Spring has sprung and the SDSU football team is done with workouts. The Jacks were able to take advantage of the indoor facility to make the most of their 15 practices.
“You always want to get better, in general,” says head coach John Stiegelmeier. “Your young guys want to establish themselves. Those are givens. But one of the things we talk about is mastery. When you hear a defense, when you hear an offense you’re not thinking… it’s mastered. And that is so important because when you go into the summer and you are practicing on your own there is nobody out there to remind you what the route is or what the coverage is… so we want to become experts in our trade.”
SDSU will be missing some serious expertise with the graduation of Zach Zenner and Austin Sumner and Jason Schneider and Jack Sherlock and Jake Gentile.
Here is the position by position rundown of the familiar and the new faces the Jacks will put on the field this fall.
Zach Zenner was the only FCS player ever to run for more than 2,000 yards in three straight seasons.
SDSU running backs carried the ball 431 times in 2015 and Zenner had 337 (78%) of those. Brady Mengarelli had 61 carries (14%) and he probably gets the nod as the #1 guy.
“I would say right now that he is clearly the leader of that group,” says offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness, “but there are some backs that have done some nice things and they see that there is a chance for me to play more now with Zenner graduated. There’s a lot more snaps to go around. So selfishly as a player you have to want all of those reps. But realistically, when you graduate a guy that is 225 pounds and can take a physical toll more so than a 190 pound guy they know that it is going to be a little bit more by committee.”
“We have Brady,” adds running backs coach Nic McKissic-Luke, “who played a lot last year and is the leader and is returning so he is the leader of the group right now and he is having a good spring. Isaac Wallace, a guy we redshirted last year, is a special talent and we believe that he has some special abilities that a lot of guys in the conference don’t have. And we have Reggie (Gandy) also, who has played for us a bit and we look for good things out of him. So it is going to be a committee thing. We are trying to identify three or four guys in spring and go into fall camp and narrow it down.”
Zenner averaged 24 carries per game last year and took a beating. Eidsness talks about the backs this year not being as big and maybe not as durable and that leads to the thought of spreading the carries around a little more. The most carries Mengarelli had in a Missouri Valley Conference game last year was nine against South Dakota. Reggie Gandy had 30 total carries for the season.
Wallace is a redshirt freshman from Omaha (Ralston HS) that could eventually be very special.
“He has that ‘it’ factor,” says McKissic-Luke. “He can get in and out of his cuts so smooth and fast and he is at top speed before you know it. You can miss a guy and not block a guy and he can make him miss and turn it into a big play. He has that big play ability and it is just natural for him. There are some things that we are working on and tweaking to make him an all-around and complete back, but right now he has the natural ability that a lot of guys don’t have.”
The Jacks also have to replace their all-time leader in passing yards and passing TDs. Austin Sumner was a four-year starter and is moving on and moving to Colorado to get on with his life.
The Replacements? Take your pick.
Zach Lujan is a junior from Alaska. Dalton Douglas is a sophomore from California. Chris Little is a redshirt freshman from Illinois. Tyler Finnes is a senior from Minnesota.
Coach Stiegelmeier thought he would have a pretty good idea of who the new starter would be by the time they finished up spring workouts.
“But it will be a guess,” Stig says, “because our projected starter isn’t even practicing. Zach Lujan is injured so he is not going to be able to practice. So he would be the heir apparent for Sumner. So really, we are establishing the top three out of the other three guys and then see how Zach is in the summer.”
“The competition,” adds Eidsness, “until it separates itself, is what is important. Coming to work every day and being on edge and knowing that every rep and every play matters. Some guys handle that well and other guys struggle in those environments and we need to find out who is going to handle that really well so that when they get in a more stressful situation on a Saturday they are able to handle that.”
And… there will really be 5 guys in the mix. Taryn Christion (Sioux Falls Roosevelt) will come in as a true freshman this fall and compete for the job.
Coach Stig makes it sound like Lujan has the heads up… Lujan started 7 games last year when Sumner was out, BUT… popular opinion is that the job is wide open and will be up until the opener at Kansas.
Whoever is playing quarterback he will have Jake Wieneke as his top target. Wieneke was named the Freshman of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference last year. He set a SDSU school record with 16 touchdown catches.
But here is how receivers coach Josh Davis thinks that Wieneke can get better.
“When you watch Jake and critique his route running you’re going to see some wasted movement and some areas where his footwork needs to be cleaner,” says Davis, the SDSU record holder for career receptions. “He can be cleaner with his hands and with his pad level and he is focusing on improving in those areas. The great thing is that when the ball is in the air he is very natural at adjusting to the ball. He is a great rebounder as far as when the ball is in the air and going up to make those plays. So all of that is good and is why he had so much success as a freshman. But just those fine details of route running and route technique… release technique, blocking pad level… those are all things he can improve on and we need him to improve on.”
