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Bemidji State running back Avery Walker throws a stiff arm during a game against Minnesota State-Moorhead last season. The Beavers were picked to finish sixth out of 16 teams in the NSIC coaches poll released Tuesday; Walker was named one of BSU's Offensive Players to Watch. PIONEER FILE PHOTO

FOOTBALL: Bemidji State with something to prove, picked sixth in NSIC coaches poll

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BEMIDJI -- Much like last season, the Bemidji State football team has something to prove this year -- at least, in the eyes of Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference coaches.

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Conference coaches picked the Beavers to finish sixth overall in the 16-team conference and fourth in the NSIC Northern Division according to the preseason coaches poll released Tuesday.

"In some ways I think it's a pretty fair assessment," BSU head coach Jeff Tesch said of the poll results. "Considering who we graduated and what we're returning on offense, we have a lot of unknowns."

Last season the Beavers were picked to finish sixth overall in the conference and third in the North Division.

After a poor start to the season -- going 1-3 in the first four games -- it looked like the Beavers might finish even lower than those predictions. However, a late-season surge helped BSU finish 7-4 overall and 6-1 in the division, finishing fifth overall in the conference and sharing a division title with Minnesota Duluth, who also finished 6-1 in the division.

The teams picked to finish ahead of the Beavers this year aren't a shock.

Coaches overwhelmingly chose Minnesota State-Mankato to finish first in the conference, giving the Mavericks 13 of possible 16 first-place votes. Minnesota Duluth was picked to finish second, while Winona State, St. Cloud State and Sioux Falls were picked third through fifth, respectively. BSU was just ahead of Wayne State and Northern State.

In the North Division this year, UMD and St. Cloud were picked No. 1 and 2 but Northern State was tabbed to finish third ahead of BSU.

"The top four, five programs are usually the same every year," Teach said. "They're great programs. It's our job to knock them all off."

Last year the Beavers upset St. Cloud State in St. Cloud but lost at Mankato, at Duluth and at Sioux Falls.

"We beat St. Cloud State at their place last year, which was a good win for us," Tesch said. "But we want to get into the upper echelon of this league and that means we have to beat all these teams on a consistent basis."

If the Beavers want to do that this year, they'll need to see just what it has in its offensive arsenal.

Gone are All-American tight end Brian Leonhardt, quarterback Lance Rongstad and a veteran receiver corps that consisted of five seniors.

It's a mostly untested lineup. For Tesch, that means sixth overall is a good starting point.

"We have so many unknowns on offense," he said. "To be picked sixth is OK. How those offensive guys turn out will be the key to how we do this season.

"I think our defense is good enough to keep us in most games this year but the offense will have to step up."

Defensively, the Beavers return plenty -- eight starters will be back this year, including linebacker Buckley Wright, cornerback Larry Miller and defensive tackle Matt Shaver.

Shaver was named one of BSU's "Players to Watch" in the coaches poll, along with running back Avery Walker.

The Beavers report back to Bemidji Wednesday, Aug. 14, with the first practice slater for Aug. 15. Tesch said he's excited to see the team compete for playing time this season.

"That's the fun part about having all these new faces," he said. "We have a bunch of eager, hardworking guys who are going to be challenging for positions and playing time. We're looking forward to it."

The Beavers' have three weeks of practice before their first game Thursday, Sept. 5 at Winona State.

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is a sports reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on Bemidji State but also covering area high schools. 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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