Spring Preview: What To Know On The Offensive Side
Cliff Notes (Five Takeaways)
1. The offensive line is young, but gained some valuable experience in 2017. The next step is consistency with a strong focus this spring on the development of the tackle positions.
2. The tight ends and fullbacks make up a veteran group that could be one of the deepest positions on the roster.
3. The running backs have the talent. Now, the challenge from head coach Bubba Schweigert is for each of them to become complete backs.
4. Juniors Travis Toivonen and Noah Wanzek provide a solid foundation for "The Jets", the question is which players behind that duo emerge as key contributors this fall.
5. For the first time in a while, the quarterback position is up for grabs and Schweigert loves that for his team.
Did you know?
The offense ran the ball 160 times fewer in 2017 than it did during its 2016 Big Sky Championship season, but actually averaged more yards per carry (4.9).
Rugby native Brad Heidlebaugh will be catching passes this spring instead of delivering them. The junior will move to wide receiver after spending his first three seasons in the program at quarterback.
Preview (Long Version)
The old saying goes, "if you're not five minutes early, than you're late."
For the 2017 North Dakota football team, this analogy could have been construed, "if you're offense is not on the field for five more minutes than your opponent, than you're likely behind on the scoreboard."
Back in 2016 when the Fighting Hawks reeled off nine-straight wins and made their first FCS Playoff appearance, they held a plus-six advantage in time of possession. Last season, UND was lagging behind in that category, leaving the defense on the field more often than head coach Bubba Schweigert's philosophy would usually dictate.
What the positive time of possession did was allow the offense to churn out 126 more plays than it did a year ago - about an average of 12 more a game.
That was a roundabout way of saying Schweigert prefers it when his offense is controlling the football and dominating the time of possession like it did in 2016. One of the goals this spring is to get that back on track.
And where does that start? Up front and the development of that unit will be one of the main points of emphasis when spring practices open on Friday.
If the progress Schweigert has seen in the weight room carries over onto the field, then the fifth-year head coach is going to pleased. "I think we want to become more physical. I think the guys in that group have really done a nice job of increasing their weight. They are bigger and stronger. It's been noticeable.
"We have some young guys there that got a chance to play a lot of snaps for us last season. Patric Rooney started every game for us at center. Ryan Tobin played both guard spots and Nate Nguon also got some work inside last year."
Senior Grant Aplin is a hard-nosed football player that has played fullback, center and guard during his UND career and his flexibility is also a plus for the unit. "He's moved around some for us and been steady," Schweigert said. "He'll be pushing for playing time too."
A young player that was forced to sit out last fall with an injury was Conner Kruse. At 6-foot-6, 295 pounds, Kruse arrived on campus with the size to contribute. "We held him out last fall, but we're excited to see him out on the field," Schweigert added.
The one spot on the offensive line where Schweigert wants to see the most growth is at tackle. "That is the one area that we really need to focus on this spring," he said. "Noah Mortel got some valuable experience at left tackle for us last season. Bryce Blair got some work at
"Bennett Helgren is starting to get healthy. Jeremy Jenkins is really making strides along with Sean Russo. It's a young position group for us, but all those guys are important to our program. They need to show us this spring that they can play at this level and keep developing."
Having some protection for those young tackles out on the edges is something that a veteran group of tight ends will be able to provide. "We like our depth at tight end. We have Alex Cloyd and Luke Fiedler returning as upperclassmen. Those two have played a lot of football for us.
"Then, we have several younger guys that we really like behind them. Hunter Pinke, Derek Paulson both played some last year and will be pushing for playing time."
In the same room as the tight ends are the fullbacks. That's another position that comes equipped with some experience. Senior Tyler Coyne is the oldest of that group and the challenge for the Plymouth, Minn., native will be to stay healthy. "Tyler's had a good winter, so that was positive to see," Schweigert said.
Sophomore Brett Finke got some opportunities to show what he could do last fall in place of Coyne and converted defensive lineman Logan Alm is another player that can do a lot of things to help the football team. A young player like Schweigert thinks will also push to be in the mix for playing time is redshirt freshman Graham DeVore. He was injured last fall, but will be healthy in the spring.
"He's a guy that can play fullback and also put his hand on the ground play tight end. He's put on some good, good weight this offseason," Schweigert added.
Juniors Noah Wanzek and Travis Toivonen bring ample experience to the wide receiver position. Wanzek led the team in receptions (52), yards (648) and touchdowns, while Toivonen was third in all of those categories (30-408-1). "Noah and Travis have played the most snaps for us and have the experience, but we think they can keep improving. We have to keep pushing them to get better and better," Schweigert said.
The real question for "The Jets" is who will step up behind that veteran duo. "We have to find out what a lot of guys can do this spring," Schweigert said. "We need to see what Mikey Greibel can do, what Cam McKinney can do. Izzy Adeoti played for us as a true freshman last year. Both him and Cam can run really well, so we need to find ways to get them on the field and get them contributing in a big-time way."
Heidlebaugh will big the x-factor as he adjusts from throwing passes to catching them. "He has a similar frame to Toivonen and Wanzek and can learn a lot from watching how those two go to work each day," Schweigert added.
It's hard to believe that John Santiago and Brady Oliveira are entering their senior seasons already, but that is the case. It's also a luxury and junior James Johannesson proved his worth during his first season with the program after transferring from Minnesota. All three of those backs averaged more than 5.7 yards per carry in 2017.
"Running back is where we have the most experience. It's our most solid position with John (Santiago) and Brady (Oliveira)," Schweigert said. "James Johannesson is now in his second season with us, so there's more of a comfort level with his skill set and what he can do to help our program.
"Teddy Sherva redshirted for us last season after walking on and this will be an important spring for him. He'll have an opportunity to show us what he can do."
As good as that stable of running backs is, there is one area where Schweigert wants to see growth out of that group this spring.
"We need to keep encouraging them to be complete backs. It's not just about running the football. They need to be good in pass protection. They need to be at catching the ball because we want to get them more involved in that aspect of our offense," he added.
The big question on offense is who will be handing the ball off to Santiago, Oliveira and Johannesson and throwing passes to the likes of Wanzek, Toivonen, Cloyd and Fiedler.
"Our quarterback situation is going to be competitive. We have to give all three of those guys opportunities to show what they can do," Schweigert said. "We love the competition. We need it at every position and that group does a good job of coming into the offices to learn the offense and are pushing each other to get better.
"We feel like we have three guys that can play here." The three players fighting for the No. 1 signal-calling spot and right to place three-year starter Keaton Studsrud are junior Andrew Zimmerman, junior Nate Ketteringham and redshirt freshman Brock Boltmann.
Schweigert feels like all three bring different strengths to the table. "Andrew has a strong arm. We think he can make all the throws that we'll need our quarterback to make in this offense."
Zimmeran appeared in four games a season ago, completing 51.2 percent of his passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns. Ketteringham sat out last season after transferring from Sacramento State. "We played against Nate back in 2016 and thought he had really good mobility," Schweigert said. "He has a strong arm too, but what impressed us the most was the trouble that he eluded. We put a lot of pressure on him that day we played against him."
In two seasons at Sacramento State, the San Diego native threw for 3,391 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Boltmann redshirted during his first season after a solid prep career at Edina (Minn.) High School. "Watching Brock in our two-minute drills in the fall, he's going to stress the defense with his feet and he also throws the ball well.
"They are all a little bit different. They each have different strengths, but for the first time since this staff has been here, we have a really competitive quarterback room that should make us better."
-- UND --
Spring Preview: What To Know On The Offensive Side