College Sports Journal Missouri Valley Football Conference 2016 Preview
By Kent Schmidt
Predicted Order of Finish
North Dakota State
South Dakota State
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jake Wieneke, WR, Jr., South Dakota State
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Karter Schult, DE, Sr., Northern Iowa
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Zak Kennedy, PK, Soph., Youngstown State
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Kyron Watson, LB, Jr., Southern Illinois (transfer from Kansas)
BIGGEST LOSS: Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State (#2 Overall 2016 NFL Draft Pick—Philadelphia Eagles)
In 2015, the Missouri Valley Football Conference continued to show why it is the premier FCS conference currently in place.
One proof of this was not allowing two MVFC teams a chance to meet in the title game a year ago.
Instead, the playoff committee paired all the MVFC teams on one side of the playoff bracket—meaning that two teams from this league could not meet in the national title game like what happened in the 2014 season when North Dakota State met Illinois State.
To alter the playoff imbalance seen last year, the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee approved a recommendation of the possibility of an extra charter flight within the playoffs, which means there would still be regionalization but to a lesser extent than the past few years.
MVFC commissioner Patty Viverito said the policy would only go into effect if at least four teams from one conference make the 24-team field.
The proposal still has a hurdle to clear—approval by the NCAA Division I Council, which will not meet until October. But Viverito said if approved the mandate would go into effect for this year’s playoffs.
Both NDSU and Illinois State—the 2015 MVFC co-champions—were the two seeded conference teams in the 2015 tournament at #3 and #2 overall respectively. With this two seeds, the potential was there for a playoff rematch—this year in the semi-finals. Illinois State, however, was upset in the quarterfinals by Richmond to prevent a championship game rematch.
NDSU would go on to defeat Richmond in the semi-finals in Fargo and then win its fifth consecutive national title against top seeded Jacksonville State. NDSU opened the playoffs with a victory over Montana—a team that defeated the Bison in the regular season opener.
Aside from NDSU and Illinois State, Northern Iowa, South Dakota State, and Western Illinois also made the postseason in 2015 from this league.
Northern Iowa won its opening round match against Eastern Illinois and defeated #6 seed Portland State on the road before falling to NDSU in the quarterfinals.
South Dakota State lost its opening round game at Montana.
Western Illinois defeated Dayton on the road in the opening round before losing to Illinois State in the second round.
The rest of the league early last season thought NDSU very well could have a down year at least offensively coming into the 2016 season without NFL number 2 overall draft pick Carson Wentz under center. But due to a wrist injury Wentz sustained in mid-season, the Bison found their quarterback of the future in Easton Stick.
Playing in his redshirt freshman season, Stick completed a perfect 8-0 record including 3-0 in the playoffs as the Bison starting quarterback. Wentz was healthy enough to play in the national title game for one last time for him to play in a Bison uniform.
With Stick, four offensive lineman and his corps of four running backs, the Bison look primed to make another run at a sixth straight national championship. The toughest competition to upend them truly may come from within the conference again.
The Redbirds and Bison did not meet in the regular season in 2015 but last year’s co-champions will meet this season in Fargo on October 1.
Now, in the preseason at least, this looks like the conference game of the year.
This game along with the October 22 meeting between NDSU and Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls should go a long way in determining this year’s MVFC champion.
Andther heated contest might not be surrounded with conference championship implications but still will have some drama.
Former Western Illinois Coach Bob Nielson decided to leave Macomb and become the new head man at South Dakota. He takes over for the retired Joe Glenn.
Charlie Fisher, a former Richmond offensive coordinator, takes over the head job for the Leathernecks and his team will play their prior head coach on October 29 in Vermillion.
The other new coach in the league is Nick Hill at Southern Illinois. Hill was a former quarterback for the Salukis and was more recently the offensive coordinator. He takes over for the fired Dale Lennon.
North Dakota State (13-2, 7-1)) has become the dominant FCS team despite only being playoff eligible since 2008. Two years ago looked like the time NDSU would most likely take a dip as they lost much of the team, as well as their head coach but new Coach Chris Klieman kept the team focused to win again. This year’s team may lose two NFL draft picks from the lineup but still has plenty of talent left.
