FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY MICK GARRY OF THE ARGUS LEADER
What was the biggest thing about this South Dakota team that you drew from watching spring practices and its spring game?
MG: It was the first chance to see the no-huddle spread offense, which will represent an obvious change in how the Coyotes go about gaining yards under first-year coach Bob Nielson. There were several players who will probably play a lot this fall who sat out the spring practices with injuries so it gave some players, particularly young receivers like Tacari Carpenter and Shamar Jackson, a chance to get a few more reps in under simulated game conditions. They definitely looked like capable players but it is not a lock either will get significant playing time this fall.
Just seeing how the new coaching staff operated was also part of the story this spring. You could really see the business-like manner of Bob Nielson. I’m not sure that translates into anything in particular in terms of wins and losses, but his coaching style definitely comes through. Seeing a head coach in a coat and tie on the sidelines is going to seem a little different for Coyote fans
What are the three biggest story lines to follow this season?
MG: No. 1 has to be how the new staff adapts to working at USD. Normally with new coaches you’d be wondering how they’re going to adjust to being in such a tough top-to-bottom conference like the Missouri Valley, but these guys already know about the conference because many of them were at Western Illinois. Can they take what they have in terms of facilities, players and geography in Vermillion and make it work within the conference? And how long will it take to get to where they can look at the league schedule and figure a .500 record or better is going to expected? It’s not like they’re going to be able to answer those questions within the confines of one season, but the process has officially begun.
No. 2, at least early in the season, will be following the quarterback situation. Ryan Saeger is the incumbent with 15 starts at USD in his career. I think regardless of whether Joe Glenn had retired or not, that Austin Simmons, a redshirt last season, would have been given a good look this fall. Add to that Chris Streveler, who was a backup quarterback/receiver at Minnesota who transferred to USD because he wanted to finish his career at QB. Saeger is a sharp kid who has had some big games at USD – he was definitely solid against NDSU – but the offense was at the bottom of the league last year statistically. Simmons can run and pass and came into the program billed as one of 2015’s real top recruits but hasn’t played in a game yet. Streveler was a terrific runner at Minnesota but never really got to pass much when he got to play. All have skills, all have questions.
No. 3, the Coyotes will have to avoid injuries and/or develop depth quickly at some key spots. The defensive line lost a ton of experience at tackle with the graduation of Nick Jacobs and Drew Iddings, who is in camp with the Raiders. They have some very competent replacements in Sean Bredl and Jon Maag, but after that, the line gets young in a hurry. Typically this is not a position where you can find immediate help, so getting relative youngsters to play at a high level could be an issue as the season goes on. Same with the offensive line. There are some good players at the top end – Nick Jensen (OT), Nile Banks (G) and Ed Kennedy (G) are examples -- but if anyone goes down, starting jobs could go directly to freshmen who redshirted last season. It’s not an area of the field where the young guys customarily have a ton of success.
What are South Dakota’s greatest strengths for the 2016 season?
MG: USD has depth at quarterback, a veteran and proven running back in Trevor Bouma and a decent offensive line if everyone stays healthy. Nick Jensen at left tackle is a potential all-conference player if he can take another step forward after playing the position well as a second-year freshman. The Coyotes also have a ton of depth at tight end, for what it’s worth. Aaron Ramsey is a potential playmaker at that spot and Drew Potter, one of the league’s top fullbacks a year ago, has been switched to the position. It’s unclear how often the new offense will be looking to get footballs to the tight ends, however, so we’ll have to wait and see whether depth really means much.
Defensively, two of the Coyotes’ best returning players are at safety. Senior Tyson Graham made the preseason all-conference team as a free safety and Jacob Warner, also a senior, is coming off a solid season at the other safety spot. Defensive end Colin Mertlik had a good spring camp and my guess is that he’ll likely be the Coyotes’ top pass rusher.
USD appears to be set at both punter and kicker with senior Miles Bergner handling both responsibilities. He’s one of the better players in the league at both spots.
What are the Coyetes' greatest weaknesses?
MG: You’d have to say depth in the offensive and defensive lines is potentially the most glaring shortcoming. Traditionally shoring up those spots is a process that takes more than one year so it will definitely be a point of emphasis over the next couple recruiting cycles. USD lost a pair of two-year starters at cornerback, so that is another area where inexperience may become an issue. There are plenty of potential candidates to fill those spots, however, unlike the defensive line.
The Coyotes went into the offseason lacking a deep threat at receiver, but may have remedied that by adding Alonge Brooks, a junior-college transfer who was receiving interest from bowl-eligible programs when he signed with the Coyotes. My guess is that at least one of the true freshmen who can run faster than the upperclassmen will also be getting playing time. Not sure who that will be yet. If you’re going just by what USD has coming back from last year, it’s a spot that needs some help. My hunch is that there are people on the roster, however, who will capably do the job. The larger question is whether any of them can develop into a player that other teams have to really worry about.
What is your outlook for the 2016 season for South Dakota and what's your way too early prediction for their game against the Bison?
MG: They went 5-6 last year and on paper, that looks to be about where they’ll land in 2016. Obviously the team at this point would be more optimistic about that, but getting over the hump in the MVFC is difficult. A non-conference road game at UND adds to the difficulties. They play Weber State, Illinois State, Western Illinois, Northern Iowa and North Dakota State at home. Winning three of those games would be considered a success by most who follow the team closely. They start out with New Mexico in a paycheck game on the road and also go to UND, Youngstown State, Indiana State, South Dakota State and Southern Illinois. At this point they’d be the betting underdog in all of those games.
Regarding the Bison, the Coyotes’ shocking win last year in Fargo definitely adds intrigue to NDSU’s return to the DakotaDome. With it being the last game of the regular season in 2016, it’s difficult to anticipate what the motivations will be by that time. Will the Bison need the game to secure some kind of home field advantage for the playoffs? Could USD still be in the playoff picture?
Generally speaking, I’m of the belief that players and sportwriters conspire to make “revenge factor” story angles bigger deals than they really are. I’m clinging to that belief in this instance. Yes, the Coyotes pulled off the upset of the century a year ago but it didn’t knock the Bison out of the playoffs and it didn’t keep them from winning a fifth consecutive national title.
The fact that the game is at the DakotaDome may help the Coyotes a little bit, but it hasn’t in the recent past. The Bison almost always win it because they have the physical edge at most spots on the field. That’s why it will be difficult for USD to beat them this year and that’s why the outcome was such a shocker last year.
You can follow Mick Garry on Twitter @MickGarry.