Fall is spring. Spring is fall. Like my Grandpa Howard used to say: that guy doesn’t know if he’s foot or horseback.
I am sure that many college football programs around the country have felt that same way throughout 2020. But, the good news it’s almost over and hopefully, some sense of order will be restored with spring football season. Although, that isn’t a guarantee either.
Anywho, back to why we are here – the UND Football team wrapped up fall ball recently and there are plenty of fans wondering where they sit as they head into their maiden voyage in the MVFC. I reached out to various folks in the program and those who where able to take in some practices to formulate opinions on the state of the team, etc. Here goes!
The Hawks offense will look very much like it did in 2020. OC Danny Freund doesn’t plan on making any wholesale changes after his inaugural season. What fans will see is more motions, formations and looks that will all ultimately run the same core group of plays. UND needs to get good at what they do that stick with it. The players will play faster in their second season of the offense, especially when the plays are similar. A little window dressing to create some confusion but the same core stuff inside.
— North Dakota Football (@UNDfootball) November 13, 2020
At quarterback it’s much as we anticipated with Tommy Schuster holding down the starting spot heading into the spring season. Schuster is undersized, no doubt, at 5’10”. But one player described him as “having a sixth sense out there”. Schuster is a natural quarterback, through and through. He throws receivers open, feels backside pressure & flushes, and can read defenses pre-snap quite well for a freshman. His arm strength is just OK but his accuracy is quite good. Schuster will remind some of Russell Wilson – undersized but the escapability he possesses will drive defenses crazy.
I fully expect Quincy Vaughn will be the #2 on the depth chart. Even though senior Brock Boltmann will play some QB, Vaughn would be the official backup to Schuster. Vaughn possesses the opposite traits of Schuster – he is 6’4″-235, has a rocket arm, but his accuracy isn’t as good. We have big hopes for Vaughn in the future as his talent is obvious – he hit on several post routes this fall. This spring we can definitely see him coming in the game on short yardage situations and running some QB zone stuff to try and move the chains. That is a big man plowing ahead on 3rd and short.
With Dalton Gee being their most complete running back we expect him to be the defacto starter come spring. He is the most reliable when it comes to running, catching and blocking in the passing game. The best runner of the group is sophomore Otis Weah. The Moorhead product has drawn rave reviews for his hard, physical running style combined with good speed.
The best pass catchers out of the backfield are Creighton Mitchell, the freshman who joined the team at Xmas break last year, and Luke Skokna, who showed flashes of brillance at the end of 2019. It seems each of them have their own specialty and will be used accordingly. It could be a bit of an issue not having a dominant running back to be the bellcow but we assume Freund will script plays and substitute accordingly to play to strengths.
Garett Maag is the #1 wide receiver, which comes as no surprise. He should have a dominant 2021 season – Maag is a future NFL talent. But after Maag and Boltmann it’s up for grabs as to who takes the next two coveted WR spots.
We speculated on it in an earlier post but we would not be surprised to see sophomore Tyler Burian as the #3 wide receiver. The Red River product came to UND as a walk-on but has moved up the depth chart through hard work and a love for the program. He would be another big, rangy receiver for the Hawks. From speaking with members of the staff, #4 could come down to a battle between freshman Chrysten Cochran and true freshman Marcus Preston – who surprised everybody with his play. He will undoubtedly be in the rotation. At 6’2″-190, Preston is a combo receiver that has good size and good speed.
Another surprise at the wide receiver spot was the play of true freshman Bo Belquist. The New Rockford native was an excellent athlete in high school but there was no way to know how it would translate. Well, it did. Belquist is that gritty slot receiver that will beat guys with quickness and catch every ball thrown his way. Guys like Belquist are what makes a team successful – tough and do what is needed to move the chains.
Fellow freshman Elijah Klein will also be on the field as having a 6’6″ receiver in routes is fairly desirable, especially one as athletic as Klein. Safe to say the staff hit an early homerun with this receiver class.
I would classify the receiver core as a bit of a question mark due to the loss of Noah Wanzek and Travis Toivonen but the return of Maag and Boltmann eases that sting.
Adam Zavalney is the biggest mover in the tight end group. At 6’4″, he has the size and pure athletic ability to be a major factor in the passing game. The move from wide receiver is going to benefit both the team and Zavalney himself greatly.
The offensive line is the key to the season. The Hawks struggled in the run game last season and developing an identity and an ability to pick up short yardage first downs is paramount. The good news is they return the nucleus of the group in LT Matt Waletzko, RG Ryan Tobin, C Kyle Hergel, RG Nate Nguon and RT Donny Ventrelli. UND can win with that group but needs to develop depth behind them.
A guy that the staff was impressed with this fall was true freshman Easton Kilty. The 6’6″-290 tackle from Stratford, WI is an impressive looking kid and will be playing this spring. Tackle bodies are always in high demand.
We need to remember that this upcoming spring season doesn’t count against a players eligibility so these young guys will get plenty of looks.