The FBS win streak of five straight wins will be tested this year with a trip to Big 10 West Division Champion Iowa. The Bison also will have other out-of-conference tests in Big South champion Charleston Southern and perennial Big Sky power Eastern Washington—although both will be in the friendly confines of the Fargodome.
Stick will be the leader on the offense despite his young age. He is definitely a different type of quarterback and gives the Bison more of a running threat than Wentz gave. Despite only starting the eight of the team’s 15 games, he still was third on the team in rushing with 498 yards and five scores. While his throwing may not match that of Wentz, he is still capable after throwing for 1144 yards with 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
The Bison offensive line will miss another NFL drafted player in tackle Joe Haeg (5th round, Indianapolis Colts) but will rely on the return of All-MVFC senior guard Zack Johnson to lead the men up front.
The Bison will also return all four of their top running backs from a season ago in seniors King Frazier and Chase Morlock, as well as sophomores Bruce Anderson and Lance Dunn. The Bison used a rotational system last year and Coach Klieman will look to use a similar rotation in 2016.
The wide receiver positions should be anchored by the top two statistical performers in junior RJ Urzendowski and sophomore Darrius Shepherd. Urzendowski led the team in receptions (48), yardage (665), and touchdowns (6) while Shephard was just narrowly behind him with 40 receptions for 575 yards with five touchdowns.
While there are a lot of stars back on offense, the Bison defense might be even stronger than their offensive counterparts. Last year’s defense was young but got stronger as the season went along as proof in giving up just 47 total points in the team’s four playoff contests (11.75/per game).
The strength of the defense will be the front seven with three senior linebackers including All-MVFC Nick DeLuca (135 tackles), and Pierre Gee-Tucker (60 tackles) and MJ Stumpf (81 tackles). Upfront, All-MVFC performers in Nate Tanguay (5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) and Greg Menard (14.5 TFL, 10 sacks) will be the cogs upfront.
The Bison secondary will be the question mark from the defensive side although sophomore safety Robbie Grimsey (68 tackles) looks to be a leader in this area. The corner back position might be the most uncertain area after the loss of All-MVFC CJ Smith but will look to sophomore Jalen Allison (23 tackles, 1 INT) to be the next shutdown corner—following Smith and Marcus Williams.
On special teams, Cam Pederson returns as the placekicker in his sophomore season. Junior FBS SMU transfer punter Jackson Koonce will look to replace two-time All-American Ben LeCompte. Junior James Fisher is also a potential All-American at the long snapper position.
Northern Iowa (9-5, 5-3) may have been the second best team in all of FCS when the playoffs started. The Panthers were seemingly running on all cylinders before falling but yet giving NDSU their closest playoff contest (a 23-13 loss in Fargo) in the quarterfinal round. Coach Mark Farley’s 2016 team will have a number of holes to fill especially on defense, however. UNI tends to be a team that can rebuild and always seems to be in the playoff chase.
The Panthers will have a tough out-of-conference schedule with road trips to FBS Iowa State and Big Sky power Eastern Washington. UNI will also host another Big Sky power in Montana. Getting off to slow starts has been something the Panthers have done in recent years and with this daunting schedule, the Panthers hope to at least win two of the three out-of-conference contests to get a strong start.
On defense, the Panthers return three of their four starters from the line last season, including All-American Karter Schult. He set UNI records for tackles for loss in a game and in a season along with finishing ranked second all-time in season sacks. The second man up front will be tackle Adam Reth, who racked up 59 tackles. Preston Woods is the third–also returning at tackle. After recovering from a serious injury and switching from offensive line back to defensive line, Woods found his home as a defensive tackle where he started the final eight games of 2015.
The linebacker group will be headed by the coach’s son in Jared Farley. He was second on the team in tackles with 97, including 9.0 for loss of yards, three sacks, and an interception.
Other than the line and Farley, however, the defense needs to fill in new starters in most other positions.
