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Bemidji State football team begins season healthy with playoff expectations

Cory Immerman and the Bemidji State football team open the season tonight on the road at Minot State. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren

The Bemidji State football team scrambled last season when key players went down week after week with injuries.

After an offseason to heal, those players have returned healthy for tonight's season opener at Minot State at 7 p.m. and BSU head coach Jeff Tesch is expecting a return to an offensive attack of equal parts passing and running.

"I think we'll probably look for a little bit more of a balance right away this year and try to keep them off balance and not emphasize one side of the ball like we have in the past," Tesch said. "They're fired up, ready to go, we're in shape, pretty darn healthy and we're just rearing and ready to get after it."

Coming back from injuries are running back Brandon Miles, wide receiver Justin Lee and 313-pound offensive lineman Jordan Anderson.

Miles, who led the team in rushing in 2008, missed all of the 2009 season after suffering an ACL injury in preseason drills. Lee and Anderson each missed half the season with leg injuries.

Those injuries forced creative play calling from the coaching staff and put underclassmen at key positions. To keep veteran quarterback Derek Edholm healthy for the entire season, freshman backup Lance Rongstad was brought in to spell Edholm during games. Freshman Dustin Kroeplin took over as the primary running back and sophomore tight end Brian Leonhardt emerged as reliable red-zone target.

The dual-quarterback system and the new faces worked out better than anticipated.

Kroeplin and Rongstad combined to run for over 1,500 yards, Leonhardt led the team in receiving touchdowns and Edholm went on to become an All-NSIC quarterback after throwing for 25 touchdowns.

The result was an 8-3 overall record (7-3 NSIC) and a third-place tie in the conference standings. It marked BSU's best finish since the NSIC championship season of 2006.

At the first day of practice earlier this month, Edholm said the team intends to build on last season's success and the ultimate goal is national playoffs - something BSU has never reached in school history.

It will be a tough road there with national contender Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State and Augustana looming on the schedule this season.

"We expect a lot of potential," junior wide receiver Jody Henningson said. "We feel like we can be conference champions but we'll take that a game at a time and see what happens."

The experienced offensive line welcomes back Anderson this year. Cory Immerman is back to play center along with Davis Mickelson and Alonzo Melton at the tackles. Sophomore Brett DeLange steps into the guard position to give BSU a whopping 1,485 pounds on the offensive line - an average of 297 pounds per player.

To contend for the conference championship the Beavers will need a strong defense again this season.

Though the defense lost All-American Jake Anderson, All-NSIC tackle Bryan Wick and All-NSIC cornerback Tiger Ellison, BSU is returning a skilled core that established itself one of the best rushing defenses in the nation last season.

On the defensive line, All-NSIC defensive end Jordan Lardinois and defensive end Rob Wills will team up on the edges with sophomore Jake Zimmerman likely playing the nose role in BSU's 3-4 defensive scheme. The experience of George Percak-Dennett, Andrew Eagan, Cory Crosby, Blake Sczepanski and Alex Mock give BSU a formidable set of linebackers.

"The strengths of the defense are going to be the front seven: it's going to be the D-lineman and the linebacker core playing fast and physical," Wills said. "We need to do that and set the tone early in every single game that we're here to play and we're here to win."

The defensive backfield has strength in returning juniors Dusty Sluzewciz and Brody Scheff, who started a majority of games at safety in 2009. Charles Hrdlicka and Anthony Ragsdale will play at the corners.

Bemidji State and Minot State are meeting in the 'Beaver Bash' for the 12th consecutive season. Bemidji State is 10-1 all-time against Minot State and won last year's meeting 47-20 at Chet Anderson Stadium.

Bemidji State enters the game ranked No. 22 in the USA Today Preseason poll and Minot is No. 14 in the NAIA poll after finishing 8-3 last season.

Bemidji State does not play a game next weekend and will return to the field Sept. 11 for the home and NSIC opener against Augustana.