GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Head coach Bubba Schweigert had the North Dakota football team on the cusp of earning an at-large bid to the 2015 Football Championship Subdivision playoffs thanks to a 7-4 overall record and 5-3 mark in the Big Sky. Unfortunately, the Fighting Hawks were on the outside looking in when the 24-team field was announced on Nov. 22.
The dejection felt that first Sunday after the season has fueled the current staff and players to take make sure the team’s playoff fate in 2016 is determined by the Fighting Hawks’ performance on the field.
With spring practices set to start earlier than ever compliments of the High Performance Center, Schweigert says the one area he wants to focus on the most this spring is developing depth throughout his roster. “When we were able to take a step back and look at what we needed to do in order to get us closer to a Big Sky Championship and spot in the playoff field, it was developing more depth across the board,” Schweigert said. “We felt like injuries in the secondary, at quarterback and at wide receiver affected our season. We just need to become deeper in all areas.”
Developing that depth is not only a matter of getting players physically ready to play, but getting them mentally ready as well. Fortunately, with the arrival of the state-of-the-art HPC, winter conditioning and individual drills were able to receive a boost both in terms of quantity and quality. UND’s third-year head coach thinks that jump on conditioning and individual work will only help his players when it comes to learning his team’s offensive and defensive systems during the team’s 15 spring practices.
“We had a better facility to work with and that will only make our team better as we start spring ball,” he added. “Now, when we get in the HPC for practice, we think the controlled environment will really benefit our team. There is something to be said about being outside and toughening up in adverse conditions, but when we want them to focus on the teaching and learning of our system, having that controlled environment will be huge in that regard.
“We may go outside a few times, but we expect our learning and focus to be so much better with the work we will be able to do inside this spring. Overall, I think the retention will be at a higher level and that will pay significant dividends in the fall.”
The biggest question mark on offense entering 2016 spring football practices will be along the front line where the Fighting Hawks will have to replace four starters, including a trio that started all but one game together over the past two seasons.
“That position is going to be a point of emphasis for us,” Schweigert said. “We have to develop a center and have guys like Dan Bell step up and take on a bigger role at guard.”
Junior A.J. Stockwell is the lone returning starter after seniors Brandon Anderson, Colton Boas and All-American Sean Meehan all graduated and right tackle Elijah Grady decided not to return for his sophomore campaign. Those vying to fill the holes on the O-line are a trio of juniors, who all have limited starting experience. That threesome includes Bell, Mat Cox and Brandon Miller. Miller will miss spring practices, but return for fall camp. “Brandon is another guy with experience. Missing spring practices is a concern, but he should be able to really focus on the mental side of it and learn a lot more, which will help him in the fall.”
Sophomore Grant Aplin opens spring as the starting center. He saw some action during his redshirt freshman season as a blocking fullback. Schweigert expects Cox to be in the mix for playing time there along with redshirt freshman Patric Rooney.
Offensive coordinator Paul Rudolph also has to replace fullback Zach Adler, who was an All-Big Sky performer in his final season at UND. “Zach had a solid year and will be hard to replace,” Schweigert said. “That position is a key one in our offense, so we have several young guys that will get a lot reps for us at both tight end and fullback and have a chance to get better.”
Adler was a key run blocker, but also ranked third on the team with 18 receptions for 179 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Luke Mathewson returns at tight end where he was used primarily as a blocker, but added seven receptions for 90 yards. Sophomores Luke Fiedler and converted offensive lineman Jacob Francis will also help provide depth at the fullback and tight end positions. Classmate Tyler Coyne, who missed last season with an injury, is healthy and ready to return this spring.
Last’s year O-line helped put together one of the best ground attacks in the Big Sky a season ago, paving the way for sophomore John Santiago to earn STATS and Associated Press All-America honors after rushing for a Big Sky-best 1,459 yards and 16 touchdowns. Santiago was a consensus first team All-Big Sky performer and the first true freshman to lead the league in rushing during its 53-year history.
Santiago accounted for nearly 60 percent of the team’s 2,625 rushing yards, which were the most by a UND team since the 1975 team churned out 3,100 yards. “As good of a year as John had, we know he can be even better,” Schweigert said. “He is probably best at being a ball carrier right now, but that is not the only responsibility of a running back. This is a big spring for him. I think the spring after your first year is always big because you see how guys learn and how they adjust. They understand the offense better and get a feel for what defenses are trying to do. We want to keep him hungry, keep him learning and keep him improving.”
Santiago’s classmates Brady Oliveira (348 yards, 1 TD) and Iwarri Smith (241 yards, 1 TD) were second and third on the team in rushing, respectively, while quarterback Keaton Studsrud added 234 yards and three rushing scores. Smith is the making the permanent move to wide receiver this spring in order to get his speed on the field with Santiago at the same time.