On offense, a trio of senior stars return in quarterback Bailey, center Robert Rathje and running back Tyvis Smith. This trio worked together in 2015 to create a potent offense that ranked fifteenth in rushing offense. Both Bailey and Smith each racked up over 1000 yards on the ground, while Rathje has been a stable on the line—starting since the 2013 season—to anchor a powerful offensive line.
The UNI special teams will lose an All-American in place kicker Michael Schmadeke but return another potential such honoree in punter Sam Kuhter. His punting was superb last year after 26 punts landed inside the 20-yard-line and had 15 kicks of 50-or-more yards to earn second-team All-MVFC a season ago.
The past two seasons for Illinois State (13-2, 7-1), have simply been outstanding—aside from winning a national title. The Redbirds were the co-MVFC champions with NDSU each of those seasons. Two years ago, the Redbirds lost to the Bison in the national title game but last year was somewhat of a disappointment in losing a home quarterfinal round contest to Richmond. Coach Brock Spack’s team this year will need to reload their offensive backfield with losses of quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich but has much of the remaining starters back.
At the quarterback position, the Redbirds will look to sophomore Jake Kolbe, who showed flashes in his freshman campaign in relief of Roberson. He saw action in six games including in the season opener against FBS Iowa where he completed 11 passes for 80 yards. He also saw action in the last playoff game against Richmond where he nearly led the Redbirds back from a large deficit.
Replacing Coprich will likely be the man that backed him up in senior Jamal Towns, who rushed for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns in limited action. Whether it is Towns or a younger back, he will have a nice lead blocker in front of him in All-MVFC fullback Brady Tibbits, who did not much action with the ball in his hands but his lone reception went for a touchdown last year.
One offensive specialty position that will not be an issue is at the wide receiver position. All-MVFC senior Anthony Warrum (1290 yards, 58 receptions, 15 TD) as well as another potential breakout performer in junior Christian Gibbs (20.2 yards/catch average) give new quarterback Kolbe two stout targets.
Another welcome site for the new signal caller is the offensive line that is completely back. Dan Pawlak, Kyle Avaloy, Mark Spelman, Cameron Lee and Ryan Gelber started all 13 games for ISU in 2015 and each returns for their senior campaigns this fall.
The Redbird defense is a little less experienced but will look to senior tackle Dalton Keene (10 TFL, 5 sacks) and senior linebacker Alejandro Rivera (83 tackles, 4 TFL), as well as junior safety Alec Kocour (team leading 3 INT, 78 tackles) for leadership this fall.
The Redbird kicking game will be fully intact from a season ago with junior Sean Slattery at place kicker and senior punter Reece Attard returning.
South Dakota State (8-4, 5-3) gained its fifth straight playoff berth a year ago but lost in the opening round at Montana. With this loss, the Jackrabbits actually were somewhat on a tailspin to end their season after also losing their regular season finale at Western Illinois—a loss that most likely prevented SDSU from gaining one of the Top 8 seeds in the playoffs.
One thing that will help SDSU fans from those two losses to end the season is the opening of Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. The new stadium is actually on the site of the previously named Coughlin-Alumni Stadium. The stadium project began before last season as a complete overhaul of the old facility. The stadium will be one of the best at the FCS level and will have a capacity of 19,340 (up from 11,000) and the surface also was replaced with AstroTurf.
The first year of the new stadium’s crowd will see a star on offense in All-American wide receiver in junior wide receiver Jake Wieneke, who set a single-season MVFC record last year with 1,472 receiving yards. He ended the year with 72 receptions and 11 touchdowns. He is joined by another All-American candidate at the tight end position in junior Dallas Goedert, who had 26 receptions for 484 yards and three touchdowns last season to rank second on the team in all receiving categories.
The question will be who will be throwing these two the ball. The quarterback position was a back-and-forth process last year between senior Zach Lujan and sophomore Taryn Christian splitting time under center.
The running back position will likely be the duo of Brady Mengarelli (742 yards) and Kyle Paris (428 yards). The duo each split time last year in the backfield with each scoring six touchdowns.
