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Bemidji State University running back Dustin Kroeplin finds a hole in the defense during a recent practice at BSU. Kroeplin, a four-year starter in the backfield, is one of the leaders of an experienced BSU offense this season. Jack Hittinger | Bemidji Pioneer

Experience matters: Bemidji State offense has senior leadership on its side

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BEMIDJI – It’s subtle, but Dustin Kroeplin sees the change in the Bemidji State University offense already. It’s only been a year, but the senior running back says that year of experience makes all the difference.

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“A lot of guys are stepping up, and we’re kinda becoming coaches ourselves, mentors, older brothers to the new guys,” Kroeplin said. “It’s great to see that on a football team. You have your coaching staff, but when you have the older guys ahead of you who know what they’re doing, know what their responsibilities are; it makes things for other newer guys so much easier.”

The Beavers held their first fall intrasquad scrimmage Saturday.

“The biggest thing today was we finally got to tackle (at full speed),” BSU head coach Jeff Tesch said. “I thought the guys competed hard. We didn’t make too many mistakes, which sometimes happens in a first scrimmage.”

Offensive coordinator Eric Medberry liked the way the newcomers handled themselves on the first day of full-speed, full-contact plays.

“We took a step forward,” BSU offensive coordinator Eric Medberry said. “It was nice to see some of the new guys make some plays.”

Thanks to a strong corps of returning skill position seniors, those youngsters won’t necessarily be thrust into starting roles right away. And that’s a nice problem to have for the Beavers, who are banking on those seniors to lead them to their first postseason appearance since 2006.

“Skill-wise we’ve got a lot back,” BSU quarterback Lance Rongstad said. “We know the offense well. It just means we shouldn’t have any mental mistakes out there. We won’t have to worry a whole lot about screwing up because of all the experience we have.”

Rongstad was one of the top quarterbacks in the NSIC as a junior, gaining 809 yards on the ground and 1,286 yards through the air. Kroeplin ran for 670 yards and nine touchdowns. Together they helped the Beavers rank No. 1 in the conference in rushing offense.

Backup running back Brad Hemling didn’t have the numbers of Rongstad or Kroeplin but has proved a durable sub coming into his senior year.

“Those guys in the backfield, they’ve played a lot of football for us over the years,” offensive coordinator Eric Medberry said. “Lance, Dustin and Brad have been at it for a while. It’s nice working with them.”

Having senior presence in the backfield makes things a whole lot easier on an offensive line that features five players in brand-new positions across the board.

“We know we’ve got a lot of our veteran guys back, especially skill areas,” Medberry said. “It’s basically seniors across the board. We expect a lot out of those guys. They’ve got to carry the load as our offensive line develops.”

Of course, no talk of the line would be complete without mentioning tight end Brian Leonhardt.

The senior led the team in both receptions (35) and reception yards (483) in 2011, garnering All-American nods in the process. 

With Troy Dale also returning as the other tight end – along with five senior wideouts – it’s almost an embarrassment of experience for the Beavers.

“We’ve got Brian and Troy back at tight end, and a quarterback with a year of experience,” wide receiver Christian Metz said. “It should make a huge difference. Lance didn’t have much starting experience last year but it’s a big difference that he has another year of it this year. He’s the leader of the team.”

Senior wideouts Metz, Justin Lee and Matt Gandrud all started at some point for BSU last year, while Jody Henningson also Beau Wakefield return as seniors.

In other words, Rongstad will have options, weather he wants to run or throw.

“He wants the pressure on his shoulders, and I respect him for that,” Kroeplin said. “Not all quarterbacks can take that pressure day in and day out. 

“But he’s got a lot of support with seniority on line, in the backfield and in the receiver corps. It’s going to be tremendous to see everybody take a little bit of that weight off of his shoulders, see him relaxed, see him loose. Because he’s a heck of a player.”

Offensive line making progress

Bemidji State’s offensive line is still learning to work as a unit. With five players in brand-new positions, it’s bound to take some time. But so far, the jury is in and the verdict is positive.

“They’re doing great,” Medberry said Saturday. “They took a step forward today. I think the biggest thing is them learning to play together as a group.”

Kroeplin agreed with Medberry’s assessment.

“It’s been good,” he said, noting that all the players taking reps on the line have been very willing to correct their mistakes and learn from them.

“It’s great, because when they make a mistake they’re all quick to recognize it and say, ‘I know what I did wrong, it won’t happen again.’ They’re constantly asking us, ‘How’d that look? How’d that look?’ And that’s great. A lot of times that doesn’t happen. […]. It’s great to see them working hard. I think it’s going to be awesome this year.” 

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is the sports editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He is also the Bemidji State beat writer. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at http://thebeaverblog.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.
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