The 2016 season was arguably the most memorable for the North Dakota football program since moving to the Division I level. In their ninth season at the FCS level, the Fighting Hawks accomplished a number of special feats. There was the program’s first Big Sky Conference championship thanks to a perfect 8-0 league record. There was the program’s first FCS Playoff berth and a No. 7 national seed. The Fighting Hawks’ finished with nine wins, which were the most for the program since making the move to the FCS prior to the 2008 season.
So what is reigning Big Sky Coach of the Year Bubba Schweigert’s focus entering the 2017 spring season? “We want to get better,” he said. “We accomplished some great things last season, but we left the field for the final time with a real bad taste in our mouths. We were proud of advancing to the FCS playoffs, but our goal and vision for this program is to advance in the playoffs, and, ultimately, be one of the top teams competing for a national title every season. We have a lot of work to do to get to that point.”
That work started in the weight room just a couple days after that last-second loss to Richmond in the second round of the FCS playoffs. It has continued throughout the winter with individual workouts and conditioning and the Fighting Hawks get the chance to return to the field for 15 practices starting in early March. The first of those will take place Friday, March 3 at the High Performance Center and the sessions will conclude with the team’s annual Spring Game on Friday, April 14.
The Fighting Hawks will have nine starters back from an offense that averaged nearly 30 points and 400 total yards per game a season ago. More than half of those yards came on the ground as the All-Big Sky Conference tandem of John Santiago and Brady Oliveira combined for 1,880 yards and 17 touchdowns as sophomores. Santiago collected first team accolades for the second-straight season after rushing for a team-high 983 yards and seven touchdowns, while Oliveira grabbed third-team honors after posting 897 rushing yards and a team-high 10 rushing scores.
Joining Oliveira and Santiago in the backfield this spring will be Minnesota transfer James Johannesson. The former Fargo South standout will have three seasons of eligibility remaining for the Fighting Hawks. A prep standout, Johannesson rushed for 6,158 yards and 81 touchdown en route to back-to-back North Dakota Gatorade Player of the Year honors and will provide another weapon for a backfield that is already one of the most dynamic in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“John and Brady have played a lot of football for us and are both still young backs that have room to improve,” Schweigert said. “Our challenge for them is to keep them working hard to become complete backs. With James, we add a big, power back to the mix and we’ll take a hard look at him this spring to find the best ways he can help our football team.”
The offenses’ total yards and point production increased for the third-straight season under coordinator Paul Rudolph, while quarterback Keaton Studsrud guided those efforts on the field. The junior captain threw for a career-high 2,027 yards and 14 touchdowns, while only tossing two interceptions in 11 starts. Studsrud also added five ground scores and guided double-digit, fourth-quarter comebacks in wins over South Dakota and Northern Arizona a season ago.
With Studsrud embarking on his final collegiate season, Schweigert said one of the points of emphasis this spring will be to improve the depth at the quarterback position.
Sophomore Brad Heidlebaugh, who threw a touchdown pass on his only attempt of the season in a win over Weber State, last season, along with newcomer Andrew Zimmerman and redshirt freshman Ben Bolinske will push Studsrud and look to bolster the stable of signal callers Rudolph has under his watch.
“We know what we have with Keaton and we want these young guys to really push him and improve our depth,” Schweigert said. “We’ve seen Brad and Ben start to develop and get better and we’re excited to see Zimmerman out on our practice field. He has a strong arm, good mobility and will make us a better football team. All of those guys have to be ready to go.”
Those players catching the passes from the quarterbacks took big strides in 2016, but it’s another position where Schweigert said the emphasis has to be on consistent improvement across the board. “We had two young guys step up and perform well as freshman. De’mun Mercer really emerged late in the season and you saw him get more and more comfortable with our offense,” Schweigert said. “Luke Stanley and Josh Seibel were both slowed by injuries some last season, but are veteran guys we can count on.
“I like our depth at wide receiver and we’ll get a chance to see what (newcomer) Cam McKinney can do for us out on the edge. We have better numbers at that position, but think those guys can get even better and this spring will be a chance for that unit to do just that.”
Those two young guys Schweigert was referring too made an immediate impact as true freshmen. Travis Toivonen led the team with 39 catches for 433 yards, while classmate Noah Wanzek was fourth on the team with 25 receptions and 367 yards. Both players had three touchdown receptions during their rookie seasons. Mercer, a Texas State transfer, ended up being a big play threat late in the season. He had 28 receptions on the campaign and led the team with 553 receiving yards and four touchdown.
