BEMIDJI, Minn. – Bemidji State University head football coach Jeff Tesch has described the 2013 season as, “A Challenge.” The Beavers lost nearly the entire starting offense from a year ago and three of four All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference players from the defense are gone. What’s left is a mixed group of savvy veterans and young, inexperienced student-athletes looking to continue the winning tradition of Bemidji State football.
“It’s going to be an interesting camp and season,” Tesch said. “There is going to be some learning experiences with our new quarterbacks, but that is why you coach, it’s going to be fun. You win championships with defense and that is how your team should be built. To have the depth, experience and quality we have back, we expect them to play excellent football.”
To provide some incite on the upcoming season, here are the keys to success and storylines for 2013.
Starts with the quarterback and center
The Beavers have had the luxury of knowing whom their starting quarterback was heading into fall camp for a long time. This year is different as the void left by two-time All-NSIC performer Lance Rongstad is huge. Vying for the job will two returning quarterbacks with few snaps, transfer student looking for shot and two redshirt freshmen. The ball has to go through the center to get to the hands of the quarterback, which is another position the BSU coaching staff hasn’t had to worry about for years. Looking to take on the responsibly are two players that haven’t played a snap for BSU in transfer William Slade (Killeen, Texas) and redshirt freshman Jesse Hein (Perham, Minn.).
There is talent
With youth comes excitement and anticipation of the unknown. The players stepping into the major positions (quarterback, running back, wide receiver) don’t have a lot of game experience, but are ready to take the lead. The quarterback spot is wide open with a group of individuals that each bring something different to the table. The running back spot welcomes returner Avery Walker (Sr., Milwaukee, Wis.), who stepped in and totaled 49 attempts when Dustin Kroeplin went down with an injury last season. BSU returns one reception to its receiving core, but have a group of upperclassmen and redshirt freshmen that showed talent and improvement in spring ball. The offensive line and tight end positions will be filled with new players and guys who played other spots last season. The one position the staff isn’t worried about is fullback, as senior captain Brent Kondziolka (Orland Park, Ill.) returns as a three-year starter.
Homework in recruiting has to pay off
The reason the coaches spend so much time finding players that fit the program is for situations like this. This is a rare season where the entire offense needs an overhaul and there are a lot of positions that will be filled with redshirt freshmen and transfers. The work done watching film and redshirting players to gain experience in the system has to pay off in 2013, or it could be a long one for the Wicked White offense.
Offensive Line – Youth Mixed with Experience
Returning to the line is two-year starter and senior captain Jordan Oien (Bemidji, Minn.). He played right guard last season, but with the youth of the line, may have to move to a different spot to make the line stronger. Also coming back is left guard Tyler Abrahamson (New Brighton, Minn.). The senior started all 11 games a year ago and is primed for another solid season. Filling the right tackle spot heading into camp is junior Dustin Dowd (Brooklyn Park, Minn.), who played in seven games in 2012. Slade and Hein will battle for the starting center spot, but both are talented players and whichever earns the role the other will be a valuable reserve or may see time somewhere else on the line. The coaching staff is high on redshirt freshman Matt Valentine, who may step in and fill the left tackle spot for Alonzo Melton.
Tight End – A Different Look
It’s nearly impossible to replace the all-around talent left by Brian Leonhardt, who signed an undrafted free agent contract with the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders in April. Not looking to replace Leonhardt, but to fill the tight end position in a different way will be linebacker-turned tight end Jared Roelofs (So., Glyndon, Minn.) and sophomore special teams standout Jordan Noskowiak (Sun Prairie, Wis.). Noskowiak caught one pass last season, but could be a receiving threat, while Roelofs was studying opposing tight ends as a linebacker and used last spring to learn the offense and improve his blocking skills.
Fullback – The Rock
The only skill position player returning to the starting line-up is Kondziolka. He has led the way for Beaver running backs for the past three seasons, while also utilizing his own running and catching abilities. Last season, Kondziolka posted 13 receptions for 99 yards and three touchdowns, while his 12 carries went for 59 yards and one score. This season he will be asked to do more as veteran among rookies both on and off the field.
