After all was said and done I would say the spring season was a success. So much so that expectations among the UND Fighting Hawks faithful are at an all-time high.
Personally, I doubted whether to continue playing after the repeated cancellations & opt-outs in late March/early April. Thankfully, nobody listened to me because it turned out to be a wise move to stay the course and qualify for the playoffs.
Credit to the Hawks coaching & strength staff and most importantly the players for staying focused through all the unusual ups and downs to pull of the season with a 5-2 record and notch their first-ever FCS playoff victory.
I learned a few things this spring and will share them in this post. There were a whole bunch of positives along with a few issues that arose from this most current season.
- The UND offense found a running game. After the Nicholls State playoff loss it became very apparent that UND wasn’t going anywhere if they didn’t find a running game. Rushing for 44 yards on 14 carries isn’t gonna win any games, especially playoff games. This spring the Hawks rushed for 185 yds/game and 15 TD’s in only seven games. The inside zone clicked and now they need to keep inching it forward towards dominant.
- The UND offense found a running back. The Hawks have had good running backs in recent years with Santiago and Oliveira but Otis Weah brought a whole new dimension to the position. The speed, combined with the strength and rabid fighting/twisting style that never stopped moving on a play was so fun to watch. His spin moves out of a clogged hole were something you cannot teach. 730 yards and 9 TD’s in his first season. The future is very bright for the young man from Moorhead.
- The UND offense found a quarterback. Tommy Schuster put up a solid freshman campaign, going 129-197 for 1,428 yds and 10TD’s vs 5 INT’s. He made some beautiful throws that showed his touch and ability to throw a guy open while running a smooth efficient offense that had zero delay of game penalties and very few procedure penalties. The next step for Schuster is to add scrambling into his game to really mess with defenses. He is very elusive behind the line of scrimmage (only sacked twice all season) but needs to run the ball now to plant that seed in defenders minds.
- The offensive line is starting to look the part of a championship unit. Size is one thing for lineman – athleticism and agility are another. The Hawks did not always have the latter but appear to now. This unit looked fluid in pulling and quick off the ball while providing stellar pass protection for Schuster. At least three starting lineman will be back next fall with Nate Nguon up in the air. I would lean towards Ryan Tobin graduating and moving on but nothing is official until the staff releases it.
- TE’s Derek Paulson & Adam Zavalney add a consistent downfield threat in the passing game. Zavalney caught seven passes with three of them going for TD’s.
- The wide receiver group is deep and talented but needs one more home run hitter to get the ball to in space or send deep to take the top off a defense. Bo Belquist came out of nowhere to arguably be UND’s best receiver this spring but unfortunately broke his ankle and will miss part of the early 2021 fall season. Maag (who played very well vs JMU), Preston, Richter, Burian, Cochran are all back and if UND can find one more speed merchant they could really have something.
- Let’s remember that UND didn’t even have one of their best weapons this spring in WR/QB Brock Boltmann. Can you imagine how effective the Brockstar formation would’ve been behind this improved OL?
- The Hawks were only penalized 22 times for 222 yards. That’s pretty clean football.
- UND’s third down offense converted at a 45% clip. Solid but could be improved upon.
- The defense brought pressure from all angles and it was beautiful. The Hawks notched 24 sacks and 40 TFL’s in only 7 games. The blitzes were exotic and successful much of the season under new DC Brett Holinka.
- The Hawks were +6 in turnover margin – grabbing 8 INT’s and recovering 7 fumbles. They probably dropped another five interceptions. The play of the secondary was consistently good but not great. Coverage was inconsistent, ranging from smothering to swiss cheese at times. I like the potential but this unit can be dominant and I look for them to take the next step come fall. 1-on-1 deep balls are the key – if they can defend those better it will change what offenses are thinking.
- Linebacker play was consistently high-end all season. All four linebacker positions were active and noticeable, which means a 3-4 is clicking like it should. Jaxson Turner was a force off the edge (5 sacks, 5 TFL) and Noah Larson was the veteran leader on the inside.
- Devon Kzarnowski was more than anybody could have hoped for at the weakside ILB spot. He was disruptive (3 sacks, 6.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 TD, 2 FR) and very noticeable the entire season – a consistent playmaker. To come from St. Cloud State and play like he did tells me the NSIC has quite a few good players that UND should be keeping tabs on.
- Kickoffs and kickoff coverage was excellent. Brady Stevens did a nice job placing the ball inside the 5 yards with height to it, which allowed the coverage unit to get penetration.
- The overall special teams play was very good. ST coach Shawn Kostich did a nice job with his units, especially the punt return group that blocked several punts. The fake punt throw to Maag for a first down vs SDSU completely changed the dynamic of the game.
- The run defense vs top teams was not nearly good enough. NDSU ran for 316 yards and James Madison ran for 217 yards. The run defense wasn’t as bad as it seemed vs JMU as they ran it 53 times to get those yards but if UND wants to take that next step it needs to hold down opponent’s rushing attacks. The other five games were pretty good vs the run but those aren’t the teams you face deep in the playoffs.
- UND needs more Graham Devore body-types. 6’4″-260 range. There is some length waiting in the wings (Lennon, Keech) and some brawn (Orlando & Beach) but they will need time to develop.
- Third down defense was poor. Opponents converted on 42% of their third-down chances, which is way, way too high. Got to get off the field on third down.
- As I eluded to above, 1-on-1 deep ball skills at the point of catch need to be improved. Several long touchdowns were given up that completely changed games all because the offensive guy won the battle. A game comes down to only a handful of plays, folks. Win those plays and you win the game.
- The loss of Jordan Canady will hurt the safety group this fall. Canady was a veteran starter in a group that doesn’t have a ton of depth. The Hawks may need to look to the transfer portal for a safety.
- Offensively, the downfield passing game needs to take the next step. I realize UND wants to get the ball out quick to minimize pressure but more shots downfield are a necessity. The UND wide receivers are not burners but they are big and can box out guys downfield (but need improvement on that and tracking deep balls). Adding this would take pressure off OC Danny Freund by picking up bigger chunks of yards at once.
- Kicker Adam Stage needs to eliminate the missed extra points. He missed three and it’s deflating when that happens after a touchdown. Stage has a good leg but consistency this fall is crucial.
- I need a little more out of the punting game. When backed up punter Cade Peterson never really got into one and drove a team back, thus regaining the field position battle for UND. He was pretty good when pooching inside the 20 (nine), however.
UND, like all programs, can return the entire spring roster if they choose to. That won’t be the case but it is encouraging. I would suspect we hear about a couple seniors calling it a career but 5-6 others coming back, which will make a huge difference this fall. My initial guess is Jaxson Turner, Evan Holm, Ray Haas, Hayden Galvin, & Derek Paulson all elect to come back. Team meetings are happening this week and news should trickle out shortly afterwards.
The best part of those guys wanting to return: what does it say about the culture that UND is building inside their program? Good things ahead, folks!
Thank you fall for following us on the UND Football 360 website and listening to our 360 Pregame Podcasts. It is always fun interacting with you and talking Hawks football!
Oh, recruiting season is almost upon us. The NCAA opened up on-campus visits and camps beginning June 1 so UND will be holding three of their Elite Camps in June and July. It never stops!
Cover photo courtesy of UND Athletics and Russell Hons.