Stanley was the team’s leading receiver when he was injured at Idaho State (Oct. 22). The 6-foot-4 wideout missed the next three games before returning in a limited role in the playoff loss to Richmond. Seibel played in the final seven games of the season following a spring injury and had seven catches for 54 yards. His lone touchdown was a big one as it came in the 28-21 win against Idaho State.
Junior Luke Fiedler has a chance to take over the starting tight end role after gaining experience as a reserve in the previous two seasons behind the now departed Luke Mathewson. Fiedler led that unit with 11 catches for 95 yards and had his first collegiate touchdown in the comeback win over Northern Arizona (Nov. 12). “We want Luke to take that next step,” Schweigert said. “He needs to stay healthy and be more consistent. We’ve been pleased with his winter workouts.”
Pushing Fielder for playing time will be a pair of young tight ends. Sophomore Alex Cloyd saw some action as a true freshman and along with redshirt freshman Hunter Pinke will get plenty of reps to develop and show the coaching staff what they can do this spring.
Senior Kyle Norberg is a veteran that really settled into the fullback role a season ago after seeing time as a running back and linebacker earlier in his career. He finished with 22 carries for 130 yards and a touchdown, while also serving as a physical run-blocking presence for his running backs. “We’re pleased with the progress Kyle has made at fullback and Brett Finke is going to have an opportunity to show us what he can do this spring. He’s another physical player that we think can help our run game out.”
Another area where Schweigert would like to see more consistency in 2017 is up front along the offensive line. Senior A.J. Stockwell returns to his left tackle spot for the third-consecutive year, while classmate Mat Cox is still recovering from a season-ending injury suffered at Montana State (Sept. 29) and will not participate in spring drills. However, the prospects look good for him to return to the field by fall camp and work his way back into the right tackle spot where he started the first four games of the 2016 season.
“With Cox still out, there will be an opportunity for Byrce Blair to continue and develop at both tackle spots. He got to play some towards the end of last year and we liked what we saw from him. Both Bryce and redshirt freshman Noah Mortel should get some quality reps at tackle this spring.”
Dan Bell and Demon Taylor return for the 2017 season after getting their first seasons as a starter under their belts at right guard and left guard, respectively. Bell, a rising senior, started all 12 games, while Taylor, who will be a junior, received 11 starting nods. Those two are going to be pushed for playing time, however, as Brandon Miller returns to health and has previous starting expeirence at right guard (three games in 2015) and redshirt freshman Ryan Tobin will also be in the mix after impressing the staff during his scout team work in 2016.
“Those guys need to keep improving,” Schweigert said. “In order for us to play offensive football how we would like, there needs to be more consistency from that group and that is really going to be our focus this spring.”
Junior Grant Aplin started the final seven games at center a season ago and returns along with sophomore Patric Rooney, who also got a start at the position as a redshirt freshman in 2016. “Both of those young men have some experience to lean on from last season and we’re excited to see what Nathan Nguon can do at that spot this spring. We want to have great competion at all of our positions and we think the O-Line is really going to benefit from the young guys we have pushing our veterans.”
The defensive side of the ball is where the Fighting Hawks will have some holes to fill as the unit that led the Big Sky in scoring defense (22.0 ppg) and rushing defense (91.3 ypg) will have to replace five starters.
There is good news, however, as the cupboard is far from bare, especially in the defensive backfield. Safety Cole Reyes earned six different All-America accolades and will be the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year when UND hits the field for its 2017 season opener at Utah (Aug. 31). Reyes finished with 70 tackles and three interceptions, while also breaking up eight passes.
“Obviously, Cole had a great junior season, but his challenge this spring will be to stay sharp with his knowledge of our defense and lead the guys on that side of the ball,” Schweigert said.
The first team All-Big Sky performer is joined in the secondary by fellow All-American Deion Harris, who led the Big Sky with five interceptions and returned three of those for touchdowns from his cornerback position. Harris started all 12 games and finished with 14 passes defended. At the other cornerback position, Torrey Hunt added 13 passes defended and was one of four secondary players with three or more interceptions.
Hunt started the final nine games of the season after Tyus Carter was lost for the season before Big Sky play began. Carter will be back on the field for spring drills, but in a limited capacity.
