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Rising senior Greg Hardin and the talented UND receiving corps will provide a little comfort for three redshirt freshmen signal callers who will be the only quarterbacks on campus for spring football.
2013 Spring Football Preview
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Updated: Tuesday 03/27/2013 16:30:28 (ET)
by UNDsports.com
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The North Dakota football team is scheduled to open spring football practices on Monday, April 1 at 3:45 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.  A complete 15-practice schedule, including the 2013 Green and White Game, is listed below this preview. The 2013 spring roster is included in the 2013 prospectus.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Head coach Chris Mussman has had a few months to digest and process both the good and bad that transpired during the fall as his team embarked on its first season in the Big Sky Conference. And, after looking back on a season where his squad posted a 5-6 record overall and 3-5 mark in league play, the sixth-year head coach has a better understanding of what it will take to succeed in the one of the premier FCS conferences.

“One thing we found out quickly was your margin for error is diminished greatly in the Big Sky,” Mussman said. “Turnovers are magnified and one play, whether it’s a big kickoff return or a missed open field tackle, can make things snow ball on you quickly. We have to eliminate those types of mistakes.

“In this league, you have to come ready to play from the start and be able to finish the entire 60 minutes. That is going to be a big emphasis for us has we head into spring practices and a lot of that has to do with developing our depth and improving our talent level, so we have multiple impact players across the board.”

The team that North Dakota fields in 2013 will not be entirely revamped as six starters return on both sides of the ball, but with nearly half the starting positions needing to be filled on offense and defense, Mussman says it is time for potential to turn into production.

“We need some players to step up this spring and take ownership of the positions that we have available,” he said. “I feel like we’ve had a great offseason in the weight room and now we just need to translate that to the field this spring.”

OFFENSE
After throwing for a school-record 3,268 yards in 2012, UND will enter spring football without a quarterback on its roster that has thrown a pass in a college game. Naturally, this would be cause for concern for any head coach and Mussman admits there will be “growing pains”, but the silver lining with this equation is who Ryan Bartels, Jake Hanson and Joe Mollberg will be surrounded by on that side of the ball.

“This spring will be critical for all three of our quarterbacks,” Mussman said. “It will be a chance for them to take command of the huddle, gain some confidence with the play calling and get comfortable with being in a new role.”

The trio of redshirt freshmen can take some comfort in knowing they are flanked by one of the top receiving corps in the FCS and have a veteran duo at the running back position. Rising senior Greg Hardin anchors the talented group of receivers.

He was a first team All-Big Sky performer and earned UND’s first Division I All-America accolade (third team Sports Network) after catching 65 passes for 1,145 yards and 14 touchdowns. The single-season yardage is the second-best output by a UND receiver in program history and his 14 scores tied Weston Dressler (2006) for the most ever.

The freshmen duo of Jameer Jackson and Kenny Golladay also had impressive first seasons on the gridiron for the Green and White. Jackson was named a College Sports Journal Freshman All-American after catching 56 passes for 709 yards and six touchdowns, while Golladay battled through a high ankle sprain to catch 30 balls for 429 yards and a touchdown.

Hardin’s classmate Blair Townsend also emerged late in the season as a viable target, catching 27 passes for 289 yards and tow touchdowns. His exploits included a 13-catch, 152-yard effort in the victory over Montana (Oct. 20). Rising senior R.J. McGill is still recoving from ACL surgery and will not participate in spring drills, but former Illinois signee J.J. Robertson will help fill that void.

“Collectively, our wide receivers had the best offseason of any position unit in the weight room and that says a lot about the focus and drive of each of those guys,” Mussman said. “As a group, they can take a lot of pressure off of our young quarterbacks.”

The offensive line will be without a trio of seniors, who earned All-Big Sky honorable mention players, but rising senior Joe Kleason, who was a two-year starter before missing most of last season with a foot injury, will be back and classmate Darren Deneui will return to start at one of the tackle spots for the third consecutive season. Deneui will not participate in spring drills, but is expected to be 100 percent by fall.

