precipice of assembling a dynasty — but the Tigers still have yet to get over that semifinal hump. A 34-3 mark over the last three seasons puts the Tigers among the elite, but all three of those losses have come in the semis. Once this program breaks the seal …

Even with their yearly exodus of Division I talent, the Tigers are still loaded this fall. Extraordinary freshman Bryce Underwood has to fill the shoes of the state’s all-time TD king, Christian Dhue-Reid, but he has plenty of weapons, with Myles Rowser (Arkansas) and Aaron Alexander (Michigan) among the running back corps, and a receiving group that contains Christian Rapley, Jeremiah Caldwell and Deshaun Lee. JaKobe Watkins (Southeast Missouri State) leads a young, but talented offensive line, while the strength of the defense is in the backfield, with Rowser, Rapley, Caldwell, Lee and others forming perhaps the best secondary in the state. Alexander leads the linebackers, along with Cameron Dyson. 

3 DeWitt (12-0, D3 state title)

The Panthers of DeWitt know what it feels like to be unable to get over the hump for years — losing four times in the title game (’02, ’03, ’04 and ’13), with four more of the last 10 playoff runs ending with an earlier loss to the eventual champions — as well as the sweetness of finally getting it done. The crew that led DeWitt to its first title was senior-laden, but the Panthers still return eight starters from an offense that put up 494 points in 11 games, including 2021 Mr. Football candidate Ty Holtz (Brown) — one of the four Mr. Football finalists a year ago — along with stud wideout Tommy McIntosh (Wisconsin) and running backs Bryce Debri and Nick Flegler (Air Force). Only three starters return, though, from a defense that allowed just 80 points and posted six shutouts. The schedule isn’t easy, either, with D2 contender Traverse City Central, Portland and Stevensville Lakeshore, outside of a stacked CAAC Blue lineup, but the Panthers certainly have the firepower to make it back to Ford Field. 

4 Detroit Cass Tech (9-1, D1 district title)

It’s never easy to be the guy who has to replace THE GUY, but it’s not as if three-time state champion coach Thomas Wilcher left the cupboard bare on Grand River Ave, even if the Technicians did send a huge group of players off to college scholarships after last season. The new coach, CT alumnus Marvin Rushing, has plenty of talent returning to the defending PSL champions, including junior quarterback Leeshaun Mumpfield, running backs Karriem Sharrieff and Shamar Snow, and wideouts Jameel Gardner and Javen Sewell. CT’s massive lines include Anvil Award candidate Deone Walker (340 pounds), Masai Reddick (Tennessee, 330 pounds) and Jackson Pruitt (285 pounds) — all seniors — and junior Jalen Thompson (245 pounds) on the defensive side.

5 Detroit Catholic Central (9-1, D1 district title)

With a proper offseason to further cement in the lessons of the expanded offensive playbook they had to install on the fly last year, and a whole returning crew of skill position players — quarterback Declan Byle, running back Mohamad Jaffer and wideouts Owen Semp and Kameron Davenport — the Shamrocks could be explosive, especially when you add in Orchard Lake St. Mary’s transfer Raid Zerki. That is, if the Shamrocks can reload on the offensive line, where they return just one starter. Seniors Michael Beydoun, Jayson Saad and Andrew Ross will be the foundation of that unit, while highly recruited freshman Kaden Strayhorn should also play a role. Defensively, the front seven is rock solid, returning linemen Beydoun and Sean Field, and linebackers Brayden Courser and Baechler Houser from a unit that allowed an average of just 10.1 points per game a year ago. 

6 Detroit King (6-4, D3 district title)

The Crusaders averaged 36 points per game in 2020, and were a field goal away from beating River Rouge and making a sixth straight trip to the semifinals or beyond after a .500 regular season. This year’s squad should be equally explosive, returning electric players at quarterback (Dante Moore) and wideout (Lynn Wyche-El, Chansey Willis, Lamont Parks), and an offensive line anchored by junior Johnathan Slack. The defense will center around linebacker Blake Bailiff, lineman Terence Maize and defensive back Jameel Croft. The schedule is brutal, with dates against powerhouses from Indiana (Carmel) and Ohio (Cincinnati Moeller), and two-time defending D2 champ Muskegon Mona Shores. 

7 Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-0, D5 state title)

The Cougars bring a 23-game win streak into the 2021 season, and have won two straight state titles and four in the last five years. The upside is that there is plenty of top-notch talent, led by a Mr. Football candidate in quarterback Joey Silveri — who threw for 35 touchdowns and ran for nine more as a junior — and an Anvil Award contestant in Notre Dame-bound linebacker/safety Nolan Ziegler. The downside is that there are only six returning starters combined between the offense and defense, despite 20 seniors on the squad. John Passinault (S/Slot) and Jack Rellinger (RB/CB) will contribute on both sides of the ball, while Brady Redmer and Jack Krajewski will be key cogs on both lines. 