“We liked what Iwarri did for us late in the year on some of those fly sweeps,” Schweigert said. We feel like we need to spread the touches around some more and putting him out at wide receiver will help us do that. We also think he can be dangerous in the return game, so we’ll get him some more work in that area too.”
Another reason for Smith’s move to wide receiver is adding Wyoming transfer Oscar Nevermann into the mix at running back along with UND’s Offensive Scout of the Year Austin Gordon, who redshirted a season ago. “We like our depth at running back and want to find the best ways to get those guys involved,” Schweigert added.
Studsrud made huge strides as a signal caller in his first full season with the starting job. He missed two games due to an injury, but otherwise led UND to a 7-2 record when he started or took a majority of the team’s snaps.
“We really liked what we saw from Studsrud last season, especially when he came back from injury,” Schweigert said. “Now, we have to continue to develop the depth behind him.”
Studsrud finished the season completing 60 percent of his passes for 1,262 yards, going 99-for-165 with 12 touchdown passes to only three interceptions. During UND’s three-game winning streak to close out the season, Studsrud was at his best, completing 80 percent (36-for-45) of his passes for 517 yards and five touchdowns without throwing a pick.
Redshirt freshman Brad Heidlebaugh will get a chance to show what he can do with the top offensive units this spring. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder from Rugby brings a skill set that Schweigert and Rudolph both like. “Brad is athletic and has the skills we look for in a quarterback,” Schweigert added. “We like what he brings to the table and he’ll get a lot of reps this spring to help his improve his comfort level with our offensive system.”
UND’s top two targets at wide receiver are both back as junior Josh Seibel and sophomore Luke Stanleyshared the team lead with 26 receptions. Stanley topped the team in receiving yards (312) and touchdowns (five), while Seibel was second in yardage (278) and added two receiving scores.
Senior Clive Georges also brings the speed dimension to the “Jets” and showed off his talents in only six contests. He averaged 25.0 yards per reception and had three touchdowns, including a season-long 64-yard connection in the finale at Cal Poly. He finished with 10 catches for 250 yards and three scores, while junior Brandon Walker also added 10 catches during an injury-shortened season (seven games).
A pair of redshirt receivers will also be looking to work their way into the rotation this spring. Tim Dulin (6-foot-4) and Carter Blackwell (6-foot-3) offer some sizable targets for Studsrud and the UND quarterbacks.
Nine of the 11 starters from the Big Sky’s top run-stopping unit are back in 2016. Unfortunately, one of those two players defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt has to replace is All-Big Sky performer Will Ratelle, who was the quarterback of this unit the past two seasons. Ratelle averaged right at 10 tackles per game and finished the 2015 season with a career-best and UND Division I record 110 tackles as the Fighting Hawks limited opponents to just 100.1 rushing yards per game. Those stout numbers against the run helped the unit finish second in the Big Sky in total defense (359.9 ypg) and fifth in scoring defense (25.7 ppg).
“Obviously, replacing a player of Will’s ability is a challenge, but we like the guys that we have at inside linebacker and having nine starters back will also help fill that void some,” Schweigert said.
Fortunately, Schmidt has that strong nucleus of returning starters and around a dozen other defenders that all made an impact on the unit a season ago. Leading that bunch is senior outside linebacker Brian Labat, who was a second team All-Big Sky performer along with junior safety Cole Reyes in 2015. “Brian had a solid season for us and Cole really showed the type of player he can be. We just have to find a way to keep those guys healthy,” Schweigert added.
Labat will have some experience alongside him after junior Jake Disterhaupt started all 11 games a season ago at outside linebacker and senior Jawon Johnson made the move there from strong safety mid-way through the season. Those two both return along with sophomore Dylan Harmston, who was a key special teams player and worked his way into the outside-backer rotation towards the end of last year.
Also, redshirt freshmen Jade Lawrence and Keelan Poole will add depth and speed to that position. “We want guys out there that run around real fast and move their feet well and we think there are several on this roster that can do that,” Schweigert said.
Replacing Ratelle on the inside will be the unit’s biggest chore, but several experienced players will get the first shot. Senior Taj Rich, who was second on the team in tackles in 2014 and well on his way to that distinction again in 2015 before an injury sidelined him for the final six games, will be healthy by fall camp and should hold down the spot he started 17 straight games at before suffering a knee injury vs. Portland State (Oct. 6), while senior Dylan Bakker and junior Connor O’Brien will be in the mix to man the spot Ratelle held down for the past two seasons.