The offensive line will be anchored by junior center Jacob Ohnesorge, who has started all 26 games over the past two seasons and was a second-team all-MVFC selection a year ago.
On defense, seniors in tackle Cole Langer and linebacker Jesse Bobbit will be the team leaders. Langer tallied 43 total tackles, including team bests of 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, while Bobbit ranked second on the team last season with 97 tackles.
The Jackrabbit kicking game will need to be overhauled with the losses of kicker Jay Carlson and punter Brady Hale.
In Coach Bo Pelini’s first year at Youngstown State (5-6, 3-5), the Penguins finished similarly to the years before his arrival with a late season nosedive. YSU lost its last two games each by three points in games it led into the fourth quarter. Of the team’s six losses, all but one was by more than eight points. The Penguins will have 14 starters back this year in the hopes to finish games and the season stronger.
The defense has the top six tacklers from last year’s vastly improved unit back. In the FCS, YSU ranked in the top 10 in six defensive categories including leading the nation in Fewest Passing Yards Allowed (116.7).
The group will be headed by All-American end Derek Rivers, a two-time first-team All-MVFC selection entering his final season as the program’s leader in career sacks (26).
He will be aided by a strong secondary including first-team All-MVFC honoree Alexander, Jameel Smith and rotating starters Eric Thompson, David Rivers III and Nate Dortch.
Junior Lee Wright, who was a second-team All-MVFC selection after a strong first year in the program, will head the linebacker group. He led the team with 78 total tackles, including 9.5 of those for a loss as well as six sacks.
The YSU offense will be headed by a strong running game with a great senior duo of Jody Webb and Martin Ruiz. Webb was the Penguins’ top rusher last year running for 857 yards on 122 carries while Ruiz had 739 on 188 attempts. The duo combined for 13 touchdowns, with nine coming from Webb.
The quarterback situation will be a continuing battle into fall camp. Junior incumbent Hunter Wells was up and down a year ago but finished with 1,975 yards and had 13 touchdown passes. Junior college transfer Trent Hosick will likely give Wells the most competition. He comes to Youngstown from Arizona Western CC after throwing 787 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 216 yards on 67 carries a year ago.
The offensive line will be headed by junior All-MVFC Justin Spencer. He and the rest of the men upfront hope to avoid the injury bug as nine different sets of starters played a year ago.
The special teams for YSU will be highlighted with All-MVFC placekicker Zak Kennedy, who had an outstanding first season. He was the first freshman placekicker to earn the award since 1992 after making a school-record 19 field goals.
If Western Illinois (7-6, 5-3) was not introducing a new coach this year, the Leathernecks likely would have been predicted higher in the MVFC projections. After all, WIU is returning 17 starters on a team that competed in the playoffs a season ago and even had a victory in the opening round at Dayton before losing at MVFC mate Illinois State in the second round. However, we just do not know how the change to Coach Charlie Fisher’s regime will change how the team performers with the talent returning.
Western Illinois becomes the second head coaching stop for Fisher. From 1993-97 he was the head coach at Division II West Georgia and posted a 36-17 record with two postseason appearances. He was most recently the offensive coordinator at last year playoff semi-finalist Richmond. He also had assist coaching stops at Penn State, Miami (Ohio), Vanderbilt, Temple, North Carolina State, West Georgia, Lenoir-Rhyne, Mississippi and Eastern Kentucky in his 30 year career.
The WIU offense will need to find a new workhorse running the ball after the graduation of Nikko Watson and will need to decide which quarterback will be under center after two capable signal callers return this year in senior Trenton Norvell and sophomore Sean McGuire. McGuire started the team’s two playoff games and has the early node coming into the fall.
Whichever quarterback gets the nod, he will have one WIU’s historic receivers to find in senior Lance Lenoir. He currently sits as the Leathernecks’ all-time leading receiver in catches (197), yards (2,703) and tied for touchdowns (21). He also has a chance at the MVFC all-time records in each category, needing 53 receptions, 1,173 yards and 20 touchdowns to match all three career marks.
