Football is back in Bemidji.
With passing cars honking horns in support along Paul Bunyan Avenue, the Bemidji State football team began preparations for the 2009 season with the first official fall practice Thursday.
"There's a couple days of year that are pretty exciting with our job - national signing date and reporting date for preseason," said Bemidji State head coach Jeff Tesch, who enters his 14th season at the helm of the program. "It's fun to get all the names and faces back on campus and get an assessment of what kind of shape they are in."
The season begins at home Aug. 27 with a night game against Minot State University under the lights at Chet Anderson Stadium.
Bemidji State senior linebacker Jake Anderson was happy to get back to the practice field and start a new season. He feels confident the experience gained last year will help the Beavers this fall.
"We're returning a lot of people back, pretty much our whole front seven is coming back," Anderson said. "I'm really excited because we have experience under our belt and everyone's coming back ... we're bigger, faster smarter and we know what we're doing."
Bemidji State stumbled out of the gates last season, but recovered with wins in the final weeks of the season to finish 5-6 overall and 4-6 in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
That was good for third place in the NSIC North Division and an eighth place overall finish in the 14-team conference.
2008 was a rebuilding year and a learning process for the Beavers as underclassmen were thrown into starting roles at several key positions.
One of those players was quarterback Derek Edholm, who started all but one game last year as a sophomore. Edholm struggled at times, but flashed his ability to make plays by running outside of the pocket.
Edholm completed 65 percent of his passes last season for 2,136 yards and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He rushed for 195 yards and one touchdown.
"It was kind of rude awakening for some of those guys being so young - including myself - it's a different level especially coming in and you're playing guys who are fifth year seniors," Edholm said. "I think that experience was invaluable and I think this year the butterflies are going to be a lot less going into that first game."
The first day of practice also marked the start of careers for a number of BSU freshmen.
One of those players was Larry Miller, a quarterback from Dallas, Tex. He arrived in Bemidji on Monday with his older brother Keith, who is helping him get acquainted to his new surroundings this week.
"It was hard, a lot of playcalling and stuff," said Miller, describing his first day with his new team. "I love the team bonding, the team bonding here is way better than it was down in Texas. It's like everybody here are brothers and we are all as one. I love Bemidji now."
Miller comes from a strong football family and lists his mother's cousin as 1977 Heisman winner Earl Campbell.
With Edholm and Lance Rongstad ahead of Miller on the depth chart, Tesch said he likes Miller's athletic ability and may find opportunities to get the Texan on the field this season.
There are a few key areas the Beavers will address in the weeks leading up to the season.
Tesch said one of the primary areas to address will be the kicking game. Former all-conference kicker Paul Potemra elected to graduate early instead of returning for his fifth year of eligibility. That means Jesse Sundby and Nate Solors enter fall drills as BSU's kickers.
On offense, the Beavers will look for a more balanced identity after losing wide receiver George Kadlec to graduation.
Kadlec was the primary offensive threat last season and finished with a team-leading 55 receptions for 934 yards and 14 touchdowns. He set BSU records for touchdown receptions in a season and ended his career with the most touchdown receptions in school history (26). Kadlec also led the conference in touchdown receptions.
"It's going to hurt not having that playmaker, but I think we're going to be steady and fine wherever we are," Edholm said.
Juniors Andrew Schultz and Adam Berg return with the most experience in the receiving corps having started all 11 games last season. The two combined for almost 700 yards and three touchdowns.
One storyline to watch this season is the growth and progress of the offensive line.
"They were so young last year, weren't many younger than us last year in the country," Tesch said. "The good news is they got a lot of game experience and they were playing better football, winning in the last three out of four (games). They're just bigger stronger and have a better awareness of what's going on. That is an area that should be a lot better than a year ago."
The players insist the only game on the schedule they are looking forward to is the opener against Minot State.
But the home schedule this season features some of the stronger teams in the NSIC.
Minnesota-Duluth won the NSIC and the Division II national title last season with an undefeated record. The Bulldogs will face Bemidji State at Chet Anderson Stadium in the home season finale Oct. 24.
In other home games, the Beavers host rival Winona State on Sept. 12 in the Shrine game and follow with Minnesota State Moorhead on Sept. 19 in the annual Battle for the Axe.
St. Cloud State comes to town Oct. 3 for the homecoming game and Wayne State visits the following week Oct. 10 in the Lion's Vision Awareness game.
"I'm excited to see UMD come into town, obviously that's going to be a big game but right now it's just Minot State," Edholm said.