Ten returning starters on defense, eight on offense.
Coming off a championship season, with a bowl victory.
Will this season be an extension of last season for the Minnesota State football team?
“The players came to camp in great shape and excited and committed to getting better each day,” interim coach Aaron Keen said. “They’re very motivated and very focused.”
The Mavericks open the season with a nonconference game against Minot State at 6 p.m. today.
“Attitude and work in the offseason, those are the keys,” Keen said. “As coaches, we need to make sure these players know that last year is last year, and teams aren’t going to roll over because we had some success last season. If you play hard and do what you’re supposed to do, the wins take care of themselves.”
A lot of attention last spring and this fall has fallen on junior quarterback Jon Wolf. Despite having caught more passes than he’s attempted and rushed for almost three times more yards than he’s passed in his first two seasons at Minnesota State, Keen said that he’s confident that the offense won’t have to change to be successful.
“We all know that Jon is a tremendous runner and a great athlete,” Keen said. “He knows he can throw the ball, and he’s demonstrated that to the coaches and his teammates. He’s put in a lot of work this summer to develop some chemistry with the receivers and tight ends and running backs. He’s playing with a tremendous amount of confidence.”
Wolf said that he’s eager to get started and show people what he can do instead of talking about it.
“I think I can be a pretty big playmaker,” Wolf said. “Our offense is doing a lot of great things in practice, and I think we can have a lot of explosive plays.”
Sophomore Andy Pfeiffer, who rushed for 1,264 yards and seven touchdowns last season, is back at tailback, but redshirt freshman Connor Thomas may end up starting. Taylor Brookins, who sat out last year, will also get some snaps in the backfield.
“We feel like we have a pretty good rotation,” Keen said.
Senior Adam Thielen made 62 receptions for 715 yards and five touchdowns last season, and he’ll be joined in the starting lineup by redshirt freshman Kyle Riggott. Sophomores Austin Rieder and Keyvan Rudd give the Mavericks more quality depth at the position.
Redshirt freshman Bryce Duncan has won the tight end job, though Matt Murphy and Jeff Burns will also play there, as Keen, who is the offensive coordinator, tries to utilize that position more in the passing game.
“We love to run the football, but you know that somebody is going to do everything they can to take that away from you,” Keen said. “You have to find some balance.”
Four of the five starters on the offensive line are back, and left guard Mike Bernarde, the only senior, started a game before getting injured last season. The others are sophomore center Josh Meeker, junior guard Andrew Essman, sophomore tackle Chris Reed and sophomore tackle Max Hofmeister.
“Those guys have spent a lot of time together and developed a special bond,” Keen said. “We like to run the football, and we are very confident in their ability.”
The defense has 10 returning starters, but defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman has done what he can to make sure those players aren’t getting too comfortable.
“We don’t want them to feel entitled just because they’ve had some success,” Klanderman said. “You have to earn everything you get, and I think they understand that and have been working hard.”
Klanderman said there has been great competition at several spots, allowing him to rotate players to keep them fresh. In the defensive line, sophomore tackles Barry Ballinger, Bryan Keys, Kaleb Wendricks and Jeffrey Raymond will rotate.
Klanderman said that junior end Chris Schaudt, who has 15.5 sacks and 30 tackles for loss in his career, was dedicated in the weight room this summer and should be even more effective. The other side will likely feature senior Josh LaPlante, a converted linebacker, and junior Shonquille Dorsey.
The linebacking corps returns intact, though sophomore Kris Fliegle moves from weakside to the middle, swapping spots with junior Isaac Kolstad. Senior Marcus Hall-Oliver led the team with 83 tackles last season, adding one sack and two interceptions.
“Nobody had spots guaranteed this year, and I think anyone that’s starting proved it on the practice field,” Hall-Oliver said. “The spring and summer seemed so long, and now we’re getting close to that first game. It’s exciting, and we’ll be ready to go.”
Sophomore Kelend Smith has emerged from a close battle at cornerback. Klanderman said that seniors Robert Gunderson and Levi Fossen and freshmen Justin Otto, Patrick Schmidt and Jared Gillespie could see time at cornerback.
Junior safeties Nathan Hancock and Jordan Hale are back, along with Iowa State transfer Earl Brooks and sophomore Sam Thompson.
“Our expectations are high,” Klanderman said. “We want to get stops and create turnovers. That’s our goal.”
Junior kicker Sam Brockshus and sophomore punter Darin Howell will handle those special teams duties.
The Mavericks, who won a share of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship and won the South Division title, were the coaches’ favorites to win another South championship. The Mavericks debuted at No. 14 in this week’s d2football.com poll.
“I’m really excited to get going,” Wolf said. “It’s getting hard to sleep at night.”
Ten returning starters on defense, eight on offense.
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