Wide Receiver – Young and Exciting
The Beaver receiving corps returns just one reception from a season ago and the one grab was by junior Mike Grayson (Salinas, Calif.), who transferred to BSU last season. Another transfer from 2012 that returns is senior AJ Washington (Lake View, S.C.), who provides some speed to the receivers and as a kick and punt returner. Redshirt freshmen looking to make a splash are Josh Malone (Gordan, Wis.) and Dexter Taylor (Lockport, Ill.). Tesch said he was excited about the talent at wide receiver and that they will have to learn as they go.
Running Back – Reckless Running Back
Walker, a “Different kind of back than we have had, who is a home run threat that runs with power and is a reckless running back out there,” said Tesch, highlights the running back position for BSU in 2013. Walker was able to demonstrate his talents in eight games last season and totaled 272 yards on 49 attempts with three touchdowns. The exciting style of Walker could be complimented by the more hardnosed, tough running style of Tony Peterson (So., Frederic, Wis.), who showed his abilities in the annual Green and White Spring Game.
Quarterback – Fun, Challenging and Interesting
Five players are listed on the depth chart at quarterback, all of which bring something different to the table, but have something in common – minimal in-game experience. Due to the lack of a spring in Minnesota, the coaches felt they couldn’t fully assess the talents of each quarterback and will head into fall camp hoping someone emerges as the leading candidate. The favorite is senior Alex Hass (Milaca, Minn.), as he has the most returning game experience. He recorded one start last season and went 10-for-17 for 85 yards and two interceptions. He also provides a run threat Beaver fans have been accustomed to the last couple of seasons. Spring semester transfer Adam Ragsdale (Turlock, Calif.) is still learning the system, but brings a lot of talent. Junior Sam King (Grand Forks, N.D.) has done his homework and worked hard for the past three seasons and will be in the mix. Redshirt freshmen Ryan Shields (Roseville, Calif.) and Matt Knapp (Eau Claire, Wis.) each have a year of practice under their belts and have an opportunity to break through as a potential starter.
Need and expect turnovers
As the offense grows and develops the defense will be the key to the success of the team as a whole. Turnovers are a big factor in helping the offense gain better field position. Last season the Beaver defense recovered eight fumbles and picked 12 passes for 24 turnovers that sat sixth in the NSIC. BSU will have to continue to cause havoc for the opposing offense to create those turnovers needed to set-up the offense.
Key to the team with experience and confidence
BSU lost four big contributors to the Gang Green defense that helped win the NSIC North Division title, but return a group of players that guided the Beavers to finish in the top 20 nationally in total defense (15th), rushing defense (15th) and scoring defense (18th). The experience and confidence of these players, especially the defensive line, will guide the Beavers’ success this season. One of the most respected and feared defenses in the league, expectations are high for the defensive unit.
Get the offense on the field
The defense has a lot of weight on its shoulders and will have to be performing at the highest level from the opening kickoff. Last season Gang Green did all it could to provide the offense with opportunities. BSU led the NSIC in 2012 in opponent first downs, opponent third down conversion and red zone defense. These important statistics will have to continue to allow the offense more snaps and chances to move the ball and grow.
Defensive Line – The Strength
Besides the loss of Bryan Syrstad, who emerged as an All-NSIC player after the injury of Matthew Shaver (Sr., St. Cloud, Minn.), the defensive line is all back. Shaver entered 2012 as a Preseason All-American, but suffered an injury early and missed the middle portion of the season. He is back and healthy to serve as the stopper at nose guard. The defense ends have the most experience returning out of any spot on the team and welcome back the talents of juniors Dan Kiebler (Franklin Park, Ill.) and J.J. Reinke (New Prague, Minn.) to the starting lineup. Those two, along with senior Gary Young (Crete, Ill.) and junior Ethan Favor-Jackson (Alexandria, Minn.), have played together for years, but injuries have kept them from truly gelling as a unit. If that crew can stay healthy, the coaching staff has high hopes for the defense, as it all starts with the line.