Wieneke, by the way, has been running track for the Jacks this spring. He had two of SDSU’s fastest times in the 200 meters.
On the “other side” at wideout, Coach Davis talks about Brandon Andrews, a senior… Connor Landberg, a junior… Trevor Wesley, a senior who was third on the team in catches last year with 35… Matt Raymond, a little guy at 5-foot-9 but good in the slot… and Larves Jones, another senior and another big target at 6-foot-4.
The Jacks got just 16 catches in 14 games from this group last year. Just saying.
Cam Jones is back for his senior season. He had 18 catches as a sophomore, suffered a foot injury late that season and came back last year as a junior but was still not 100%. But it sounds like he is ready to go full speed in his senior season.
“Cam is a hundred percent healthy,” says tight ends coach Luke Schleusner. “He played last season and it was a tough season for him at the beginning coming back from the serious foot injury. It’s one of those injuries that takes some time. He was back and playing but wasn’t the same Cam and now he is back and better than ever and it shows in spring ball. He is making a ton of plays down the field and going up over guys for catches. He is just a real tough matchup at 6-6 and his ability to run. He is really having a great spring and being a big threat for our offense.”
Dallas Goedert, a sophomore from Britton, SD, had eight catches last year and will again be the number two TE behind Jones.
The Jacks return four guys on the OL that started that last game of the season at North Dakota State.
Seniors Bryce Siverling and Dylan Seiter are back on the left side. Sophomore Jacob Ohnesorge is back at center. Taylor Bloom, a senior from Madison, SD, is back at right guard.
Trevor Gregor is the only guy gone at right tackle and right now it looks like Seth Lansman is stepping in at that position.
Position coach John Flynn has a good mix of run blockers and pass protectors.
“Every O line coach wants both,” says Flynn. “Of course, in our system with running backs like ZZ and young guys like Isaac Wallace our first priority is running the football. That has been proven by the last several years with what we do. But we want to be just as versatile as possible throwing the ball. We’ve got a bunch of great wideouts. Of course, we graduated Austin Sumner but we’ve got a great bunch of young QBs coming up… talented guys that can throw the ball and run the ball. So from an O line standpoint we naturally want to be great at both, but we want to run the ball first and not necessarily run the ball second, but take pride in running the ball pro them up as well and really be a well-rounded O line group.”
Mike Shoff is a 6-foot-6, 330-pound kid that will be a junior and the coaches have had high hopes for him since his freshman season… but Shoff is still battling a leg injury and there is a chance he might not play again this season.
Coach Flynn is trying to build some depth… and if Shoff and Nick Carr (injury) are both out that leaves a sophomore, Charlie Harmon, and two redshirt freshmen, Tyler Weir and Thor Reimer as the backups.
Jack Sherlock is gone (and is in free-agent minicamp with the Minnesota Vikings) and he led the team in sacks last year with 3. But defensive coordinator Clint Brown thinks he has some guys back that can get after the quarterback.
“We just have so much more experience back,” says Brown, who will be in his 7th season as DC. “I think we will be better pass rushers. If you look at where we were last year that was our weakness… we only had 15 sacks for the season and that has been a point of emphasis for us all spring. I think with Cole (Langer) having another year under his belt and J.R. Plote stepping up. Kellen Soulek has had a great spring and then Christian Banasiak and Chase Kern have shown that we have improved in that area. So we just need to do it on Saturdays next fall.”
Shayne Gottlob from Salem, SD, is out with an injury right now, but he will be back. Gottlob was top ten on the team in tackles last season.
Tiano Pupungatoa will be a sophomore and Brown has some expectations for him. Tywan Ramsey is a redshirt freshman from Milwaukee. They are two more tackles… interior line guys… who could help up that sack total.
“A couple years ago,” says defensive tackles coach Jesse Courier, “Chase Douglas had the most sacks in the conference out of all defensive linemen and he was an interior guy and the two years before that we had a guy with at least six sacks on the interior. So we’ve had success rushing the passer from the inside… and Cole has the capability to be a dominant pass rusher from the inside and Kellen Soulek is a very good pass rusher as well inside.”
D line was a big point of emphasis in the spring and so was…..
Two starters… Jake Gentile and Melvin Taveras… are gone. (Taveras is in camp with the Vikings, as well.)
But that safety spot might be in better hands than most people think.
“I think our safeties have come on really strong,” says Stiegelmeier. “I am really happy with the way Coach Christensen has pressed them and pushed them. We’ve got some young guys in there. We graduated two and Mears is back, but we’ve got some young guys… Farina and Slade and Romenesko that I think have had great springs.”
Safeties coach Jay Christensen agrees. “Alex Romenesko and Makiah Slade. Two young kids there… they redshirted for us. They are really athletic and a lot of times they don’t know where they’re going so we’ve got to get them pointed in the right direction… and they’ll get there. You will see them on the field next year. They’re going to play.”
