FOOTBALL: Beavers start practice for the 2014 season today; here are 5 things to watch for as fall camp gets underway
BEMIDJI — After one of the worst seasons in recent history of the Bemidji State football program last year, it’s fair to wonder how the Beavers can find a way to bounce back in 2014.
For the BSU coaching staff, using that rough 3-8 campaign should be the only incentive needed to get back to playing what associate head coach and defensive coordinator Rich Jahner calls “Beaver Football.”
“After going through a tough year it humbles you, causes you to reflect on what you can do to get better and it motivates you,” Jahner said. “I can’t remember a time I’ve been this motivated for the start of the year. We have a lot to prove.
“Last year wasn’t Beaver Football and we all look forward to getting back to what the essence of what the program is all about.”
The Beavers didn’t get on the field Wednesday — instead it was a day dedicated to paperwork, equipment check-out and team meetings.
The on-field action actually starts today, as the team will conduct physical testing at 2 p.m. followed by the team’s first practice. The regular season begins Sept. 6 with a game at Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference foe Wayne State.
BSU head coach Jeff Tesch is anxious to see how much improvement his team has made since last fall.
“We have lots of work to do but we’re excited about the talent that’s here,” Tesch said. “Some of the guys are going to have to grow up real quick (in training camp).”
With that in mind, here are five things to watch out for as BSU prepares for the coming season.
1. A quarterback battle?
There may be another quarterback battle this preseason, but expect more consistency from the position than last season.
Neither Ryan Shields nor Alex Hass could get the BSU offense going last season and the result was the worst passing offense in the NSIC and the second-worst scoring offense in the conference.
There’s more optimism this time around. According to the coaching staff Shields, a sophomore, has shown lots of improvement with a year of experience under his belt. His receivers —who, like him, were mostly freshmen last year —should also improve with age.
The main question is if Northern Iowa transfer Jordan Hein can show enough in the preseason to usurp Shields as the No. 1 option under center. Hein, a former Perham standout, didn’t play at Division I Northern Iowa but was expected to compete for the starting slot since he announced his intention to transfer last December.
2. Skill positions experienced
Before last season began BSU’s receiving corps had just one combined collegiate reception.
That’s far from the case this season.
Junior Jordan Noskowiak and sophomore Juwaan Richard lead a receiving corps that will be better acclimated to the college game after being stuck behind seniors on the depth chart for years.
Tight end Jared Roelofs, who converted from linebacker last season, proved he could catch passes and block and will doubtless be utilized once again. Also intriguing at the position is senior Zach Noreen, who played four years of basketball at BSU before deciding to use his final year of eligibility in football pads.
At running back, Tony Peterson will face the daunting task of replacing Avery Walker, although Tesch said there’s depth at that position.
“He’s our leading guy on the depth chart,” Tesch said. “Tony busted his tail to be bigger and faster and he did a lot of nice things in the spring.
“We’re dipping into a new can of running backs this spring and seeing who comes out ahead. Right now it’s Tony but we have some freshmen and some transfers who could play right away.”
3. Kicker needed
It isn’t often that a team’s biggest loss to graduation is a kicker. Or a punter. But when said kicker/punter combo is All-American Zach Pulkinen, it makes sense.
“He was a big weapon for us on both sides of the ball,” Tesch said of Pulkinen. “We have some talent but not a lot of experience either. So this fall we need to put our kickers and punters in as many game-like situations as we can.”
Among those will be former Bemidji High School standout Kyle Fodness, who transferred to BSU after two years as a walk-on at the University of Minnesota. Also in the mix are Jacob Kaden, Isaac Aanerud and Chais Wakefield.
“Kicking is wide open right now,” Jahner said. “We have no idea who that’s going to be.”
4. Defensive backfield, D-Line will be strength
BSU is known for its defense-first mentality and once again the Beavers will rely on it’s “Gang Green” team to win games early.
“They give us a good opportunity to give us the ball back every time out,” Tesch said.
“We feel really good about the D-line, outside linebackers and safeties,” Jahner said. “Those are some positions where we really have some experienced guys coming back. those should be the heart and soul for this this year.”
Jahner and Tersch both agreed the safety position — anchored by seniors Dylan Valentine and Scott Christensen — will be the most important in 2014.
“Like a good baseball team you want to be good up the middle,” Tesch said. “Christensen, Valentine and those guys we think are going to create turnovers for us. We rely on them for good steady play right there. They’re guys you can lean on.”
Christensen, a preseason all-American, led all NSIC defensive backs with 95 tackles in 2014 while Valentine was All-NSIC in 2014.
Another pair of preseason All-Americans —Dan Kiebler and J.J. Reinke — lead a strong defensive line.
5. NSIC still good as ever
The Beavers were picked to finish eighth overall and third in the NSIC North.
With two NCAA Division II playoff teams in the North Division — including quarterfinalist St. Cloud State — the fight to claim a division title won’t be easy.
St. Cloud and Minnesota-Duluth were, not surprisingly, the two teams picked to finish ahead of the Beavers in 2014.
But the Beavers will also have to fend off a solid Northern State team that shut them out a season ago, as well as Minnesota State Moorhead and Minnesota-Crookston —both of whom were victorious in their rivalry games a season ago.