The Fighting Hawks led the FCS with 20 interceptions, but Schweigert thinks they can be even better in 2017. “Our secondary has great potential, but there are several areas that we can improve on, whether it be our plays on the ball, better in one-on-one situations and not giving up big chunk plays. There are several young guys in those positions that need to take that next step,” Schweigert added. “This will be a big spring for guys like Jordan Canady, Evan Holm, Andre Randolph and Vashon Tucker.”
Canady, Randolph and Tucker will be vying for time at safety, while Holm saw some action as a true freshman at cornerback. Holm finished with 16 tackles, an interception and two pass break-ups.
The linebacker unit is where defensive coordiantor Eric Schmidt will have to fill the biggest voids as three of last year’s four starters all graduated. Two of those losses come at outside linebacker where Brian Labat and Jawon Johnson both totalled 40-plus tackles and started all 12 games.
“This will be a big spring for our outside linebackers. With Labat and Johnson both gone, we will need several young guys to really take advantage of the number of reps they will get,” Schweigert said. “We liked what we saw from Jade Lawrence a year ago. He proved he can make plays for us. We have a couple of redshirts in Jaxson Turner and Ray Haas that are really athletic. We feel like they have the skills to really make a difference on our defense and look forward to see how far they have progressed in our system.”
Senior Connor O’Brien and sophomore Donnell Rodgers return at inside linebacker, but those two will see several new faces in their meeting room this spring. Those new faces will hopefully bolster depth at a position that boasted the team’s leading tackler a year ago in Dylan Bakker, who collected 98 tackles and earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as a senior.
O’Brien has started 18 straight games for the Fighting Hawks since moving into the starting role and Rodgers played in all 12 games as a reserve in 2016. Those two combined for 105 tackles and helped anchor the Big Sky’s best run defense.
Those players making the position change to inside linebacker include senior Jake Disterhaupt (outside linebacker), senior Oscar Nevermann (running back) and redshirt freshman Jake Geier (safety). “Jake Disterhaupt is a smart player that has played a lot of football for us and we think his athleticism is going to translate well to inside backer,” Schweigert said. “We also like the athleticism and toughness that Oscar Nevermann and Jake Geier will provide at the position.”
One of the deepest positions on the team is the defensive line and that unit will be anchored by a trio of upperclassmen with starting experience. At defensive end, seniors Brandon Dranka and Drew Greely return, while junior Tank Harris emerged as one of the top nose guards in the Big Sky in 12 starts as a sophomore.
Dranka has started 26 consecutive games for the Fighting Hawks, while Greely has collected six starts throughout his career. Dranka’s 6.5 tackles for loss are tops among the returners and Greely led UND in sacks with four a year ago. “Dranka and Greely are both experienced players, but as always, we’re going to challenge them to improve their games and get better,” Schweigert said.
Harris finished 2016 with a career-high 28 tackles and he will be joined in the trenches by classmate Steve Greer and senior Nick Schmitz. Greer picked up two sacks in an injury-shortened season, while Schmitz also added a sack as both players saw action in seven games.
“We’ve been excited about Tank’s progress, but we’re going to challenge him this spring to take that next step to be a more dominant force inside for us,” Schweigert said. ”Steve Greer needs to become a more consistent performer. That’s really our goal with him this spring. With Nick Schmitz, we feel like there are three guys at the nose guard position that can really help our defense.”
Pushing Dranka and Greely at defensive end will be a trio of sophomores. “Mason Bennett and Carter Wilson got on the field some last year, showed that they are athetlic and can make plays,” Schweigert said. “We want to see them become more physical players and create some solid depth for us at defensive end for the season.
Sophomore Carl Engwall is another player from that same class as Bennett and Wilson that was nicked up some last year, but will be back on the field this spring. Junior Austin Cieslak will be ready for the fall, but is sitting out the spring session with an injury.
Dussold averaged 42.1 yards per punt in his first season at UND after transferring from Missouri S&T. He downed 24 punts inside the 20-yard line and added 12 of 50-plus yards. His 42.4 yards per punt in the regular season was the sixth-best, single-season effort in program history.
Holmen has been a mainstay at long snapper throughout his career and has started 34 consecutive games, handling both long and short snaps.
Taubenheim has made 45 career field goals in three seasons as a starter. That total is tied for fifth most in UND history. He converted on 16-of-25 attempts in 2016.
“We obviously like the experience we have back among our specialists. They are all seniors that we expect to keep working hard to improve their craft,” Schweigert said.
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