8 Traverse City Central (9-2, D2 semifinals)

It was a banner year in the Big North Conference, with TC Central and Cadillac both making runs to at least the semifinals (Cadillac lost in the D4 title game), and the Trojans return enough talent that hanging a banner this season isn’t out of the question. It all starts with Notre Dame-bound linebacker Joshua Burnham, the Anvil Award contestant who doubles as TC Central’s quarterback. The Trojans return four out of five offensive linemen, a group that will be led by 6-foot-6 Brett Weaver (Grand Valley), and seven of 11 offensive spots will be manned by players with three years of varsity experience. All-state safety Carson Bourdo spearheads the defense with Burnham, while Dante Williams (WR/LB) and Parker Schmidt (RB/DB) are three-year players who will contribute on both sides of the ball. 

9 Chippewa Valley (3-4, D1)

The Big Reds have all the requisite boxes filled at the skill positions, with Ryan Schuster (Lafayette) back at quarterback, throwing to receivers Maddox Altamirano, Zach Ernat and Kaelin Shaw, while Zion Mitchell, Cephus Harris (Youngstown) and blazing fast Shamar Heard making up the ball-carrying crew. Zach Allison leads the offensive line, and sophomore Anthony Wright the defensive line, while Darren Hawkins and Rayshaun Hester anchor the secondary. 

10 Rockford (8-1, D1 semifinals)

There are vacancies on both lines for Rockford — with Dolan Harmsen and Harrison Sharp set to anchor the O-line — but luckily the Rams have a history of finding  big dudes here or there. Just as luckily, the Rams return a ton of skill position talent, starting with quarterback Zak Ahern and slot Alex McLean, and wideouts Tyler Vroman (Army), Brody Thompson, Luke Vanderwiel and Sam Watts. Kade Kostus (Central Michigan) is a load at defensive end, while Thompson, Vanderwiel, Watts and Jonathan Maat forms an experienced secondary. 

11 Muskegon Mona Shores (12-0, D2 state title)

The Sailors return an experienced line — led by Kemper Millis, Brayden Flanders and Luke Emmons — to protect first-time senior starter Mark Konecny, who waited his turn at quarterback behind Mr. Football finalist Brady Rose. He’ll also have offensive support from running backs Elijah Johnson and Dahmir Farnum, with Demetri Roberson continuing the family tradition catching passes for Mona Shores. D.J. Caviness anchors the defensive line, with Jeff Lenartowicz leading the linebackers and Kewan Farnum the secondary. The Sailors have the talent to continue their run — they’ve won 18 straight games and two consecutive Division 2 titles — but lack of depth could be a stumbling block. 

12 Warren De La Salle (7-5, D2 runner-up)

A 1-3 start and a 2-4 regular season meant little once the Pilots got into the playoffs, ripping off five straight wins to make it to Ford Field, and get a rematch of the 2018 title game with Mona Shores. The Pilots return four of five offensive linemen — Tevon Mixon, Kaden Featherstone, Noah Dobbs and Jeffrey Roskopp — to protect quarterback Brady Drogosh and open holes for Rhett Roeser. Triston Nichols, Jack Yanachick and Alton McCullum make up the pass-catching crew. Safety/linebacker Will Beesley (Princeton) leads the secondary, along with DJ Dandridge and Javon Williams, while Mason Muragin, James Milkey and Andrew Jasukatis anchor the defensive front. 

13 Sterling Heights Stevenson (7-2, D1)

Even without the graduated Giovanni El-Hadi, the Titans live up to their nickname on their massive offensive line, featuring David Anchondo, Alex Wathen, Kelvi Cela and Lucas Champine. That group will be tasked with protecting quarterback Biagio Madonna, and opening holes for Central Michigan-bound running backs Jordan Ramsey and Jordan Kwiatkowski, who is an Anvil Award contestant for his play at linebacker. Ramsey and Madonna both play in the back seven on defense, as well, while the Titans return three of four on the defensive line, led by Adom LeDuc. 

