The Missouri Valley Football Conference is ranked in most of the recent years polls as the top FCS conference in the country. This year likely will be no different as nine of the ten teams in the conference return their starting quarterbacks.
A year ago, however, was the first year in six seasons that the league did not boost the national champion. North Dakota State, the five time reigning champion lost in the semi-finals yet another school in Youngstown State played in the national title game. Both schools lost to champion James Madison to end their seasons. Five schools made the playoffs last year and each will have a large contingent of returning talent.
But while there is much returning, each team in the league will be counting on some new comers to produce.
With this column, I will highlight one potential newcomer that I believe will have a breakout season in 2017 to keep the MVFC at the top of the rankings. The players shown below are in alphabetical order by school.
Illinois State made the playoffs last year in what many considered a rebuilding season and the team returns 48 letterman and 14 starters. The one big signing that I think will play a big role on the defense this year is FBS Notre Dame transfer in redshirt sophomore linebacker Josh Barajas.
Barajas, a 6-2, 240 lb linebacker, heads to Normal with three years of eligibility remaining. Barajas played in nine games for the Irish in 2016, after sitting out the 2015 season as member of the practice squad while redshirting.
During his prep career, Barajas was named to the USA Today American Family Insurance All-USA Indiana Football Team as a linebacker and was ranked as the 10th inside linebacker nationally by ESPN. He was also rated as the 93rd player nationally on Tom Lemming’s Top 300 list, following a senior season performance that earned him 2014 Indiana Class 3A all-state team honors from the Associated Press. In addition, he was selected to play in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, making two solo tackles in the contest.
Returning a MVFC low in just 11 starters, Indiana State will need to find several newcomers to try to improve on a five win season. The big question for returning quarterback Isaac Harker (although it is not a given he will be this year’s starter) is who he will try to throw to as the running back stable has four players
that have seen action in the past.
The Sycamores will try to replace Robert Tonyan Jr., who left Terre Haute as one of Indiana State’s most prolific receivers ever, racking up 2,047 yards and 20 touchdowns on 150 receptions. He finished his illustrious career as ISU’s all-time leader in career TD and single-season TD (10), as well as the third-best receiver all-time in yards (just one yard shy of second place).
The player that I think will look to breakout in the Sycamore receiving category is redshirt sophomore Dante Jones. Jones played sparingly last year on special teams but led the team in this year’s spring game with 49 yards and a touchdown. Jones is a speedster, who was a standout track and field star from Lakota West High in Ohio.
Missouri State seems to be in the rebuilding mode most seasons in this decade but seemed to start turning the corner last year with four wins last year after just a one win season in 2015. As mentioned, all signal callers return in the league but MSU is the exception to the rule after losing Brodie Lambert.
In spring ball, the Bears look like they found their new quarterback in Peyton Huslig, who comes to Springfield from Garden City (Kan.) Community College. The now sophomore completed 19-of-33 passes for 345 yards and a touchdown to help the White side to a 23-0 decision. He also rushed for 15 yards and a touchdown as part of his impressive debut.
While at Garden City, he led to his team to the NJCAA national championship with a perfect 11-0 campaign last fall. The Andover, Kan., product passed for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns while throwing just one interception to earn honorable mention All-KJCAA recognition. He also garnered offensive MVP honors in the NJCAA title game after accounting for over 300 yards of offense.
Six straight MVFC champion North Dakota State looks to rebound in their gaudy expectations after failing to win a sixth straight national title last year. This year, the team returns much of the squad that bowed out in the national semi-final round and looks to get back to Frisco for the national title game again.
NDSU tends not to use the FBS transfer route much but has used it in a few key areas as the Bison top running back in now gradated King Frazier (Nebraska) and now senior punter Jackson Koonce (Southern Methodist) were key contributors last year after starting their careers as the FBS level.
The Bison hope for another FBS transfer to contribute as a breakout newcomer this year in wide receiver Desmond Cain, who will transfer to Fargo from FBS Illinois. The junior-to-be will give the Bison one thing that has been lacking with the offense in a deep threat for junior quarterback Easton Stick.
A three-star recruit out of Delray Beach, Florida, Cain ranked third as a true freshman in 2015, hauling in 53 grabs for 492 yards and a touchdown in Champaign. His Fighting Illini tenure peaked against third ranked Ohio State with a 10-catch, 102-yard performance. However, a knee injury and a coaching change saw Cain’s standing change. He appeared in only five games in 2016, catching five passes for 61 yards.
Northern Iowa missed the playoffs last year despite opening the season with an impressive FBS win over in state rival Iowa State. The Panthers, however, lost to two top Big Sky Conference teams after this and couldn’t recover and finished with just five wins.
