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Bemidji State football team's mission: national playoffs

Brandon Miles works on his footwork during agility drills at Thursday's practice. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

The Bemidji State football team hit the practice field for the first time this season and though the year is just beginning, the goal is clear: national playoffs.

"That's all we've talked about over the offseason," returning senior all-conference quarterback Derek Edholm said. "We want to be the first team in BSU history to reach the playoffs. We think we can go a long way if we stay focused and take it one week at a time. I think we have the talent."

The Beavers are ranked No. 22 in the USA Today Division II Preseason Top 25 in a position reflecting last season's success.

The Beavers were 8-3 overall in 2009 and in the mix to reach the national playoffs until an unexpected NCAA eligibility infraction penalty ended the season. The difficult ending did not take away from one of the best seasons in program history for the players.

The Beavers won two of the four games it played against ranked teams and one of those losses came in a tight game to recent national power Minnesota-Duluth.

It was an accomplished season from a young squad that overcame a number of injuries to starting players.

As a ranked team with so much experience returning, Bemidji State will no longer be an underdog and will be a favorite in most games this season as long as it keeps winning.

"Being ranked is cool," said George Percak-Dennett, one of this year's defensive captains. "But that rank is all about last year and a nice pat on the back for the hard work of guys like Jake Anderson and Bryan Wick. The rank means nothing right now because this is a new team."

With an entire offseason to heal, the Beavers will welcome back some key players in running back Brandon Miles, wide receiver Justin Lee and offensive lineman Jordan Anderson. Miles missed all of last season to a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), Lee most of the season with with a broken ankle and Anderson with a knee injury.

Miles' speed will further open up the playbook options with Dustin Kroeplin's physical running style.

The backs help make for a formidable offense combined with the dual-quarterback system of Edholm and Lance Rongstad, the experience of senior wide receiver Andrew Schultz and tight end Brian Leonhardt.

"The offense this year is really going to have a lot of depth and versatility," Miles said. "We've got multiple quarterbacks, we can run the screen and our O-Line is going to be able to protect the quarterback even better. I think we can do some good things."

There is likely to be competition for defensive positions with graduations of a few key players. Anderson was an all-American and one of the best linebackers in the NSIC. Wick played the key nose guard role in the 3-4 style defense and is now playing professionally for Green Bay in the Indoor Football League. Safety Tiger Ellison was rewarded with NFL tryout invites.

The good news on the defense is the return of Percak-Dennett, linebacker Andrew Eagan and safety Brody Scheff. Returning to the defensive line is the strong tackling tandem of Rob Wills and all-conference Jordan Lardinois.

"I think we should look pretty good on defense this year," Percak-Dennett said. "We may have lost some players, but we're banking on a really strong front seven and it helps we have one of the best coaches in Brent Bolte. We had a lot of people go down with injuries last year, so we know that we've got decent depth in our one-two positions."

Head coach Jeff Tesch is back for his 15th season at BSU. This preseason marks the first since 2007 that his team has been nationally ranked in the preseason.

"I've learned through the years that it's a good place to start and begin climbing," Tesch said. "It's harder to fall out of the rankings even if you lose than to try to climb in. We experienced that last year."

With so much experience on both sides returning, Tesch will be pushing his players during the 21-practice session heading into the Aug. 26 season opener at Minot State.

"We have to get better," Tesch said. "We lost three games last year with basically this same team - to Duluth and then Mankato in overtime - we have a lot of guys back and we're going to be better at every position and it appears right now that we'll have better depth. But right now our biggest focus will be on special teams and the kicking game."

The home opener is Sept. 11 against Augustana. The Vikings are one of the teams BSU has not faced since the NSIC expanded two years ago.

Augustana replaces Wayne State on the schedule in the two-year rotation, Upper Iowa replaces Winona State and Southwest Minnesota State replaces Minnesota State University, Mankato.

"The schedule won't be like last year's, but we've got our same rivals in Duluth and St. Cloud State on the schedule," Miles said. "We're going to bring the heat. I've got a good vibe about this team."