BEMIDJI – The good news for the Bemidji State football team is that seven of the starters from the Beavers’ vaunted “Gang Green” defense return from a wildly successful 2011 season.
That’s the same defense that ranked No. 3 in the nation in scoring, giving up only 16 points per game. And with a bulk of those players returning, it’s not hyperbole to suspect more stingy defensive performances in 2012.
But this year’s edition of Gang Green isn’t perfect. As far as Rich Jahner is concerned, two positions will be the key to the Beavers’ defensive success.
“I think we look alright,” the Bemidji State defensive coordinator said. “But our outside linebackers and safeties will determine how good we’re going to be. It’s going to be about how soon they can raise their level of play.”
Graduation thinned the ranks at safety and outside linebacker, leaving the Beavers with little to no experience in those positions.
And that defensive backfield is perhaps the biggest question mark for the Bemidji State defense this year.
Starters Brody Scheff and Dusty Sluzewicz both made the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic all-conference team in 2011 and Scheff was an all-American. What’s more, the team’s top backup – fifth-year starter and captain Jake Schmidt – is also gone.
“We graduated arguably the top three safeties in the league,” Jahner said. “They’ll be tough to replace. And we have almost no experience coming back.
“It’s definitely the biggest hole that we need to fill on defense, without a doubt.”
But no experience isn’t the same as no talent. The Beavers have plenty of potential options for the defensive backfield. It will just be a matter of making sure they’re ready.
One of the most intriguing options at the position is junior college transfer Jordan Abaroa. The five-foot-11, 195 pound junior from Gilbert, Ariz., is 24 – a little older than your average juco transfer, but Jahner said he’s got great experience at the juco level. Abaroa led Scottsdale Community College with eight pass breakups and one interception last season.
Also in the mix are younger players just now getting their chance after being stuck behind Scheff, Sluzewicz and Schmidt.
Sophomore Scott Christensen has the most experience of the returning players, getting time in all 11 games in 2011. He recorded eight tackles and brought back an interception for a touchdown.
Dylan Valentine, a sophomore cornerback, might also see significant time at safety; he recorded 19 tackles and also saw time in 11 games, mostly at cornerback.
A few freshmen – Luke Gerding, Kameel Al-Khouri, Tanner Dufault, Josh Tismer and Colton Blascyk – are also listed on the roster as defensive backs and should get some looks at safety too.
“What we have is a lot of different talent by different individuals,” Jahner said. “Each brings his own skill set.”
That means it may be a “safety-by-committee” – at least, for the first few games until one or two players separates themselves from the rest.
And the backfield will be bolstered by the return of Larry Miller, Charlie Hrdlicka and Christensen at cornerback.
“One story that’s maybe getting missed a bit is that we’re really confident in our corner positions,” Jahner said. “Where last year our safeties were our strength, this year our corners will be our strength.
“We don’t have much depth at corner, but the ones we have are experienced and fast.”
The loss of outside linebackers Alex Mock and Luke Knutson also concerns Jahner, but he says the defensive line and inside linebackers will be very strong.
Most of the line (Josh Beste, J.J. Reinke, Matt Shaver Wayne Paulus, Dan Kiebler and Gary Young; all started at least once last season) returns, as do linebackers Buckley Wright, Cory Crosby, Jason Bromm and Dan Christensen.
Wright said the holes in the defense don’t bother him. BSU has always had a tough defense, and he expects the same again from the newcomers.
“I’ve always expected (a tough defense) since I’ve been here,” the defensive co-captain said. “We lost a couple of key positions, our safeties, and we’re definitely going to need to put the work in.
“But we’ve got the coaches, and they’re going to spend the time with us. They have the knowledge to put it in our hands and make it happen.”