On the Offensive side of the ball UND is definitely looking for improvement upon their 2016 season. In Big Sky play UND ranked:
#7 – Scoring Offense (29.6 pts/game)
#9 – Total Offense (386.2 yds/game)
#4 – Rushing Offense (208.4 yds/game)
#11 – Pass Offense (177.8 yds/game)
#9 – Sacks Allowed (24)
#13 (last) – 3rd Down Conv. (31.6%)
*Returning Starters – 9
Biggest Holes To Fill
- Offensive Line
- On paper UND only loses one starter in all-conference C/G/T Michael Coe, who was invaluable this past season during UND’s run of injuries along the offensive line. His flexibility and knowledge to be able to play all positions were critical to the success of the offense last season.
- UND technically returns four starters but none of the four are locked into their spots, as far as we know. In fact, we see this spring as a time for the young freshmen to show what they can do. This will also push the incumbents to improve their game.
- Senior A.J. Stockwell returns at LT after a decent 2016 season. Stockwell did not play as well as expected, partially due to a shoulder injury. Stockwell is going to be challenged by freshman Noah Mortel. Mortel, 6’6-275, has impressed in his short time on campus and will play next fall. How much is to be determined. He could still put on another 10-15 pounds.
- Senior Mat Cox will in the mix to start once again at right tackle once he fully recovers from last fall’s knee injury. He is out for spring ball.
- Senior Dan Bell returns at RG. Bell had an up and down, somewhat inconsistent season last year in his first year as a starter. The tools are there but it’s now or never for Bell to take that next step.
- Freshman Ryan Tobin is a guy to watch on the interior of the UND offensive line. He was an emergency backup last fall, which says what the staff thinks of him. Tobin, like Mortel, will play next fall.
- Junior Grant Aplin and sophomore Patric Rooney switched off starting at center last year. Both will continue to duke it out this spring into fall camp. Safe to say both were inconsistent last season, but being it was there first real taste of action that is not surprising.
- A guy who is going to push hard for playing time at center (and possibly guard) is freshman Nate Nguon. He has drawn rave reviews from the staff for his overall play and work ethic during his redshirt season last fall. We were very high on Nguon when he verballed to UND last winter.
Looking To Develop Depth
- Tight End
- This ever-important position in UND’s run-first offense saw the loss of senior Luke Mathewson. While not a big pass catcher, Mathewson was a leader on and off the field and did a nice job in his career at UND. Also, former QB turned TE Joe Mollberg graduated leaving UND with only four returning TE’s on the roster.
- Junior Luke Fiedler returns as a major contributor at the tight end position. Fiedler, 6’5-250, has turned into more of a blocker in UND’s offense but did catch 11 balls for 95 yards and 1 TD last season. We want to see Fiedler evolve his game even more and become more of a threat down the seam.
- True sophomore Alex Cloyd returns after getting a taste of what FCS football is like during his freshman year. Cloyd has the size at 6’4″-250 to be a dominant blocker and pass catcher but it will take time. He needs to show this spring that he can be assignment sharp and know the playbook.
- Freshman Hunter Pinke will be in the mix for consistent playing time along with Cloyd. At 6’5″-230, Pinke is an all-around good athlete that will be a big target in the passing game. He will need some time developing his body and technique on the line for run-blocking.
- Freshman walk-on Derek Paulson is an intriguing prospect at 6’4″-215.
- With the return of senior starter Keaton Studsrud the quarterback position is in good hands for 2017. Studsrud threw for 2,027 yards and 14 TD’s vs only 2 INT’s. We see Studsrud getting very limited reps this spring to allow for the backups to get more work.
- Sophomore Brad Heidlebaugh will need to show he can take the next step and be a reliable backup for 2017. He enters spring as #2 on the depth chart but will need to show progression in his passing abilities, as well as mastery of the offense and it’s complex ‘check-with-me’ system.
- Walk-on Ben Bolinske will continue to battle for the backup spot behind Studsrud. Although a bit undersized, Bolinske is a very cerebral QB with a quick release. He did a nice job running the scout team last fall.
- The wildcard of the group is sophomore juco transfer Andrew Zimmerman. He joined the team at Christmas break and will be getting his first taste of the UND offense this spring. Zimmerman was brought in to provide a quality backup to Studsrud, all while providing competition at the position.
- Running Back
- With both all-conference running backs only juniors, UND is in good shape at this position. John Santiago and Brady Oliveira both had stellar 2016 campaigns and will only get better as the years go on.
- Sophomore Austin Gordon provided a nice spark last season when the two guys mentioned above needed a breather or were nicked up. He showed he can run with speed and power, kind of a hybrid style of back.
- Sophomore Minnesota Gopher transfer/former Fargo South standout James Johannesson is the wildcard at the running back position. He is a stout 230 pounds but has speed to go with it. Johannesson will be a nice complement to Oliveira and Santiago.
- Wide Receiver
- UND returns most of their wide receiver corps, minus Alex Reed, who stepped up nicely in his senior year.
- In three years, UND has transformed the wide receiver position from a major weakness to a major strength.
- Senior Demun Mercer really came on late last year. He was virtually unstoppable at the end of the year and ended the season with 28 catches for 553 yards and 4 TD’s.
- Junior Luke Stanley was UND’s leading receiver (26-381-2 TD) before injuring his knee last fall. He will once again be the leader of the WR corps.
- The true sophomore duo of 6’3″ Travis Toivonen and 6’4″ Noah Wanzek proved to be a force at the outside receiver position for UND last fall. They caught 39 and 25 balls, respectively, to go along with 3 TD’s each. They are only going to get better with actual time in the weight room, etc.
- Junior Josh Seibel came back from a spring knee injury and played towards the end of the 2016 season. He will be a factor in the slot, once again.
- Junior Chad Bartosh, sophomore Carter Blackwell, and freshman Easton Erbes will all be fighting for playing time behind the incumbents and roles on special teams.
- Wildcard of the group is freshman Cameron McKinney, who joined the team at semester break. He is a slot receiver type at 5’9″-165, but will be one of the fastest players on the team. McKinney is one to watch this spring.
When asked about points of emphasis when it comes to the 2017 spring season, offensive coordinator Paul Rudolph had this to say:
“The biggest goal is to always improve your depth. The offensive line will always be a focus point for us. It is imperative that we are productive here. Our young tight ends will have to improve. We have lost a lot of snaps there. The quarterback position will be important for someone to develop into that guy that can move the football team.”
(BTW, we had the preview above done before talking to Coach Rudolph. We had pinpointed those same three position groups as major focal points of spring ball :))
I think it goes without saying at this point that people in the program, the fans, and well, everyone, knows that UND cannot take the next step without DOMINANT offensive line play. There are definitely some pieces there and some talent to challenge them but their must be improvement in 2017.
UND must be able to get John Santiago loose to get more dynamic plays and not make Rudolph call 10+ plays every scoring drive. Santiago needs just enough room to squeeze through and then make the second level miss. The problem is that was rarely happening in 2016, which is why we saw more of Brady Oliveira and his rugged inside running style.
Not Participating: OT Mat Cox, FB Tyler Coyne, WR Stetson Carr, WR Luke Stanley, RB Brady Oliveira.