Spring Preview: What To Know On The Defensive Side
Cliff Notes (Five Takeaways)
1. Head coach Bubba Schweigert wants to develop depth at all position above all else.
2. Four scholarship defenders joined the roster in January and are expected to make immediate contributions.
3. The inside linebacker position has added some beef to help stop the run.
4. All-American Deion Harris is on track to return in the fall, but in the spring, it's all about getting the rest of the youthful secondary comfortable and up-to-speed
5. The two areas that remained relatively healthy in 2017 (defensive line and outside linebacker) are poised to be strengths again in 2018
Did you know?
All-American cornerback Deion Harris will wear No. 24 for his final collegiate season. He wore No. 19 during his first three seasons. True freshman Ty Shannon wore No. 19, while Harris sat out last season with an injury and will remain in that number for the 2018 season.
With a crowded backfield featuring the All-Big Sky tandem of John Santiago and Brady Oliveira, junior Austin Gordon will take a crack at playing defense in 2018. Gordon will be spending the spring playing outside linebacker in hopes of getting his talents onto the field this fall.
Preview (Long Version)
If you had to pinpoint the one thing that kept rising to the surface when discussing the defensive side of the football with head coach Bubba Schweigert as his team prepares to start spring practices, it was building depth.
A year ago, it's no secret or an excuse for that matter, but injuries took their toll on the Fighting Hawks. All-American cornerback Deion Harris never took a snap. Reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year did not make it through one league game. Starting inside linebacker Donnell Rodgers did not finish game No. 2 and there seemed to be a new addition to the list almost each game.
So, what has Schweigert and his staff done to help make sure injuries do not have the same compounding effect on the 2018 squad? For starters, they added four scholarship defenders to the roster in January.
The quartet, which includes inside linebackers Everett Williams and Tyron Vrede, safety Hayden Galvin and cornerback Lenny Nelson, have all played college football at some level and are expected to bolster their respective positions.
All four will be on the practice field at the High Performance Center on Friday as the Fighting Hawks open spring drills with thir first of 15 practice sessions.
Williams, a Minnesota grad transfer, and Vrede, who is originally from The Netherlands, will be tasked with the responsibility of helping stop the run, which was an area the UND defense saw about a 100-yard difference in from their 2016 Big Sky Championship team to the 2017 version that suffered through a 3-8 campaign.
"Everett Williams brings a real-physical presence to the inside linebacker position. At times a year ago, we felt like we needed to be bigger in there because when you tackle ball carriers, the goal is to stop their progress too," Schweigert said. "We're excited about him. He seems to be a good learner and has been getting in good shape with us this winter.
"Tyron Vrede (Ver-day) has been working hard. He's another player with a nice frame at inside linebacker and it will be interesting to see what he can bring to the table. We added some size in there with both him and Williams."
Williams and Vrede will get additional reps in the spring with incumbent starter Donnell Rodgers limited to just drill work. Rodgers was hurt in the home opener vs. Missouri State a year ago after showing in fall camp that he was poised for a breakout season. "We need to be smart with him," Schweigert said. "We want him to be mentally sharp. That's our goal for him this spring as he continues to recover, so he will not be on the field for any live situations."
Redshirt freshman Noah Larson will also add some girth to the inside linebacker position. Mid-way through fall camp, he was emerging as a strong candidate to get his shirt pulled to start alongside Rodgers, but an injury derailed those thoughts.
Larson was an accomplished running back at the high school ranks and the physicality he ran with at Barboo High School, is what made Schweigert and his staff think he'd be a great fit at inside linebacker in their system.
"He ran with such force and tenacity," Schweigert said. "That's the style we want our inside linebackers to play with. We're excited to see what he can do this spring. He runs around really well for a guy with his frame."
Galvin and Nelson are expected to add immediate help to the secondary where injuries also impacted performance.
"Hayden Galvin has already gained some good weight since he's been here," Schweigert added. "That's great to see because we felt like he needed to do that in order to compete for some reps at free safety.
Galvin and senior Tamas Stewart, who was also on the list of those that suffered through an injury-plagued 2017, are the upperclassmen at the safety position after All-American Cole Reyes and classmate Chuck Flowers finished up their UND careers in 2017.
Stewart, like Rodgers, will be limited to drill work during the spring, but can take advantage of being out there learning a system that was new to him as well last fall after transferring from the JUCO-level.
Schweigert also wants to see the underclassmen in that group make some positive strides this spring.
"We have two young guys in Jordan Canady and Ty Shannon that got some playing time last season and now it's time for them to develop into leaders back there." he said. "We also have Tykeise Johnson, who redshirted last season after walking on, another newcomer in Zach Zimmerman that will both get an opportunity.
"We think our safety position will really improve this spring because all of those guys are going to get a lot of reps for us."
As expected, Harris will miss spring practices as he continues to rehab, but Schweigert said the process is coming along really well. "We expected him to not be available for spring practices, but when we get to summer time the expectation is he'll be able to do some football-related tasks to get him ready for fall camp."