This year, UNI has a similar schedule with two different Big Sky teams that made the playoffs in Cal Poly and Weber State to go behind playing Iowa State again. The quarterback position last year was done somewhat by committee with Aaron Bailey and Eli Dunne. Bailey has now graduated and this year just might now allow for the breakout season for Dunne.
Dunne started the last four games last year and performed admirably and will look to start 2017 the way 2016 ended for him with a full season this year. The Grinnell, Iowa product showed his potential last year with a career-high 418 yards in UNI’s win against Missouri State (10/22), earning MVFC and national player of the week honors.
In Coach Bob Nielson’s second season at South Dakota, the Coyotes proved they could score with the other MVFC teams but the defense was where they need to improve. USD’s best game was giving up 24 points in one of four wins over Illinois State but eight of their 11 games had 30 or more points given up.
The Coyotes return just five starters on the defensive side and newcomer to keep an eye on is redshirt freshman linebacker Andy Aune of Golden Valley, Minnesota. Aune had 10 tackles and was credited with a pass breakup in the USD spring game.
The 6-2, 205 lb linebacker was named the team’s top practice squad player going into the Indiana State game last year. Aune compiled 227 tackles and four interceptions for Hopkins during the last three seasons in high school and earned all-conference and all-metro honors his senior high school season after leading the Lake Conference with 122 stops.
South Dakota State won it’s first-ever Missouri Valley Football Conference title in 2016—tying NDSU for the crown. SDSU finished the season with a 9-4 overall record and 7-1 mark in league play. The Jackrabbits received a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs and advanced to the quarterfinals before falling at NDSU to finish with a top-10 year end national ranking for the first time in program history.
The SDSU offense just may have the best trio of quarterback and receivers in the nation this year with quarterback
Taryn Christion (the conference’s 2016 offensive player of the year) and All-Americans Jake Wieneke (wide receiver) and Dallas Goedert (tight end). The trio is three of nine returning starters on offense.
The Jackrabbits breakout player likely will come from the linebacker corps this year despite returning sophomore Christian Rozeboom, who started all 13 games at middle linebacker in 2016, led the squad with 132 tackles en route to being named Missouri Valley Football Conference Freshman of the Year.
The other two starting linebackers, however, were lost and opens the door for junior-to-be Eric Kleinschmit to take one of the open linebacker positions. Kleinschmit saw limited action last year but was a defensive star in the SDSU spring game with a game high eight tackles and will look to build upon that for a strong season this fall.
In Nick Hills’ first year at Southern Illinois, the Salukis proved to be a top offensive squad but lacked in the defensive side in winning just four games despite averaging over 30 points per game. SIU returns 14 starters (eight on offense and six on defense) for Hill’s second season.
The Salukis return two of their FCS-high four 500-yard receivers, Conner Iwema and Darrell James, and Jimmy Jones was nearly to that point but was injured before the season ended. Quarterback Josh Straughan has graduated but junior-to-be Sam Straub should be just fine under center.
Straub passed for 1,155 yards in the final three games after the Salukis were out of the race and looks to breakout this year with a full season under him. The signal caller from Ames, Iowa set a school record with 450 yards passing in a comeback win over nationally ranked Western Illinois and should put more of these type of games this year.
Western Illinois was poised to make a run at the playoffs again in Coach Charlie Fisher’s first campaign in Macomb. WIU, however, lost its last three games to finish with just six wins The Leathernecks return 18 starters this year so a playoff run likely is in order this year.
The offense will follow the lead of quarterback Sean McGuire, running back Steve McShane and an excellent line. But the team must replace
two stars at the receiver position in the program’s top two all-time receivers, Lance Lenoir and Joey Borsellino. Junior Isaiah Lesure and Ohio transfer Jarid Brown will be poised to fill the gap.
It might be rare that a newcomer is a senior but Brown brings experience to the team and should provide McGuire a venerable target. Brown saw little action while playing for Ohio–playing in nine games during the 2016 season with just five catches totaling 49 yards with a long of 14 yards. He did show promise in high school with 800 yards with 14 touchdowns at Huntington, Maryland.
Coach Bo Pelini’s Youngstown State squad likely overachieved last year after ending a 10-year playoff drought in getting to the national championship game. Senior quarterback Hunter Wells, running back Tevin McCaster and offensive tackle Justin Spencer are should lead an offense that returns eight starters.
The Penguin defense, however, is where a newcomer must standout to repeat the success of 2016 as just four starters are back on this side of the ball. Gone are two All-Conference performers in defensive ends Derek Rivers and Avery Moss, both were selected in this past NFL draft.
To try to replace the production on the line, Johnson Louigene will look to be a new star on a stellar defensive line. The now-junior 6-3, 250 lb performer saw a little action last year but did finish with 14 total tackles, including 10 solo stops. He saw increased playing time in the playoffs with injury to Moss with his best game at Jacksonville State when he was credited with eight tackles, including five solo stops.