14 River Rouge (9-2, D3 runner-up)

A transfer from Cass Tech who sat out last year, junior quarterback Christian Johnson has to fill the shoes left by the graduation of Mareyohn Hrabowski, but has a talented crew around him to make it easier. The receiving corps is led by Jalen Holly (Bowling Green) and last year’s freshman sensation, Nick Marsh, and will be bolstered by this year’s phenom frosh, Jaylen Watson. Anvil Award candidate Devonte Miles will play on both lines, pairing with fellow defensive tackle Markee Jones, while Markell Gilford and Lamont Gordon anchor the secondary. 

15 Muskegon (9-2, D3 semifinals)

The Big Reds are young on the offensive line — with Jamarrius Dickerson and Duane Anderson anchoring the group — but have skill-position talent galore. If the latter can allow time for the young offensive line to grow up, Muskegon could make last year’s Ford Field absence — after four straight finals appearances — a one-year aberration. Speedy Myles Walton will take over at quarterback, with Jeremiah Dault and Damari Foster providing him targets out wide, and sophomore Jake Price carrying the mail in the backfield. Dominic Sugin moves from linebacker to safety, where he’ll work with Walton and Foster in coverage, while Meshaune Crowley returns at linebacker, and TyQuarius Irby is back at defensive end. 

16 Clarkston (7-1, D1)

The defending Oakland Activities Association Red Division champs (the Wolves beat West Bloomfield, 24-21, in Week 3) will have a different look, without four-year mainstays Garrett Dellinger and Anvil Award winner Rocco Spindler in the lineup, but it’s not a roster devoid of talent. The lines will be anchored by the youngest Dellinger, junior Cole, along with Mehki Battle on the defensive front. The offensive line will be opening holes for a healthy Ethan Clark, and protecting Mike DePillo, as he slings the ball to wideouts Mike Hein, Desman Stephens and Kohl Jarvis. The linebacking crew is led by Caleb Stallworth and Evan McClorey, while Caden Ladd and Ian Olson lead the secondary. 

17 East Lansing (8-1, D2 district title)

The mantle of the most dominant Lansing-area team (which could’ve been solved, had their Week 3 matchup not been canceled) was up for grabs long into the playoffs, until DeWitt finished off its title run, and East Lansing fell by a field goal to eventual D2 champion Mona Shores. Until then, the Trojans had allowed just 32 total points in seven games, posting three shutouts. Mr. Football candidate Andrel Anthony has graduated, but the Trojans still have an underrated pass-catching duo in Evan Boyd and Mason Woods to catch passes from quarterback Ambrose Wilson (Central Michigan). Asher Gregory will again shoulder the brunt of the carries at running back, but the offensive line — with Roque Martinez and Ethan DeWitt — will need to gel to open holes. Brevin Jackson and Wilson man the safety spots, Carmelo Works and Kanye Jackson key the linebacking crew and punter Evan Sundermann is one of the best specialists in the state. 

18 Macomb Dakota (6-2, D1)

The Cougars return seven starters on offense from a team that shared the MAC Red title with Sterling Heights Stevenson. Riley Smalarz (Northern Michigan) and Cooper Phillips (Grand Valley) anchor inoffensive line that will be opening holes for running back Caiden Sloan, and allowing junior quarterback Ethan Hamby time to find receivers Owen Colpaert and Corey Royster. Luke Wheeler, Anthony Coleman and Jayden Giles anchor a defensive line that should make up for a secondary that will have to be rebuilt after graduation losses. 

19 Davison (11-1, D1 runner-up)

The Cardinals have gone 23-3 over the last two seasons, winning one Division 1 title, and falling just short last year, but return just six starters total from last year’s runner-up squad, three on each side of the ball. Seniors Isaac Norton and Zane Richardson are back to anchor the offensive line, opening holes for Jaylen Flowers, while the defense has sophomore Carter Herriman back at one linebacker spot, along with senior Gabe Smith, who started on the 2019 title squad, but missed much of 2020 with a broken leg. Teon Armstrong will give the Cardinals a deep threat at wideout, while Zach Pappadakis step into a bigger role in the secondary, next to Flowers. It’s a similarly youthful team to the one coach Jake Weingartz had in his second season. The Cardinals will get an early litmus test on how well all the new faces adjust to starting at the varsity level — they play No. 16 Clarkston, No. 5 Novi Detroit Catholic Central and No. 24 Grand Blanc in three of the first four weeks of the season. 

