Local grad Vander Laan is a statistics-generating machine at Ferris State
Perhaps it’s fitting that Jason Vander Laan is majoring in actuarial sciences at Ferris State.
He definitely has a way with numbers. And when he's not busy calculating them in the classroom he's piling them up on the football field.
“I really, really enjoy working with numbers,” Vander Laan, a Chicago Christian grad, said last week.
There's little question coaches, players and fans of Ferris State football are really enjoying the numbers he has amassed since becoming the Bulldogs' starting quarterback in 2012. The redshirt junior has thrown for 3,851 yards and 38 touchdowns while guiding Ferris State to 15 wins in its last 21 games.
But wait there's more. Just in case opposing defenses think that stopping the Bulldogs' aerial attack is the answer, Vander Laan will then attempt to run foes ragged. He definitely can, as evidenced by his 3,278 rushing yards and 39 scoring dashes.
You could easily call him Ferris' big wheel. But those stats, which would be gaudy at any level of play, are an indication of how confident Vander Laan now is in both his ability and that of his teammates.
It wasn't always so, at least in regard to his own skills. Vander Laan sat out his true freshman season, a move he doesn't at all regret.
“I didn’t have much confidence as a freshman,” he said. “I am so glad I was redshirted.”
Vander Laan's rookie campaign revealed a more self-assured player and featured a combined 2,831 offensive yards (1,493 passing, 1,338 rushing), 13 TD throws and 100 points. It concluded with him earning Freshman of the Year honors in the Great Lakes Conference.
As a sophomore he got better as he passed for 1,741 yards, rushed for 1,607 and had a hand in 36 touchdowns (21 running, 15 throwing). The Bulldogs went 8-3 — a one-game improvement over the previous year — and narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA Division II playoffs.
And Vander Laan's right back at at in 2014. Ferris State is off to a 3-0 start, which includes a 42-17 trouncing of rival Grand Valley State on Saturday. In that game Vander Laan threw for 215 yards and four touchdowns while picking up 158 yards on the ground.
For the year thus far he's already nearing 1,000 total yards (617 passing, 333 rushing) and been a part of a dozen TDs.
Vander Laan has made it look easy, but he insists it hasn't been.
“For a year there were a lot of struggles,” he said of mastering the offense. “In high school the offense was more of a free-for-all; here it is a system. Even in my sophomore year there was more of a hassle (to understand it) than not, but halfway through last year I got really comfortable with it.”
Vander Laan arrived in Big Rapids, Michigan, as a recruit of former Bulldogs coach Jeff Pierce, who offered Vander Laan a scholarship and shot at becoming the quarterback. That was not a common occurrence.
Several colleges definitely had an interest in Vander Laanbut not as an offensive player. Although he had been Chicago Christian's top weapon, college scouts envisioned the 6-foot-4 Vander Laan as a perfect fit in the secondary. He played linebacker for Knights coach Eric Washington and made 53 tackles while also intercepting three passes.
When Pierce was fired as Ferris State coach and replaced by Tony Annese, Vander Laan's future with the Bulldogs suddenly had a cloud over it. But instead of retreating Vander Laan forged ahead, eager to get to know the new coach and system and viewing it as a fresh opportunity.
“It was really nerve-wracking at first, but I told myself that we were all going to be on the same level starting out,” Vander Laan said. “Then Taylor Masiewicz got hurt, I got the start [in the fifth game of the 2012 season] and we’ve gone from there.”
Vander Laan quickly made a believer of Annese, whose confidence in his signal-caller was illustrated in Saturday's matchup with Grand Valley State.
In a fourth-and-4 situation at the Bulldogs' 25, Annese called for a run and Vander Laan gained the necessary yardage to acquire another set of downs. Ferris State eventually scored on that possession.
“We’re the only team in the nation that would go for it right there — he's insane,” Vander Laan joked of Annese. “I almost wanted to call [a] timeout. [but] that’s why you’ve got to trust him and those guys up front.”
“He’s a tough guy to stop on a quarterback sneak," Annese said. “I call him the 'ace in the hole.' When we have to we’re going to pull out the ace in the hole. He really burdens the defense.
“And he’d completed 70 percent of his passes [this season] before the first [and thus far only] interception.”
The triple-option offense Annese employs is made to order for Vander Laan, who rushed for 103 yards in his 2012 debut against the University of St. Francis. He saw action in the next three contests as well before stepping in for Masiewicz at Saginaw Valley and gaining 214 yards on the ground.
From there Vander Laan's star has kept rising. His 185 yards helped Ferris State overcome a 21-0 deficit versus Grand Valley State and snap a 12-year dry spell against its rival, and three more 100-yard rushing efforts followed in 2012, including a 244-yard outburst against Wayne State.
And when he wasn't running for big yardage Vander Laan was doing it through the air — Michigan Tech was torched for 357 passing yards, Northwood for 210.
“Night and day,” said Vander Laan, when asked to compare his football experiences at the prep and collegiate levels. “It’s the difference between high school and college. We had 25 [or] 26 guys on the team at Christian.”
Like any runner Vander Laan credits his offensive line for his success. It’s a line that this year includes 300-pounders Adam Bennett and Justin Glover, who helped clear the way for a team-record 489 rushing yards in Ferris State's 75-14 romp over McKendree.
“The amazing thing is nobody was over 100 yards,” said Vander Laan, who topped the Bulldogs that day with 89 yards.
That share-the-wealth philosophy is perfectly fine with Vander Laan, a team guy on and off the field. He’d love to be in the NFL eventually — “I’d play H-back, tight end or linebacker,” he said — but for now he concentrates on his team and serving the community.
“Being a Christian is a big part of my life,” Vander Laan said. “I think there’s something more to life than just going to college, getting a degree and getting out of there.”
Vander Laan participates in Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings and goes on mission trips for his church. That, rather than a run to Daytona Beach, has been a tradition the last three years during spring break.
“It’s shocking how many unfortunate people there are in the U.S.,” Vander Laan said. “People are so grateful when you help them.”
That proves more than numbers can have an impact.