New defensive coordinator Brett Holinka has this defense looking much the same as the previous 3-4 scheme that Eric Schmidt ran. The staff doesn’t play any major changes although they will add some wrinkles, especially vs. 4 and 5 receiver sets when UND wants to get into a 3-down lineman look. It was a look they gave Sam Houston State last year and worked quite well vs. their empty sets. UND would have their better rushers on the field at that time, which is probably Jaelen Johnson, Graham Devore and maybe Isaac Moore.
Without a doubt, the strength of the defense is the cornerback group. This is by far the deepest this group has ever been – and it’s not just depth – by far the most talented the group has ever been also. Cornerbacks coach Travis Stepps has the luxury of starters Evan Holm and C.J. Siegel both returning. Those two are all-conference type players. Behind them, Sammy Fort will be hard to keep off the field and we could easily see Fort getting some time at safety due to his physical stature.
The biggest splash this fall was possibly made by sophomore Caleb Nelson. The Sacramento native came to UND with high expectations and was thrown to the wolves last fall as a true freshman. He was put in isolated, 1-on-1 positions quite often with mixed results, as you might expect. That experience appeared to harden Nelson as he had an excellent fall camp. He was the one corner who could consistently matchup with UND’s taller wide receivers and play physical with them.
The safety position is more of a question mark in my mind. Starter Jordan Canady returns and brings a wealth of starting experience. The position opposite him is up for grabs and I could see sophomore Kadon Kauppinen winning that job. By all accounts he had a solid fall camp and is well regarded within the program. Canady and Kauppinen both are 6’2″, which gives the Hawks nice size on the back end. As I have said before, however, we need more production from this group – two interceptions in 12 games is not nearly enough.
Jayson Coley is a guy that plays hard – an all-out effort guy. The Illinois freshman will be a staple of special teams and mix into the rotation this spring at safety.
I am excited about the young talent that has emerged in the linebacker group. The staff has raved about true freshman Wyatt Pedigo, who fans are going to love. The former state champion wrestler is a junk yard dog out there. He hits everything that moves and heads back to the huddle to get ready to do it again. Plus, that mullet.
Noah Larson is the starter at Sam ILB and the job opposite him on the weakside was more than likely won by St. Cloud State transfer Devon Krzanowski. With the departure of Donnell Rodgers, UND had a giant hole to fill on the inside and the addition of Krzanowski came at the perfect time. Having played for three seasons in the NSIC, Krzanowski has seen his share of power run schemes and fits them up quite well.
A sneaky name in this group that will prove to be a heck of a walk-on is Jack Ihry. The staff has been pleasantly surprised by his speed and playmaking ability. It’s obviously a big jump from Hope-Page to the MVFC but with some time he could be a steal.
The outside linebacker spots are held down by returning starter Jaxson Turner and part-time starter Ray Haas, both seniors. Freshman Josh Navratil is a guy who the staff has been waiting for to see what he can do and we expect him to be a consistent part of the rotation.
A big mover in this group is true freshman Quinton Urwiler. There were times that he was bordering on unblockable in space, especially vs. bubble screens or quick flare passes. The undersized dynamo from Chicago possesses good speed and twitch. He will be a fun one to watch as his career progresses.
The defensive line is the biggest question mark on this side of the ball. That is probably not a good thing heading into the MVFC with all their big, physical offensive lines. There is some talent there but it’s young and needing to be developed. Freshman Craig Orlando is a brute at 6’3″-285. He will be surely be swimming when it comes to learning the defense but the former MN state champion wrestler will more than make up for it with strength and solid footwork. He is going to be a good one, a throwback to the days of UND’s yearly domination at nose guard in the 90’s and 00’s.
Steven Keech is another one that the staff is excited about when it comes to his progress. He has prototypical size for a defensive end at 6’5″-250 and only being a freshman who missed most of 2019 due to injury, these fall reps were huge for his development. West Fargo product Luke Lennon is another that could be lumped in with Keech.
The UND defense has some pieces to be a solid unit in 2021. It will all come down to the development of the youngsters and the ability of the veterans to make big plays and get off the field on third down. Opponents converted at a 37% clip in 2019, which needs some improvement.
Now that fall ball is done it’s time to set our sights on national signing day, which is set for December 16th, 2020. The late signing day is February 3rd, 2021.
The Hawks currently have 17 commitments and naturally we expect all to sign on the 16th. The list can be seen here.
A tidbit about this years class is that it will most likely be smaller than in prior years. The reason is that 2020 and the upcoming spring 2021 seasons don’t count against a current players clock. So technically, all the seniors could come back next fall. That would create a massive issue with Title IX numbers and scholarship allocation, etc.
The staff will need to have some big decisions to make come May and this signing class is going to be smaller due to the return of several of the current seniors. Guys like Gee, Nguon, Tobin, Turner, Holm, and Canady would be the big names of the group to possibly return.
We could see UND possibly getting one or two more commits before the 16th but not much more than that.