O’Brien replaced Rich in the starting lineup and finished third on the team with 61 tackles, while Bakker had all 26 of his tackles, including a career-high 14 at Montana, in the team’s final four games. Redshirt freshman Donnell Rodgers will also provide depth at the inside-backer position after putting together a solid fall that netted him Defensive Scout of the Year honors in 2015. UND also brought in JUCO-transfer Dijon Murray at inside linebacker. “Our inside group is a talented bunch and we’re excited to see how they progress this spring,” Schweigert said.
At safety, Reyes finished second on the team with 71 tackles despite missing two games and established himself as one of the top safeties in the Big Sky. He will miss spring practices after undergoing an offseason procedure, but that will give time for junior Charles Flowers, sophomore Tanner Palmborg and redshirt freshman Vashon Tucker to get more reps as those three vie for increased playing time in 2016.
“We are short on secondary numbers due to injuries, but like everyone else that is out, those guys can still learn a lot this spring,” Schweigert said. “And, those injuries give the younger players a chance to establish themselves and show us what they can do with extra reps.”
Junior Zach Arnell started the first three games of the season and had 15 tackles before he went down for the season during the North Dakota State game (Sept. 19). Arnell will be a limited participant during spring practices as he works his way back, but both he and Reyes should make for a solid one-two punch in the defensive backfield by the time fall camp rolls around.
Junior Deion Harris had 12 pass break-ups and two interceptions in his first year as a starter. His 14 passes defended ranked third in the Big Sky. Sophomore Tyus Carter started the final eight games of his true freshman season, finishing with 19 tackles and two pass break-ups. Those two will be back along with juniors Jahmere Irvin-Sills and Chris Carter.
Both of those players saw action in 11 games in a reserve role and contributed on special teams in 2015. Irvin-Sills, who transferred from Mississippi State, was fourth among defensive backs with 25 tackles and added his first career interception.
“At cornerback, it’s no different than safety,” Schweigert said. “Tyus Carter will miss spring practices, but he has a chance to learn and continue to grow his knowledge of the system, while those other guys get better with repetitions.”
Defensive ends Brandon Dranka and Noah Johnson both earned All-Big Sky accolades in 2015 and return to headline a defensive front that is one of the deepest positions on the team. Dranka, who earned third team all-league honors, and Johnson, who was an honorable mention honoree, led all defensive linemen with 18 tackles a piece and combined for five sacks in 2015.
“This is a big spring for Noah Johnson,” Schweigert said. “He got to campus right before fall camp last season and really came on late in the year and became a factor on the field. Now he has a chance to get even more acclimated with spring practices and that will help him take an even bigger step forward in our program.”
Dranka’s classmate Drew Greely started the team’s first four games and returned late in the season from a shoulder injury. Sophomore Austin Cieslak also gained valuable experience, earning a rotation spot at defensive end for all 11 games.
At nose guard, senior Alec Carrothers and sophomore Tank Harris split time with the now departed Kyle Woodsmall in 2015. Harris is the beefiest of the bunch, as his six-foot-three, 300-pound frame will help clog the middle of the line. He led that group with 14 tackles, while Carrothers split time between end and nose guard, which is something that his versatility has allowed him to do over the past two seasons. SophomoreSteve Greer also saw some action as a true freshman that will benefit his development this spring.
“We thought Tank really took a positive step towards the end of last year and started to play well,” Schweigert said. “He is in the best shape of his career and can really help solidify that position along with Greer, who we think is also progressing nicely.”
Sophomore DaQuan Baker moved from linebacker to defensive end for the final stretch run and that will be a permanent switch going into spring practices. Junior Nick Schmitz is also a swing man on the front line that moved between end and nose guard last season.
Spring practices will also provide a chance for a quartet of young defensive ends to push this unit. Mason Bennett, Kemuel Denny, Carl Engwall and Carter Wilson make up that foursome that redshirted last season.
Two of the team’s three specialists will be back for their junior campaigns. Placekicker Reid Taubenheim is already seventh on UND’s career top 10 for field goals made with 29 after two seasons. That mark stands seventh. He went 13-for-17 a season in 2015 after going for 16-for-19 as a true freshman in 2014.
Long snapper Jacob Holmen also provides stability for that unit. He has started the last 21 games as the team’s snapper on both place kicks and punts over the past two seasons.
The one loss from the specialists group is punter Mitch Meindel. He was a second-team All-Big Sky performer a season ago after setting a UND single-season record with a 44.5 yards per punt average. Looking to replace Meindel this spring will be JUCO-transfer Jacob Meeks, who spent two seasons at Northeast Mississippi Community College. Meeks has two years of eligibility remaining for the Fighting Hawks.