“We lost some key guys up front, but we have several guys back that have played a lot of football for us,” Mussman said of the unit he coaches on a daily basis. “What we need is two guys that weren’t in the fold last year to step into the mix. Sean Meehan has put together a nice offseason and we expect Dustin Adams, the transfer from Northern Illinois, to contribute as well.”

The offense also lost two senior tight ends in Seth Wisthoff and Seth Nichols. Neither one put up huge receiving numbers in 2012, but their contributions as blockers out on the edge will be hard to replace. Sophomore Zach Adler will be one of those called upon to do so, however. He came on late in his redshirt freshman season and Mussman feels like he can be a useful dual-threat in the offense. Besides Adler, junior Taylor Grant will be counted on for more than just long snapping in 2013. “Taylor has shown a lot of progress during the offseason,” Mussman said. “He’s made a nice jump.”

For the first time in program history, the offense threw more passes (396) than it had rushing attempts (349) in 2012, but Mussman was quick to note that was more indicative of the nature of the games that were played, then a shift in philosophy.  “In a lot of our games, we were forced to hold serve and who ever had the ball last would end up winning,” he said. “We’d like to run the ball more and get more production out of the running game, so it can set up our passing game and vice versa.”

Rising senior Jake Miller led UND in rushing for the second straight season with 543 rushing yards, but a bulk of the short-yardage and goal-line work went to graduated senior Mitch Sutton. The bruising back from Wisconsin rushed for 11 touchdowns and that is a role that Mussman is hoping someone in spring ball will step up and fill.

Sophomore P.J. Sparks has impressed the head coach with his work in the offseason and is a strong candidate to be that guy. “P.J. has put the work and has gotten bigger and stronger. Now, we need to see how that correlates onto the field,” Mussman said.

Junior Jer Garman is one of those players that Mussman expects to turn potential into production as the Iowa native enters his third year in the program. Garman's classmate Adam Shaugabay will also get a look at being the power back in the rotation.

Redshirt freshman Kodee Varner is also a player Mussman will be keeping an eye on this spring. “Kodee is similar to Jake in a lot of ways. He is just a little bigger and heavier than Jake, but for a young guy, I like what I have seen from him,” Mussman added.

DEFENSE
The North Dakota defense is going to be under new leadership this season as Josh Kotelnicki takes the defensive coordinator reigns on that side of the ball. Kotelnicki is no stranger to the UND program having won a national championship as a linebacker in 2001. He is also embarking on his eighth season as an assistant coach with the program.

When asked what he is looking forward to the most in his first spring as the DC, Kotelnicki responded with a simple word - improvement. “I think we have the players in place to succeed, but the biggest single area we need to improve on this spring is the execution of our defense. We have a structure in place. Now, we just have to build a trust in our defensive players.”

Kotelnicki, who will continue to work with the linebackers, knows there will be challenges to overcome as the unit figures out ways to defend some of the most potent offenses in the FCS on a weekly basis in Big Sky play and that is why, according to Mussman, he was the right man for the job. “Josh was my choice for this position because he has succeeded at every position he has held here both as a player and a coach,” Mussman said. “Our special teams improved greatly under his direction and our recruiting took major steps forward with him running those efforts. I expect him to do the same with our defense.”

The glaring hole Kotelnicki and his coaches will have to fill is up front where UND had three seniors graduate after starting multiple seasons along the front line.

“That’s a major concern for us,” Mussman said. “We don’t have a lot of experience on the defensive line and it needs to be markedly better from what it was a year ago. Everything starts there from tackling to getting pressure on the quarterback.”

Even though Spencer Cummings, Seth Stanchik and Ben Henson have not started a lot of football games at UND, all three upperclassmen have seen plenty of action (20-plus games in each of their careers) to provide some comfort level for the coaching staff. All three will get their opportunities to be “the man” and be leaned on to produce for the defense.

Rising senior Garrison Goodman battled through an injury-plagued 2012 season and will not participate in spring drills, but the middle linebacker’s return to the defense in 2013 will be “critical”, according to Mussman. “Garrison provides that edge for our defense. He is a hard-nosed player and the guys around him feed off of that.”