Linebacker – Outside Backers Bring All-NSIC Talent
“The two outside linebackers will play as well as anybody in the league,” Tesch said. Senior captain Buckley Wright (Sioux City, Iowa) was a 2010 All-NSIC player as a freshman and has been a solid cog in the Gang Green defense for the past three years. Partnered with sophomore Connor Quinn (Geneva, Ill.), who emerged as a starter and earned an all-conference nod as a freshman, the two will be the focus of opposing offenses. For as much experience as those two have, the inside linebackers are about the opposite. A huge hole was left by all-region performer Cory Crosby and the departure of Jason Bromm, leaving the inside backer position wide open. Leading the way heading into fall camp will be sophomore Greg Button (Eau Claire, Wis.) and junior Evan Olson (Bemidji, Minn.), as well as, freshman Ross Pflum (Appleton, Wis.) and sophomore Colton Blascyk (Kensington, Minn.), who played in the defensive secondary last season, as reserves.
Cornerback – Miller Time
The story of senior captain Larry Miller’s (Dallas, Texas) transformation from quarterback to cornerback continues to get better and better. Asked to make the move after his redshirt season, Miller has evolved into a leader for the defensive unit. After struggling with the change early, Miller is now a staple at the position and last season proved his worth with 30 tackles and three interceptions. Joining Miller is Spring semester transfer Ralph Biah (Providence, R.I.), who brings collegiate experience to the corner position in hopes to replace 2012 All-NSIC Second Team member Charles Hrdlicka.
Safety – Hardnosed
The return of tough, hardnosed juniors Scott Christensen (Stockbridge, Ga.) and Dylan Valentine (Temecula, Calif.) has the coaching staff excited about the safety position. Christensen emerged as a strong player in the defensive backfield last season and totaled 47 tackles to sit sixth on the team. He pulled down two interceptions after starting 10 of 11 games. Valentine has proven his worth since stepping onto campus in 2011. He skipped his redshirt year and contributed as a true freshman before starting all 11 games at safety last season. He compiled 39 tackles, three interceptions and a team-high seven pass breakups in 2012.
Have to win special teams
Not to sound like a broken record, but the offense is an unknown for 2013. So special teams becomes even more important. Tesch emphasized winning the special teams battles with a good return game and solid kicking. The amount of special teams practice may increase in fall camp this season.
With the experience and big leg of senior kicker/punter Zach Pulkinen (Minot, N.D.), the Beavers should be confident in their kicking abilities this season. He assumed full punting duties a season ago and has improved in that area, while conducting the entire place kicking duties. He knocked home 30-of-35 extra points last season and was 5-for-7 in field goal attempts of 39-yards or less. He averaged 60.8 yards per kickoff and totaled seven touchbacks. His 38.2 yards per punt finished sixth in the league.
Speed in the return game
Some new faces will be mixed into the return game this season, but Tesch thought this team has more speed as a whole than they have had in a while. Again, the lack of outdoor spring practices put a damper on opportunity to learn more about the return game and the coaching staff will wait and see who the lead candidates will be for those spots. Potential players from last season that may see time in the kick and punt return areas are Miller and Washington.
OTHER STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
Exciting home schedule
The Beavers host Concordia University, St. Paul Sept. 14 in the only night game at Chet Anderson Stadium (6 p.m.) in 2013. BSU hosts Southwest Minnesota State University Sept. 28 on homecoming for the fourth time since 1993. BSU is 2-2 in those games, winning the last two. Bemidji State hosts University of Minnesota Duluth Oct. 26 and St. Cloud State University Nov. 2. BSU has had some epic games with these two teams at home in the last four years.
Field turf for “The Chet”
Chet Anderson Stadium is seeing a facelift, as new field turf is being installed to replace the natural grass of the picturesque stadium located on the shore of Lake Bemidji. Tesch didn’t think the change would affect the team’s success, but did reminisce of late-season games of snow and mud that may have played into BSU’s favor.
Head Coach Jeff Tesch
Tesch enters his 18th season at Bemidji State and owns a 113-71 career record. The first game of the season (Sept. 5) he will go against the other coaching dean of the NSIC in Tom Sawyer, who is also in his 18th season as head coach of Winona State University.
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Nestled in Northern Minnesota’s wooded region and located on the shore of Lake Bemidji, Bemidji State University sponsors 15 varsity athletic programs with NCAA Division I men’s and women’s hockey membership in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, while its 13 NCAA Division II programs hold membership in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC).