THE 2012 SEASON
The Bemidji State University football team recorded its sixth, eight-win season under Head Coach Jeff Tesch in 2011, but the season left a bitter taste in the mouths of the coaching staff and student-athletes. Two disappointing road losses down the stretch ultimately cost the Beavers a share of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title and a postseason berth for just the second time in program history.
The Beavers have been working hard to reach the postseason since the 2006 season, but have been unable to break the line. Tesch’s commitment to going beyond the success of years past was proven in the offseason when he inked a new six-year contract to keep him at the helm through the 2017 season.
“There are a lot of exciting things that I want to finish here and be apart of. I’m excited to get one step further than we have and I want to be here when we get over that hurdle,” Tesch said.
To surpass that barrier of ending on the last day of the regular season, the Beavers will need to fill holes at key areas of both the offense and the defense. BSU has three proven starters returning on the offensive line, but all three of those players will see their roles shuffled in 2012. At safety, the Beavers lost All-American Brody Scheff, all-conference selection Dusty Sluzewicz and top back-up Jake Schmidt to graduation. To fill the void the Beavers will rely on a junior college transfer and a group of underclassmen.
“We’ve got some good players, they just don’t have experience,” Tesch said. “Unfortunately they are spots its nice to have experience, so the more reps we can get those guys the better to have them ready to go by the first game.”
On the flip side, the Beavers have some strong, experienced talent returning, including all the skill positions on offense and the hole fillers and shutdown guys on defense.
“We are very impressed with our D-line, a year ago they were the question mark,” Tesch said. “We have a preseason All-American in Matthew Shaver and three good defensive ends that are bigger and stronger. Our best group of players right now is the D-Line and that will give us the opportunity to get a three-and-out and get our offense on the field.
“Quarterback Lance Rongstad has always been a leader and is throwing the ball more accurately. Justin Lee has come into camp in great shape and Leonhardt is obviously a good football player, so we feel good about our skill spots.”
Senior Lance Rongstad begins his second season as starting quarterback after a successful first year behind center. He totaled 18 touchdowns last season with 10 of those coming on the ground, as he led the team in rushing with 809 yards. He completed 117-of-211 pas attempts with six interceptions and totaled 1,286 yards through the air. Rongstad’s running abilities opened up the field for BSU last season, but if his accuracy and willingness to stay in the pocket improve, the Beavers could have an exciting offense.
“His throwing accuracy and consistency through the spring to training camp has been excellent,” Tesch said. “The obvious run threat is still there and now he is bigger and stronger, so we are happy where he is at.”
Junior Alex Hass is second on the depth chart, but took limited snaps in 2011. Sophomore Sam King will also vie for the back-up spot after having a successful spring and spring game.
“Both Hass and King have worked hard. Now we just need them to get a better grasp of the system and that is what they are working on.”
Dustin Kroeplin has rushed for nearly 2,500 yards during his career at Bemidji State and is primed to have a successful senior season. The punishing back finished second on the team in rushing last season with 670 yards and nine scores. Despite leading the team in carries, Kroeplin shared the load a bit last season, but will be called upon to take the reins of the running game and create a solid 1-2 punch with Rongstad.
“It’s power football with Kroeplin, that is his game, but I always say there is more speed there than you think,” Tesch said.
Brad Hemling will see his time increase from years past as the primary back-up. He totaled 112 yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns last season. Also in the mix will be junior college transfer Avery Walker, who beings his first season in the green and white after coming from Mesabi Range Community College.
“Brad Hemling is one of those guys that’s been a product of the program,” Tesch said. “He knows his assignments and is probably our best pass blocker. Another guy we are excited about is Avery Walker, a transfer from Mesabi. He is probably our fastest and quickest back.”
With Rongstad working on his passing game during the off-season and a slew of senior wide receivers filling the depth chart, the 2012 campaign could be a fun one for the Beaver offensive attack. BSU returns its top two wide receivers in seniors Matt Gandrud and Justin Lee. Grandrud had a breakout season with 294 yards and two touchdowns, while J. Lee continued to be a multi-threat with abilities on the ground and also through the air.
“Matt Gandrud is our best blocker and very steady, what you need at that flanker position,” Tesch said. “Justin Lee is very versatile. He runs the ball, runs routes well and is in the best shape he has been in.”
The Beavers lost Cameron Abram, but retain senior Jody Henningson after he missed a year and welcome back seniors Christian Metz and Beau Wakefield. Abram was BSU’s deep threat last season, but will be replaced by sophomore Jon Smith. With speed, jumping ability while standing at 6-1, Smith could bring a new dimension to an experienced receiving core.
“It will be good to have Jody back. He was maybe our best receiver two years ago before getting hurt and missing last season,” Tesch said. “We’re looking for big things from Jon Smith at our X-receiver, split-end spot. He is one of the fastest players on the team and we are hoping he can be our deep threat, something we lacked last year. Christian and Beau will be a big role players for us. They both have a lot of ability and can play all four receiver positions.”
Maybe the most vital returner on the roster, senior Brian Leonhardt will be called upon in multiple situations in 2012. A preseason All-American, Leonhardt is coming off his second consecutive First-Team All-NSIC campaign after leading the team in receiving with 483 yards, which also earned him 2011 All-American laurels. Beyond his catching abilities is a student-athlete who can block, which will be key to a newly assembled offensive line.
“Obviously having Brian Leonhardt back as a preseason All-American is exciting. He is a player that can run, catch and block.”
Another senior, Troy Dale has earned his right to be on the playing field and will see reps at tight end and fullback in 2012. Also, senior Garrett Lee will try his hand at tight end after moving from the defensive line last spring.
“We have some depth at tight end,” Tesch said. “Troy Dale is versatile, playing both tight end and fullback. We also moved Garrett Lee to provide some quality depth and are excited about that position.”
Junior Brent Kondziolka stepped into the top fullback role last season and will again assume the duties. With a season under his belt and Dale as another option, the fullback position is looking strong for the 2012 season.
“Kondziolka is durable and tough as nails,” Tesch said. “In my mind he is an all-conference player. He can catch, run and block the heck out of ya.”
The offensive line will again be relied on to not only protect Rongstad, but to give him time to run the experienced BSU offense. With the losses of all-conference seniors Cory Immerman and Davis Mickelson, as well as Jordan Anderson, the Beavers will look a little different up front this season.
Recruited as a center, senior Brett DeLange moves from left guard - where he earned all-conference accolades in 2011 - to the center position. The opening at left guard will go to junior Tyler Abrahamson, who played in four contests last year. Junior Jordan Oien moves to right guard for 2011 after playing in 11 and starting 10 games at right tackle last season. Plugging the right tackle spot will be sophomore Dylan Peterson, who played in five games as a redshirt freshman. After starting every game as a sophomore, senior Alonzo Melton battled injuries last season, but still logged time in seven games. He will be called upon this season to take over the starting role at left tackle for BSU, after playing most of his career on the right side.
“It’s a group that is a work in progress, just because they haven’t played together in their current assignments,” Tesch said. “Alonzo Melton’s strength is pass blocking, he has started at right tackle, so I feel good about him protecting the quarterback’s blind side. Abrahamson is a big strong kid that has played in some games and just needs his reps. DeLange is one of our fastest, quickest, strongest players. We really feel he will do a great job at center. We moved Jordan from right tackle to right guard, he moves like a D-lineman and will do a good job. Dylan Peterson was probably our top O-Line recruit two years ago. He is a big kid that can really run.”
In the mix on the inside will be junior Alexander Lutton - who is the only reserve with playing experience at four games - and sophomore Matt Coen-Tuff, while redshirt freshmen Nick Chiono is the preseason back-up at the tackle position.
The defensive line may have been the biggest question mark last season, but after the collective performance by a group of underclassmen, the D-line may be the most exciting position heading into the 2012 regular season. Losing one senior starter in Josh Beste, the line is made up of juniors and sophomores that gained valuable experience last season. One of those players is preseason All-American nose tackle, Matthew Shaver.
“Shaver is a good run stopper and we emphasise that first, so we feel good about that spot,” Tesch said.
Riddled with injuries in 2011, the D-Line came together nicely, with a lot of underclassmen stepping up. Sophomores J.J. Reinke and Dan Kiebler were atop that group after totaling 25 tackles between the two of them in nine and six games, respectfully. Also back in the mix is the top returning defensive line tackler in junior Gary Young. He finished with 30 tackles, seven tackles for loss and a sack after playing in all 11 games, with four starts. Sophomore Nate Adams returns after totaling 13 tackles in 10 games played. Redshirt freshmen Kevin Longtin, Chris Ostby and Mario Stephens will also see some reps on the defensive line, with Longtin and Ostby backing up Shaver at nose.
“We have a good group of guys back,” Tesch said. “J.J. Reinke is bigger, faster, stronger than last year and he was maybe our best defensive lineman then. Another guy back from injury is Dan Kiebler, who we thought was a good quality starting defensive lineman and played well in some big games. Gary Young is an athletic defensive lineman that is filling out. We really feel like we have some strong, athletic and decent-size guys behind those starters and are excited about that position.”
The linebacker spot is always competitive and the 2012 season is no exception. After losing key starters to graduation, the Beavers will rely on captains Cory Crosby and Buckley Wright. Crosby is a senior starter on the inside, where he totaled 74 tackles - second on the team in 2011. On the outside, Wright will look to improve on a successful sophomore campaign after starting 11 games and totaling 59 tackles.
“Cory Crosby is an all-conference player that is rock-solid. He is a tough, durable senior that we will count on. Buckley is a solid player with a lot of game experience and who is always in the right spot,” Tesch said.
Junior Jason Bromm returned to the Beaver line-up last season and played in all 11 games with 10 starts. He will play alongside Crosby on the inside, while the other outside backer spot will be a battle between senior Dan Christensen, junior college transfer Matt Phipps and redshirt freshman Jared Roelofs. Sophomore Ethan Favor-Jackson will also get looks on the outside, on the D-Line and as the long snapper.
“Jason Bromm had a great spring and summer of training and is poised to have his best season. Roelofs is coming off knee surgery, but we have been excited to get him on the field because he is a big, strong kid that can line up with a tight end,” Tesch said.
Back-up inside linebackers are sophomore Bemidji-native Evan Olson (10 games in 2011) and redshirt freshman Connor Quinn.
Senior Charles Hrdlicka will again lead the defensive backs, but the 2012 group has a lot more experience than in years past. Hrdlicka was the top back last season with 45 tackles, five pass break-ups and an interception.
“Charlie Hrdlicka has improved every year. He has a ton of experience back there and we need him to have a great senior year,” Tesch said. “Larry Miller had his growing pains in his first year at corner, but made great strides last spring. He is the fastest guy on the team and we expect him to have a good year.”
Junior Larry Miller returns for his second full season as a defensive back after moving from quarterback his redshirt year. He finished with 35 tackles and four pass break-ups. After getting his feet wet as a true freshman, Dylan Valentine is expected to see significant time on the field, playing defensive back, potentially safety and serving as one of the top special teams tacklers at BSU. In all, he played in all 11 games and totaled 19 tackles. The Beavers also added junior college transfer Julian Burroughs. He will enter as a senior and most recently played at University of Nebraska Omaha.
The losses to the safety spot won’t be replaced overnight, but the Beavers have talent coming into the spot. BSU added a junior college transfer in Jordan Abaroa (Scottsdale CC) to immediately give that spot some playing experience. He will be joined by sophomore Scott Christensen, who played in all 11 games last season at safety and on special teams.
“This is one of the areas we need to improve on,” Tesch said. “Jordan Abaroa is very smart and intelligent on getting guys lined-up. He just needs to get more reps to get a feel for the system. Scott Christensen is a lot like Sluzewicz, great run defender and hitter. We are working on his coverage, but he has been in the program for a few years and will be starting at that spot.”
Also, looking to make an impact at the position are redshirt freshmen Colton Blascyk and Luke Gerding. Valentine will see reps in fall camp and could provide an option at safety with some experience.
The loss of First-Team All-NSIC punter Jesse Sundby and his contribution to the punting and place kicking positions during his career will be missed, but last season junior Zach Pulkinen took the place kicking duties and now will also be the top punter. He went 6-for-11 in field goal attempts and missed three point after attempts (33-for-36). Off the tee, he averaged 64.4 yards per kick.