Fellow middle backer Ben Peters is the only returning UND defender to start all 11 games a season ago and he racked up 55 tackles in his first year as a starter. Sophomore Will Ratelle gained some valuable experience in a reserve role in 2012, appearing in nine games and making 25 tackles. Redshirt freshman Brian Labat is expected to push for playing time. A high school teammate of Mollberg’s in Detroit Lakes, Labat impressed the coaching staff with his scout team work in the fall.

At outside linebacker, seniors Cordero Finley and Dominique Bennett will return after posting solid junior campaigns. “With Cordero and Dominique, they both have all the potential to be great linebackers,” Mussman said. “We just need them to their athleticism into more production this season.”

Bennett led the team with 4.5 sacks a season ago and Finley added 40 stops to go with an interception and two fumble recoveries.  Walk-ons Alex Hickel and Garret Reineke have also worked their way into the playing rotation at the outside spots.

The secondary will see rising senior Chavon Mackey move from his cornerback spot to safety this season. He was third on the team with 53 tackles and added two interceptions. “We have OK depth at the cornerback position and Chavon is a smart player and one of our more physical guys, so we thought he could handle that transition.”

The team’s top returning tackle also returns to his strong safety spot as versatile sophomore Baylee Carr racked up a team-high 57 stops in only seven starts. He started the first two games of the season at free safety before logging starts at strong safety in the final five contests. “Baylee is another player who has had a tremendous offseason,” Mussman said. “He’s just a great program guy. This is important to him and you can tell that by how hard he works. He really values being a UND football player.”

JUCO-transfer Will Lewis is also back after making 11 appearances in a reserve role in 2012. Lewis picked off two passes in UND’s Big Sky debut - a road win at Sacramento State - and finished the season with 28 tackles. “After kind of being thrown into the fire right away last season, we expect Will to make big strides this season,” Mussman said.

Sophomore Javen Butler will also be in the mix at safety. He is one of the most athletic players on the team and showed glimpses of his potential late in the campaign.

Cornerback Daryl Brown did not have the sophomore campaign many anticipated because of nagging injuries, but the Minnesota native showed during his freshman season of 2011 how good of a player he can be when healthy. “We need the Daryl Brown of two years ago back on our defense,” Mussman said. “He was not nearly as consistent last season, but a lot of that was due to injury.”

Senior Chris Hall, who five games and had 37 tackles, will get the chance to lock down the other cornerback slot, but will be pushed by the likes of sophomores Chris Brown, Dwayne Brown and Rumeal Harris along with redshirt freshman Dan Konowalkski. “I like our depth at cornerback and it will be interesting to see who emerges from the pack and becomes a key contributor for our defense,” Mussman said.

Converted wide receiver Tyrhe Ivery will also be vying for playing time in the secondary. With the second decimated by injuries late last season, Ivery made the switch late in 2012 and the coaches made the move permanent this spring. His first look will come at one of the two safety positions, but he could also work his way into the mix at cornerback.

SPECIAL TEAMS
With Kotelnicki taking over as defensive coordinator, his former teammate and current wide receivers coach Luke Schleusner will inherit the role of special teams coordinator. Schleusner takes over a unit that has combined to block 20 kicks in the past two seasons, including a Big Sky best nine in 2012.

Rising senior Zeb Miller offers stability at the placekicking position, but UND will have to fill the void left by three-year starter Brett Cameron, who will likely be punting in the Canadian Football League this fall for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Walk-on Maverick Edmunds and Peters, the starting middle linebacker, will handle the punting duties this spring. UND signed Mitch Meindel this spring to come in and compete for the starting punting post this fall.

2013 SPRING FOOTBALL PRACTICE SCHEDULE

Monday April 1 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Wednesday April 3 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Friday April 5 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Saturday April 6 1:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Monday April 8 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Wednesday April 10 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Friday April 12 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Saturday April 13 1:45 p.m. *Scrimmage* (Memorial Stadium)
Monday April 15 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Wednesday April 17 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Friday April 19 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Saturday April 20 2 p.m. *Spring Game* (Alerus Center)
Monday April 22 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Wednesday April 24 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
Friday April 26 3:45 p.m. (Memorial Stadium)
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