“I would say the safety position is going to be solid,” adds linebackers coach Jimmy Rogers. “You’re not going to know the faces right away, but Alex Romenesko is a redshirt freshman that is having an awesome spring… physical kid that will come up and hit you, great feet… and Makiah Slade may be our best athlete on the team… 42 inch vertical… he can run… and he is still figuring it out and learning the defense but when he does, he flashes and he is going to make some plays. And Nick Mears is going to be one of the better safeties in the conference.”
Mears will be a junior… he was second on the team in tackles last season. Nick Farina is a sophomore from Phoenix who has fought a lot of injuries.
Romensko and Slade are redshirt freshmen and Rogers was one of several coaches to talk about Slade being one of the best athletes they’ve ever had at SDSU.
CORNERBACK doesn’t really come up in conversation right now because the coaches feel that position is locked down and solid.
JeRyan Butler is out right now, but will be the starter on the right side. Jimmy Forsythe, another junior, will start at left corner. Trey Carr, who saw a lot of time last year as a true freshman, will be the number one backup. Jordan Brown, another super athletic redshirt freshman, will get some time as well.
This is another strength for the Jacks, even without Charles Elmore. He was great as a freshman and sat out last year with an injury but Elmore was dismissed from the team this spring. That was confirmed without comment by Coach Brown.
Half of the returning linebackers were held out of spring workouts because of minor injuries. Jesse Bobbit, Tom Peitz and Patrick Schuster all missed the spring game, but will all be back and will all play this fall.
T.J. Lally will start for the fourth year in a row. J.T. Hassell will probably start for the second straight season. And a new guy, Cody Hazlett will get some time.
“Cody Hazlett has filled the role,” says Rogers. “He is a transfer from Northern Illinois and has done a really good job. I am impressed with the progression he has made from the fall to right now… night and day. TJ is TJ and he is going to be as consistent as anybody in our group right now. So the real battle in the group is at Sam (strong side) with JT Hassell and Dallas Brown and Drew Kreutzfeldt. Drew as a senior veteran is playing well right now pushing those guys and making them work for it.”
Dallas Brown started the last game of the year last year and finished 6th on the team in tackles. He could float some between linebacker and safety.
And….. SPECIAL TEAMS
The Jacks need to replace a great kicker. Justin Syrovatka was almost perfect last year… 19/20 on field goals and 50/50 on PATs.
Jay Carlson is the Jacks kickoff guy… and for the time being, is the placekicker according to Coach Christensen who doubles as Co-Special Teams Coordinator.
“Jay will be the place kicker and handle our kickoffs and field goals. I should say, right now he is… Chase Vinatieri will come in and compete for that spot and we will open it up. We’re not just going to say Jay you’re the guy… we’re going to give Chase every opportunity to win the job just as Jay is going to have every opportunity to win the job… same with the punting position.”
Chase Vinatieri (Sioux Falls Roosevelt) will be a true freshman this fall but could/should end up as the kicker.
Another freshman, Brady Hale from Yankton, SD, is going to come in and probably be the new punter.
Not an ideal situation to have first-year players in those important positions, but Vinatieri and Hale are a new breed of youngster at SDSU. Back-to-back-to-back 9-win playoff seasons have definitely raised the SDSU profile when the coaches are out recruiting. They say the beast is starting to feed itself.
“The more you win,” says Coach Flynn, “and the more stuff that you build is naturally going to elevate your program to more of a national stage instead of a regional stage… and so in recruiting you can chase after guys and go recruit the top guys that you want regardless of who else is recruiting them.”
“The last two recruiting classes have been big time,” says cornerback coach Dan Jackson. “We’ve signed a lot of kids that could play early from some schools where they come in with a good football base and good football knowledge and have some moxie about them. Cool thing, too, is that we’ve been beating a lot of MAC schools and Mountain West schools and North Dakota State. So the new facilities to go along with the family atmosphere that we have we are killing it in recruiting… and we need to continue to do that… stack two or three classes and then go on a long run of winning some games.”
The Jacks will open the 2015 season at Kansas. Here is the schedule that includes some great games at home.
We are working out the details on the TV contract, but hope to have a majority of these games on Midco Sports Network.
See you in the fall.
SDSU FOOTBALL 2015
Sat, Sep 05 at Kansas
Sat, Sep 12 Southern Utah
Sat, Sep 19 OPEN
Sat, Sep 26 Robert Morris (Pa.)
Sat, Oct 03 North Dakota State
Sat, Oct 10 Indiana State
Sat, Oct 17 at Youngstown State
Sat, Oct 24 Northern Iowa
Sat, Oct 31 at Missouri State
Sat, Nov 07 Illinois State
Sat, Nov 14 at South Dakota
Sat, Nov 21 at Western Illinois