By Nate Thompson

CALEDONIA  – He’s playing for a college football team that has yet to face its very first opponent, but Najee Brown-Duren still has an amazing degree of confidence.LSJ Logo incert

“Our goal is to make the playoffs in the NAIA,” said Brown-Duren, a 2011 Muskegon High School graduate who is part of the brand new Davenport University football team.

Muskegon grad and Davenport football player Najee Brown-Duren. Photo/Jason Goorman

Muskegon grad and Davenport football player Najee Brown-Duren. Photo/Jason Goorman

“Although we’re a first-year program, we’re going to try to aim for that level. We’re not doing these early-morning, hardcore workouts for nothing. We’re prepping so hard because we know we can be great.”

If Brown-Duren’s vision becomes reality, it would be a rousing start for Davenport, which will begin its inaugural season this fall.

The Panthers, who just had their spring game on April 23, begin fall practice on Aug. 8, then open the regular season on the road against Kentucky Christian on Sept. 3. Their home opener is Sept. 17 against Kentucky Wesleyan.

The construction on their brand new stadium, Farmer’s Insurance Athletic Complex, was completed last August.

Davenport will compete in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference in NAIA this season, but the school was approved to join the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in January and compete at the Division 2 level beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

That means a neighborhood rivalry with traditional football power Grand Valley State University.

Brown-Duren, a second-team All-Conference and All-Area performer at Muskegon, will become part of that rivalry after treading a long road in his collegiate career.

Brown in the bleachers of Davenport's new stadium. Photo/Jason Goorman.

Brown in the bleachers of Davenport’s new stadium. Photo/Jason Goorman.

He was a backup defensive end at Grand Rapids Community College in 2011 under Coach Tony Annese, who is now the head coach at Ferris State University. Brown-Duren was part of an 11-0 Raiders squad that season.

He had plans to follow Annese to Ferris State and walk on with the Bulldogs the following season, but had an issue with his credits transferring and the school did not accept him.

His college football dream was put on hold for three years.

During that time he enrolled for a semester at Iowa Central Community College, but he said “things didn’t work out.”

But he stayed in shape with the goal of playing college football again – and he’s apparently reached that goal at Davenport.

He was accepted as a student at Davenport in October. Brown-Duren said he emailed the coaching staff, letting them know what he could bring to their program as a 6-foot-4, 300-plus pound lineman.

“I started working out (with the team) in January,” he said. “I met with the coaches and they told me that they already had more than enough guys on the D-line, so they wanted to put me there (at offensive tackle). I wasn’t really mad about it. Any way I could see the field quicker, I was all for it.”

It’s a position move that’s benefitted both program and player. Brown-Duren, behind the tutelage of offensive line coach Zach Hueter, has impressed the coaching staff enough to be named a starter on the initial two-deep depth chart following the spring game.

“I’ve gotten a lot better because of our O-line coach,” Brown-Duren said. “He’s coached at Michigan State and West Virginia, so he knows his stuff. He teaches a lot of footwork and technique.” “I’m not content where I’m at now,” he added. “I know I can become better.” Davenport’s head coach is Lou Esposito, who was Annese’s defensive coordinator at Ferris State before accepting his new job in May of 2014.

Last season, Esposito guided daily practices throughout the season with his first class of players, but Davenport couldn’t enjoy the excitement of Saturdays in the fall.

“All the players said last year was rough,” Brown-Duren said. “They worked so hard every day, but it’s like they had nothing to look forward to because there were no games.”

Brown-Duren said the roster is rapidly improving, with Esposito adding talented transfer players.

There are a handful of other Muskegon area players donning the Panthers’ red and black, including wide receiver Dereko Riley (Reeths Puffer), linebacker Aaron Cummings (Grand Haven), defensive tackle Rowland Sharp (Muskegon), wide receiver Nate Batts (Spring Lake), and wide receiver David Guerra (Shelby).

“Rowland is one of the most versatile D-linemen because he can play end or tackle,” Brown-Duren said. “He’s probably one of the strongest kids on the team, too. He’s good.”

This summer, Esposito will welcome a 32-player recruiting class that features plenty of Muskegon-area standouts, including all-state quarterback/safety Jacob Buchberger from Montague and linebacker/fullback Dom Shermeta from Mona Shores.

Brown-Duren said he’ll continue with grueling workouts on campus throughout the summer, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the Panthers’ long-awaited debut.

“I’m sure we’re all going to be nervous for that first game. I know I will be,” he said. “But after a few snaps, I’ll be all right.”