20 Saline (8-2, D2 district title)

The Hornets have won eight or more games every season since 2012, and last year’s COVID-shortened campaign was no different. A playoff injury to starting quarterback Larry Robinson Jr. (Army) forced then-freshman CJ Carr — former U-M head coach Lloyd Carr’s grandson — into the lineup, but he acquitted himself well enough to get offseason offers. A rotation of the two would allow the Hornets to use Robinson’s speed all over the field, as they did with MJ Griffin a few years back. The duo will get protection from a line that includes Guiseppe Gottfried (Navy) and Luke Masters, and throw to receivers Roman Laurio and Caden Winston, while Josh Rush will get the bulk of the carries, when he’s healthy. Joe Raupp and Ian Gifford anchor the defensive line, while Zach Antal heads the linebacking crew in front of defensive backs Max Koehn, Carter Smith, Garrett Baldwin and Blake Wilson.

21 Dearborn Fordson (5-3, D1)

You won’t get much better than the passing combination of Alex Osman to Antonio Gates Jr. (Michigan State), while the Tractors have a ton of talent on the offensive line in Ka’Marii Landers and Fayez Al-Ziyadi, and a D-I caliber tight end in Mohammed Hazime. Mohamed Zaban is a three-year starter at linebacker, while Hazime wreaks havoc on the defensive line along with Al-Ziyadi, and twins Mohammed and Hussein Bazzi. Gates Jr. also plays in the secondary, along with Leonard Smith and Mohammed Sayed. The key to competing in the KLAA East will be the Sept. 24 matchup with No. 2 Belleville — the Tractors have not beaten the Tigers since 2016, when both were still in the WWAC. 

22 Livonia Churchill (6-3, D2 district title)

The Chargers got an immediate replacement for graduated quarterback Gavin Brooks when Taj Williams returned to Churchill from a one-year hiatus in Georgia, so there may not be any drop-off for an offense that averaged 31.4 points per game in 2020. Boston Clegg Jr. will get the bulk of the carries behind an offensive line led by seniors Matt Landis and Lawrence Nash-Martin, while Joshua Brown and Bailey Brooks will be the pass-catchers for Williams. VJ Ragland, Kam Balhorn and Demarius Gibson-Wells anchor the defensive line, while Clegg Jr. is the key at the linebacker spot, and Brown is the key to the secondary. 

23 Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (6-2, D2)

The Rangers shared the OK White Conference title with Byron Center a year ago, and lost by just three in the district semifinals to a Muskegon Mona Shores squad that went on to win it all in D2. All-conference quarterback Hunter Robinson returns to lead the Rangers, and he’ll be protected by a line that includes Carter Kelly and Will Richardson. Ben Scholler and Jacob Bonnett give Robinson a pair of solid targets outside, while linebacker Tyler Weaver anchors a defense that allowed just 16 points per game in 2020. 

24 Grand Blanc (7-2, D1)

The Bobcats — who have 40 seniors — return 14 starters from a team that averaged 37.5 points per game in 2020, putting up 42 in a shootout win over Clarkston in the district semifinals. It was a second straight win for a Grand Blanc program that had lost its last six playoff games, and hadn’t gotten to a district final since 2012. Last year’s backup quarterback, Hunter Ames, who won a state title in the spring as an infielder on the baseball team, will be elevated to the starting role, playing behind a line that includes Jayden Lewin and Andy Hartman. The Bobcats also have a solid linebacking corps with Cross Dobbs (Grand Valley) and Ryan Deibis, one of the state’s best specialists in kicker/punter Dylan Hertzberg and one of the most versatile players, Mr. Football candidate Elijah Jackson-Anderson (Eastern Michigan).

T25 Grosse Pointe South (4-3, D2)

Before a lopsided win in the rivalry game against GP North, the Blue Devils had four of their five divisional games settled by 10 points or less, and the other by 14 — a successful result after the move to the ultra-competitive, ultra-balanced MAC Red Division. The Blue Devils return eight starters on offense and seven on defense, including the state’s top recruit in the 2022 class, Michigan-bound Will Johnson, who plays cornerback on defense, and a little bit of everything on offense. D-I basketball recruit Anthony Benard plays under center when Johnson isn’t there, while Egan Sullivan and Chase Campbell will get the bulk of the carries, and John Williamson and Charlie Brandon provide targets out wide. Defensive tackle Jackson Lambert and end Joey Klunder (Michigan walk-on) spearhead the defense, along with linebacker Jonathan Drake. 

T25 Lake Orion (3-3, D1)

The Dragons have three seniors returning on the offensive front in Daniel Babcock, Trevor Witt and Jonah Fix, helping keep the jersey clean on starting QB Kyler Carson. Grand Blanc transfer Stephen Brown brings more speed to an already talented crop of skill position players that includes wideouts CJ Witt, Jack Wellmen, Izaiah Marve, Chase Whitaker and Dorian Hill, while Nasir Lardell leads the running back corps. The defense is experienced up front with end Joey Thede and linebacker Ethan Strand.