The offensive line will be anchored by All-MVFC junior center Jacob Judd, who started all 13 games a year ago and helped an offensive unit record the fifth-most total yards in program history (5,119).
The WIU defense will be headed by junior linebacker Brett Taylor. He was one of the top defensive players in the MVFC as a sophomore (third in the ‘Defensive Player of the Year’ voting). He led the Leathernecks with 144 tackles (60 more than the next closest) and scored two touchdowns – interception and fumble return. He tied the WIU season record and shared the national lead with four fumble recoveries.
Senior Nathan Knuffmann will handle both the place kicking and punting duties.
New Coach Nick Hill at Southern Illinois (3-8, 2-6), hopes to bring back the winning ways in Carbondale just like when he was the starting quarterback his final two seasons. In those two seasons, he led the Salukis to playoffs each season including getting SIU to the semi-final round in 2007.
As SIU’s offensive coordinator last year, he employed a new offensive attack with an up-tempo, spread attack. The results were remarkable as the Saluki offense averaged 498 yards per game — the second most in conference history. SIU led the conference and ranked in the top-11 nationally in total offense, scoring offense and passing offense. Quarterback Mark Iannotti led the nation in total offense per game.
Unfortunately for SIU, however, Iannotti was lost to graduation so Hill will need to look for a new signal caller. Sophomore Sam Straub and senior Josh Straughan separated from the pack in spring ball and will continue to compete for the starting job through fall preseason practices.
Whichever signal caller gets the nod, he will have a large amount of talent around him. He will have running back Daquan Ison (7th nationally in all-purpose yards per game and led the MVFC in kick return average) and receivers Billy Reed (805 receiving yards, 5 TD) and Jimmy Jones (445 yards, 6 TD) surrounding him. He will also have two seasoned offensive linemen in junior tackle Austin Olsen and senior guard Reid Sealby helping to block upfront.
On the defensive side, SIU will be switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment. Heading the group will be senior All-MVFC linebacker Chase Allen, who led the Salukis in tackles last season with 120 and ranked third in the MVFC in tackles per game at 10.9. A couple of transfers in linebacker Kyron Watson (Kansas) and cornerback Craig James (Minnesota) will also look to sure up a defense that gave up over 34 points per game.
Two years ago, Indiana State (5-6, 3-5) made it into the FCS playoffs for the first time since 1984 and notched its first playoff win since 1983. The Sycamores, however, dipped to just five wins last year. Coach Mike Sanford’s team lost to all five contests to the MVFC playoff teams, along with the Big 10’s Purdue, so the team needs to step up when it comes to the level of competition.
This year, ISU does not have to play perennial playoff contender South Dakota State, but rather picks up their in-state rival South Dakota for the first time since 2013. The 2016 season will also include a trip to Minnesota in potentially the final season that the Sycamores and many other FCS programs will be able to square off against Big Ten schools.
The offense is highlighted by the top returning pass yardage quarterback within the league in junior Matt Adam. He finished 2015 with the third-best offensive season in Indiana State history at 2,592 total yards – second in the conference only to national leader in SIU’s Iannotti (3,911).
Adam will also have plenty of weapons on offense, including potential professional caliber wide receiver Robert Tonyan Jr. and running backs LeMonte Booker and Roland Genesy. The area of concern may be the offensive line play to give Adam more time to throw and to open holes for the running game.
The Sycamore defense returns familiar faces such as linebacker Jameer Thurman and safeties Marcus Gray and Tsali Lough. The defense did fairly well against the run a year ago but must improve the pass coverage.
On special teams, ISU has a special performer in senior long snapper Joshua Appel. He is a two-time winner of the well-known long snapping camp hosted by Chris Rubio. This summer, Appel bested 37 of the best long-snappers in the United States to take the overall title at the Rubio camp.
In Coach Joe Glenn’s final season at South Dakota (5-6, 3-5), the Coyotes took an upward step. After not winning a league game in 14 attempts, USD shocked NDSU in Fargo—a win that ended the Bison 26-game home winning streak. USD would go on to win two additional league games that will leave new Coach Bob Nielson to use as he starts this fall.