“Zach’s strength last year was PATs and kickoffs. With his leg strength he will also punt for us this season,” Tesch said.
The short and long snapping duties will be handed to a group of young players in Favor-Jackson and redshirt freshman Greg Button. Metz and King will again lead the group for holding duties.
B. Wakefield heads the group of kickoff and punt returners after being named a preseason All-American. He averaged 20.3 yards per kick return and 10.0 yards per punt return in 2011. Adding to the return mix will be Miller, one of the fastest players on the squad.
“I feel like we have a little more depth in our return game this year,” Tesch said. “We have Beau Wakefield back, who finished as one of the top returners in the NSIC. He may not be the home run threat, but was solid and dependable. Larry Miller is another guy we are working in as a returner because he could be that big play maker.”
The 2012 schedule is a tale of two sides - home and away. A favorable six-game home schedule awaits Chet Anderson Stadium, but the five-game road slate will make or break the potential for postseason play.
“We certainly have a very good home schedule and we will need to win those games,” Tesch said. “Playing a tough road schedule, you have to go out and upset someone. We found out last year if you lose more than two games you will probably be out of the playoffs. We are at Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State, all ranked teams, plus we have to go out to U-Mary - where we didn’t play well last year, so we have to at least split those games. We have enough experience to go out and do that and its going to be a big challenge on the road, but having upperclassmen at the right spots we won’t be nervous on the road.”
With the additions of University of Sioux Falls and Minot State University, all 11 games will be NSIC contests this season. The Beavers open the slate on the 2012 season at home with Upper Iowa University Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. - the only home night game on the schedule. BSU’s first road test will come at Minnesota State University, Mankato Sept. 8 with a 6 p.m. start. The contest against the Mavericks will be the first after a two-year hiatus and the 43rd in the all-time series that dates back to 1933. The Beavers return home Sept. 15 to host Wayne State College in a 1 p.m. tilt at the Chet. That date, slated to be the 16th Annual Shrine Game, marks the third time the Beavers have hosted the Wildcats in a Shrine Game, winning both the previous contests in 1999 and 2002. Sept. 22 the Beavers will travel to Sioux Falls, S.D. to battle USF at 1 p.m. for just the third time in program history and the first since 1983.
The annual homecoming contest is set for Sept. 29 at 1 p.m., as University of Minnesota, Crookston travels east on Highway 2. The Beavers have a strong hold on the all-time series with UMC owning a 18-1 record. BSU has won 13 straight against the Golden Eagles and are 8-0 in the Hubcap games - a traveling trophy tradition that began in 2004 to signify the highway rivalry. The Beavers travel back to University of Mary Oct. 6 for a 2:30 p.m. contest. Last season BSU visited Bismarck, N.D. and suffered one of its three losses by the score of 49-21. The third and final loss of the 2011 season came to BSU’s Oct. 13 opponent, Northern State University. BSU will host Northern State at 1 p.m. in the annual Lion’s Vision Awareness Game.
Most likely the toughest two-game stretch for the Beavers in 2012 will come Oct. 20-27 when they travel to two 2011 NCAA Tournament participants in University of Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State University. First up will be UMD Oct. 20 at 1 p.m., followed by a visit to St. Cloud State Oct. 27 for a 1 p.m. kickoff. The Huskies will be looking for revenge after the Beavers posted a 19-14 victory at home against SCSU in 2011.
The Beavers finish the 2012 campaign at home with a pair of 1 p.m. contests Nov. 3 and Nov. 10 against Minnesota State University Moorhead and Minot State - two teams Tesch has a combined overall record of 24-5 versus. Bemidji State has a storied tradition with the Dragons and its 78 all-time meetings (BSU trails, 32-43-3) sits as the largest rivalry at BSU. The two teams will also be playing for the Battle Axe, a traveling trophy that dates back to 1948 and ranks as the second-oldest traveling trophy tradition in NCAA Division II history. Minot State has opened the schedule for BSU in the past four seasons, but in 2012 it will close the regular season for the Beavers with a Nov. 10 contest at the Chet. The teams have squared off in 13 consecutive seasons with Bemidji State holding a commanding 12-1 all-time record.