The Bemidji State football team will open the 2009 season Thursday at 7 p.m. against Minot State at Chet Anderson Stadium.
The Beavers are coming off a 5-6 season (4-6 NSIC) and will look to use the experience gained last season to improve on that record in 2009.
Bemidji State fielded a young team in a transition year in 2008. The team lost three of its first four games to open the season, but closed out by winning four of the final seven games - including the final two games of the season.
Bemidji State is hoping that strong finish carried over throughout the summer and will bring a strong start this season.
Bemidji State will seek to strike a better balance on offense this season.
Lack of an effective running attack early in games hurt Bemidji State in 2008. When trailing, the Beavers abandoned the running game and became a one dimensional passing offense that opposing defenses exploited.
"(The offense) should be more balanced this season," Bemidji State head coach Jeff Tesch said. "We've got to find who that big playmaker is going to be and we think we have some with (Cameron) Abrams and (Justin) Lee ... (Andrew) Schultz is a heck of a receiver for us. We think we have more depth but we just have to find that go-to guy and we have run the ball more consistently."
The loss of playmaker George Kadlec, who set several school receiving records last season, and his team-leading 14 touchdown receptions will be missed.
The wide receivers fought through nagging injuries last season and it will be interesting to see how the group matures in 2009. What the Beavers lack in height, they more than make up for with speed.
Andrew Schultz returns and will take over the No. 1 spot after catching 48 passes for 482 yards and two touchdowns last season as a sophomore.
Junior Adam Berg, junior Cameron Abrams and sophomore Jody Henningson and will also play roles in the passing offense. The trio combined to catch 79 passes for 675 yards last season.
Justin Lee is the unknown factor in the group of wide receivers.
The sophomore speedster is returning from a missed season due to an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. The coaching staff was high on his abilities before he was injured in preseason drills last year.
"I think we're going to do a lot more short passing than we did last year," Schultz said. "Last year we were able to do the deep ball a bit more with George (Kadlec), but that's because he was able to do that better than any player I've ever seen. Our offense is going to be about speed."
Junior Brandon Miles was set to take over starting running back duties this season, but a recent ACL injury during fall drills will keep him out for the entire year.
That injury leaves Dustin Kroeplin as the No. 1 back this season. Listed at 5 foot-11 and 214 pounds, the redshirt freshman from Wisconsin should be a physical back for the Beavers.
He will be spelled by senior Eurise Watson, who has battled injuries in both of his knees during his career at BSU. Watson remains a threat as a goal-line back when healthy.
Without a proven running game, four to five wide receiver formations should be common.
Junior Derek Edholm is back behind center for Bemidji State after his first full season at the quarterback position.
Edholm went through some growing pains in 2008, but still finished the year with solid numbers. The Anoka native finished with a quarterback rating of 141.39 and completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,136 yards and 17 touchdowns. He threw just five interceptions.
Blocking for the running game and protecting Edholm is a young group of offensive linemen.
Centering the group is sophomore Cory Immerman. At left tackle is sophomore Davis Mickelson and at left guard is Steve Pappas. At right guard is sophomore Jordan Anderson and at right tackle is Papapa Nicholas-Silvira, a sophomore transfer from Oregon State.
Mickelson, Immerman and Anderson saw extensive playing time last season as freshmen.
Tesch feels experience at several key positions will help make the Bemidji State defense a better unit this season.
"We have so many guys back between the whole starting D-line, the whole linebacking corps ... we expect those guys to get some turnovers for us and get us some good field position," Tesch said.
Junior inside linebacker Andrew Eagan and defensive captain Jake Anderson return in 2009 after leading the Beavers in tackles last season. The two combined for 138 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss and six sacks. Anderson, an outside linebacker, had three interceptions and forced three fumbles.
Add to that mix outside linebacker Luke Knutson. The Bagley native excelled as a freshman last season and finished with 39 tackles despite only starting in three games. He also had three sacks, one forced fumble and had Bemidji State's lone safety last season.
Senior inside linebacker Gary Miller was set for a starting role, but a sprained knee will keep him out of the lineup about four to six weeks.
But depth at the linebacker position will be one of the strengths on defense this season.
George Percak-Dennett, Alex Mock, Cory Crosby and Dan Christensen will play backup roles at linebacker and find playing time in blitz and pass coverage packages.
Like the offensive line, one of the groups who went through a trial by fire last season was the defensive line.
Junior end Rob Wills, junior end Jordan Lardinois and senior tackle Bryan Wick took on primary roles up front last year were pushed around at times. The trio will be back after combining for 107 tackles.
Wills was the leader of the bunch with 52 tackles. He finished with 7.5 tackles for a loss, tied for the team lead with four sacks and forced one fumble.
Tiger Ellison will take over as Bemidji State's top cornerback and will be in charge of shutting down the top wide receivers across the league. He had one interception and forced one fumble last season.
"I feel good and I think we've got a little more experience, we're a little more mature and I think that will be a strong point," Ellison said of the defense.
Like Kadlec, the Beavers will miss Phelps, who earned a trip to Minnesota Vikings rookie camp after an all-conference senior season. He had a team-high five interceptions last season and 63 tackles. Ellison feels he's up to the task of taking over the top spot.
"I've been playing football my entire life and I don't want to sound too overconfident, but I have confidence in my abilities," Ellison said.
Starting opposite of Ellison in the No. 2 cornerback role is junior Sid Johnson.
In the secondary, safety Dusty Sluzewicz unexpectedly emerged in 2008 as a freshman. He ranked fifth on the team with 63 tackles and will likely improve on those numbers this season.
Also starting at safety will be freshman Jake Kelly, a redshirt freshman from Georgia.
The special teams unit lost all-conference kicker/punter Paul Potemra, who chose to graduate early and not return for his final season.
Sophomore Jesse Sundby will take over the kicking/punting role this season. He has some game experience after filling in when Potemra battled injuries last season.
Handling punt return duties will be wide receiver Justin Lee.
Handling kick return duties will be Ellison and freshman Charlie Hrdlicka.