But Nielson was not satisfied with the status quo. He has made a change in offensive styles and has also opened up competition at all positions on both sides of the ball. In fact, the Coyotes enter the 2016 season beginning with just 38 of the 95 players from the 2015 roster. The offense will be going from a traditional pro-style offense to one that will be hitting the turbo button to give its best athletes the chance to operate in space.
Because of the new offense, the quarterback position is up for grabs this fall. Three quarterbacks are vying for the starting job in returning starter senior Ryan Saeger, redshirt freshman Austin Simmons and Minnesota transfer Chris Streveler.
The running back position appears to be Trevor Bouma’s to lose. He is returning from a second straight season that was cut short because of a broken arm. The senior ran for 435 yards and six touchdowns in six games last season before the injury.
Junior wide receiver Brandt Van Roekel will be a key target for whichever quarterback ends up taking snaps. He led all USD receivers with six touchdown receptions last season.
Senior center Nile Banks will look to anchor the offensive line. He has started every game the past two seasons but is moving from the guard spot this year.
On defense, there is not as large of a change being employed. The team will still be in a 4-3 format but look to use more speed to generate more turnovers. The Coyotes did, however, lose a key piece from last year in defensive end Andy Van Ginkel, who led the MVFC in sacks (9) and tackles for loss (18) in his freshman season. Van Ginkel decided to transfer to Iowa Western CC in the hopes of getting to a FBS school in the future.
Overall, USD returns just four defensive starters in lineman Colin Mertlik, linebacker John Wessel, and safeties Tyson Graham and Jacob Warner. All four are seniors and this group will look to lead the group in the new mentality.
Missouri State (1-10, 0-8) won just once under first year head coach Dave Steckel and that lone win was over DII Chadron (Nebraska) State. The Bears in fact were outscored by an average of 48.6 to 9.1 last season. The Bears, however, hope 15 returning starters will start an upward trend this season.
The Bears defense does have two weapons to be the team leads in senior linebacker Dylan Cole and sophomore free safety Jared Beshore.
Cole led the Bears in total tackles in every game and averaged 15.4 stops per outing during league play to be named to the first-team All-MVFC team. He finished the year as the MVFC leader in tackles per game (13.8) and ranked third nationally.
Beshore was named to the All-MVFC Newcomer team a year ago after averaging 6.4 tackles per game to rank among the top 20 defenders in the MVFC. He tabbed 70 total tackles to finish as MSU’s third-leading tackler.
The Bears have another weapon Deion Holliman, who earned first-team All-MVFC honors as a returner in 2015. He led the nation in combined kick return yardage last fall with 1,233, after setting MSU and MVFC single-season records for kick returns (50) and kick return yardage (1,059).
The Bears quarterback position looks to be incumbent in senior Brodie Lambert after a strong spring game. He, however, threw for just 776 yards with three touchdowns and had 11 interceptions. If the Bears want improve, Lambert needs to flip these type of statistics around. The rest of the team needs to also turn these numbers around.
Originally from LaMoure, North Dakota, Kent is a 1996 graduate of North Dakota State University. His prior writing experience is over 15 years having previously worked with D2football.com, I-AA.org, and College Sporting News before coming to College Sports Journal in 2016. His main focus is college football in the western half of the United States– the Big Sky Conference and Missouri Valley Football Conference within the Division I FCS. And in 2017, he began also to look at the FBS Group of Five conferences of the American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, and Sun Belt.
Originally from LaMoure, North Dakota, Kent is a 1996 graduate of North Dakota State University. His prior writing experience is over 15 years having previously worked with D2football.com, I-AA.org, and College Sporting News before coming to College Sports Journal in 2016. His main focus is college football in the western half of the United States-- the Big Sky Conference and Missouri Valley Football Conference within the Division I FCS. And in 2017, he began also to look at the FBS Group of Five conferences of the American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, and Sun Belt.