With Harris, who had a Big Sky-leading five interceptions in 2016, sitting out this spring, that opens the door for more reps for the other five players on the spring roster at that position.
"Lenny Nelson is another physical player and we think he'll be a nice addition to our cornerback position. He'll be tested there, but I think he can compete this spring for a starting position," Schweigert said.
Nelson will be competing alongside Evan Holm, Tyus Carter, Hayden Blubaugh and Kyle Hietpas.
Holm is also coming off an injury-riddled season, but Schweigert said that he will be full-go for spring practices.
"Evan Holm is good to go. He's done a good job with his rehab and has worked really hard on his mobility. That will help him to stay healthy. Tyus Carter is in the same boat. He's feeling good going into the spring and we'll continue to bring those too along." Schweigert added.
It's also an important spring for the underclassmen and newcomers at the position.
"We don't have a lot of depth there, so those young guys, like Hayden Blubaugh and Kyle Hietpas, will get a lot of reps to show us what they can do," Schweigert said.
"For Hayden, I think after you've been on the field as a true freshman during the fall, then going into your first spring, it's an opportunity to take a big step. Spring is really for the young guys who are still learning and growing in our system and that includes Lenny Nelson, who will have his opportunity as well."
The two positions where the Fighting Hawks did not need to add any bodies during January were outside linebacker and the defensive line.
Senior Tanner Palmborg, who earned All-Big Sky accolades in his first season at his new position, and junior Jade Lawrence remained healthy for the most part during 2017 and proved to Schweigert they have staying power at the oustide linebacker position.
"This is one of our more experienced positions," Schweigert said. "Tanner and Jade both started last season and played well for us.
"We think moving Tanner to oustide linebacker was the right decision and now that he has played it for a full season, we think he can really refine his skills there. Jade is a bright football player that we expect a lot out of this spring.
Behind that duo is a pair of sophomores in Jaxson Turner and Ray Haas that provided adequate depth to the position.
"I thought Jaxson Turner really improved late in the season. We are looking forward to seeing even more growth this spring out of Jaxson because we think he can be a key contributor to our defense," Schweigert said. "Ray Haas also played some key snaps there as a redshirt freshman and, like Jaxson, we think he can really impact our defense in a positive way.
"There's a bunch of guys behind those four that we think highly of too, including Austin Gordon. We're going to give him a shot at that position this spring because the way our depth chart is at running back, it's going to be hard for him to get a lot of reps there."
The defensive line was another area on the roster where staying healthy was the exception in 2017. Seniors Brandon Dranka and Drew Greely both made double-digit starts, but will have to be replaced in 2018.
That responsibility falls on senior Austin Cieslak and junior Mason Bennett, who were both key members of a heavy rotation used by the Fighting Hawks.
"Mason has put on some good size in the offseason," Schweigert said. "That's one of the things we really challenged our guys to do, become more physical. He already runs around really well and we think he can take that next step and be a great pass rusher for us.
"Austin has been nicked up in the past during both the fall and spring, but this year he is ready to go and we're excited to see what he can do being completely healthy. He has played a lot of downs for us."
Another upperclassmen whose role will be increased is Carl Engwall.
"He's another guy that is going to have to take on a bigger role for us," Schweigert added. "He started to get some more playing time late last season and I think that will help him moving into the spring."
Beyond that, defensive line coach Jordan Gigli will have to count on redshirt freshman to fill in the rotation gaps at defensive end. Fortunately, he has some intriguing prospects to do just that.
"Coming out of high school we thought Zeke Ott would really benefit from a redshirt season, so he could come into this spring and really compete for playing time and I think that will happen," Schweigert said. "He looks the part, so we'll keep a close eye on him this spring.
"Also in that class, Quentin Seguin and Nick Honerlaw are going to push for playing time as well. Seguin is a bigger guy that really brings a physical presence and he moves his feet really well. Honerlaw is another one of our guys that has put on some good weight and he'll get an opportunity to move around a little between nose guard and defensive end this spring."
The one position where a veteran presence can be counted on is at nose guard. All-Big Sky performer Tank Harris is back for his third season as a starter and reserve Steve Greer has been his back-up each of those campaigns.
"Tank has played a lot of football for us and worked his way into being an all-conference player," Schweigert said. "He's made strides each offseason and I expect that to continue into his senior season.
"As for Steve, he's another veteran that has played a lot of snaps for us. We really challenged him to be in great shape going into spring ball."
Schweigert also expects Logan Morrison to be a player to work his way into the rotation at nose guard, but he will not be available for spring practices.
"He's one of our young guys that got banged up late in the fall and will not be available this spring. He should be fully-recovered shortly after spring and be able to do what all of his other teammates are doing, but he'll need to continue to strengthen his injury to get ready for fall camp."
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Spring Preview: What To Know On The Defensive Side