UND Spring Game – tonight, 5pm at the High Performance Center.
With the spring game roughly 8 hours away we figured we would let you know what we will be keeping our eye on.
UND is still a few positions away from being a contender in the FCS world and shoring up some of these spots will go a long ways to achieving their goals.
- Battle for backup QB spot. If there is one spot on the team that could be deemed as one of “high importance” it is the backup QB position. UND fans know all too well how things fell apart a couple years ago when starter Keaton Studsrud went down. It essentially cost them their first ever FCS playoff berth.
- Transfer #10 Andrew Zimmerman has been sharing snaps with sophomore #9 Brad Heidlebaugh, the Rugby Rocket. Behind them has been freshman walk-on #12 Ben Bolinske. Zimmerman has impressed in his short time on campus with not only his arm strength and quick release but his overall work ethic. He had a very good winter session in the weight room. Heidlebaugh has also looked pretty good this spring. He is a very cerebral QB and has above average arm strength. His release has looked a bit better, showing that he is working on it. Right now I would say they are both even as to who backs up Keaton Studsrud this fall.
- Offensive Line. The most important position group on the team and it’s not even close. UND needs to run the ball to win games. Period. If the O-line isn’t moving people off the ball UND is in trouble. They can’t simply go 4-wide and rely on that for 3 quarters. Not in their DNA. It was stated by us early on and confirmed by Coach Knauf in an interview that their are no positions locked up as of now. All five spots are wide open after last years decline in production from 2015. A young guy that is going to push hard for a starting spot is #62 Ryan Tobin at guard. The Muskego, WI native has looked really good this spring, holding is own in 1-on-1’s fairly consistently. Might want to also keep an eye on #79 Noah Mortel out at left tackle. He is a work in progress but has gotten good reviews this spring.
- Outside Linebacker. With UND short-handed at ILB and moving Jake Disterhaupt there to increase athleticism and provide depth, UND is now relying heavily on their young but supremely talented OLB’s. Freshmen #47 Ray Haas (6’4″ and condor-like wing span) and #15 Jaxson Turner (6’2″) are going to not only need to stay healthy for UND but make big plays, as well. Starter #2 Jade Lawrence is the only player with any real experience at that position. Junior #21 Tanner Palmborg moved down from safety and will be a good one but is still learning the position. Same goes for sophomore #47 Keelan Poole. The athletes UND has at OLB is impressive but their is very little.
- Inside Linebacker. If there is one spot that could be considered a question mark on this team it is ILB. With the graduation of starter Dylan Bakker and retirement of starter Connor O’Brien UND suddenly finds itself in an interesting position. They know what they got with potential starter #44 Donnell Rodgers. We mentioned Disterhaupt moving to ILB, which is a great move. But, after that they get very young. Freshman #14 Jake Geier moved to ILB from safety and has the build (6’2″-200) and athleticism to be a player but needs time to learn how to read the OL and fight off blocks, etc. He will be one to watch tonight. Another guy that needs to hit at ILB to add depth is former RB #27 Oscar Nevermann. He was injured in the first game of the year last season after sitting out the previous season due to his transfer from Wyoming. Nevermann is built like a linebacker at 6’1″-215 but much like Geier he needs to learn the position. With Cam Hunt and Dijon Murray both not participating this spring it gave Nevermann and Geier double reps, which is probably a good thing for those two.
- Young wide receivers. UND knows what they got in senior #89 Demun Mercer, who came on strong late last year, and #81 Luke Stanley. Freshman #1 Cam McKinney, who joined the team at Xmas break, has been as advertised with his speed and quickness in and out of cuts. We are excited to see him in live action when tackling is allowed. We are also going to watch sophomores #31 Noah Wanzek and #11 Travis Toivonen to see how they progressed over the winter as far as maturation. They both had outstanding true freshman campaigns for UND. The wild card in this group is sophomore #20 Easton Erbes. He is the 6’0″ slot type of WR that runs the dirty stuff across the middle, short routes, etc. Erbes has had a nice spring and could sneak his way into the rotation.
When talking to DC Eric Schmidt about what he looks for in a game like this he pointed to two things: tackling and getting off blocks. Those are things that they couldn’t quite tell how good a player was at doing because they rarely went “live”.
Big plays also show a players “high-end” capability and are something to watch for. Diving interceptions, pulling away from a defender in the open field, etc. These show a different dynamic that coaches can point to when deciding if they got what it takes to make plays in the Big Sky.