The largest conference in the FCS ranks with 13 schools had a team to the semi-final round of the playoffs last year after not getting a team past the second round in 2015 so the Big Sky Conference is definitely getting closer to its usual high standard. The league, however, is also hoping to get a team back to the national title game for the first time since the 2010 season.
Eastern Washington was the team a year ago to make the run to the semi-finals before being upset by Youngstown State at home. The Eagles were also the last BSC team to not only make the championship game but also win the national title.
This year, a number of talented players return in the Big Sky but there are also some key positions that will require some new talent to arise to try to break the league’s championship game drought.
With this column, I will highlight one potential newcomer from each school that I believe will have a breakout season in 2017 to try to get the BSC back towards the top of the rankings. The players shown below are in alphabetical order by school.
Cal Poly was one of four BSC teams to make the playoffs in 2016 but the Mustangs were upset by the Pioneer League’s San Diego in the opening round at home in San Luis Obispo to put a somewhat sore note on a very productive season for Coach Tim Walsh’s team.
This year, the Mustangs arguably will have the best full back returning in all of the subdivision in senior-to-be Joe Protheroe. But the Mustangs must replace one of his backfield mates in Kori Garcia in Cal Poly’s triple option attack.
To replace Garcia, redshirt freshman Chuby Dunu seems poised to make the transition to replace Garcia at a slot back position. As a senior at Buchanan High School (Clovis, CA), Dunu rushed for 1,049 yards and 14 touchdowns on 157 carries, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He rushed a season-high 24 carries for 215 yards and also caught 47 passes, six for touchdowns, and earned second-team All-Tri-River League honors. He accounted for 15 yards in the Mustangs’ spring game this year in what he hopes will be a springboard to a breakout season this fall.
Perennial national power Eastern Washington had a replacement at head coach when Beau Baldwin left Cheney to take the offensive coordinator position at the PAC-12’s California. New head man is Aaron Best, who was the Eagles offensive line coach the past nine seasons and has spent 20 years in Cheney including playing for the Eagles on the offensive line at the center position from 1996-99.
The Eagles pass game will again be headed by junior-to-be Gage Gubrud at the quarterback position. The problem, however, will be who he will try to find to catch his passes. Gone are NFL drafted and multi-year All-American Cooper Kupp, as well as two other NFL hopefuls in Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill.
The breakout player for the Eagles likely will be at the wide receiver position in the pass happy offense EWU likes to employee. That top breakout player this year looks to be junior-to-be wide out Nsimba Webster, who led the way by catching 14 passes for an astounding 273 yards in three EWU scrimmages this spring.
A year ago, he played in eight games as wide receiver and kickoff returner, missing six games from Oct. 8 to Nov. 18 with a broken clavicle. He suffered the injury on a 65-yard kickoff return against UC Davis but as the numbers from the spring attest, he is ready for a breakout season in 2017.
Idaho State is also ushering in a new head coach after long-time Big Sky coach Mike Kramer retired this past spring. The Bengals new head man is two-year ISU offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie to lead the charge. The Bengals do return 14 starters from last year but ISU finished just 2-9 in each of the past two seasons so the team needs help on both sides of the ball.
The Bengal offense will again be head by junior-to-be Tanner Gueller at the quarterback position but must replace running back Jakori Ford, who signed an NFL free agent contract after graduating last year. To replace Ford, the Bengals look like the will look to reigning FCS national champion namesake in James Madison to emerge this year.
Madison, who will be a junior this year, saw limited action but did tally 197 yards on the ground last year. He was the top rusher (33 yards) in the Bengal spring game this past year to emerge as the top back this fall.
Perennial Big Sky power Montana missed the playoffs and slipped down to the eighth spot in the Big Sky standings last year in a 6-5 season. The Grizzlies lost two quarterbacks in Brady Gustafson and Chad Chalich, and returning quarterback Reese Phillips played in just four games a season ago.
The offense did get another boost, however, with Washington State transfer running back Alijah Lee.
But the rising star for the Grizzlies this year will likely be on the defensive side, which might be what the Grizzlies need to compete this year. Joining returning and leading tackler in junior-to-be Josh Buss to star this year likely will be redshirt sophomore safety Josh Sandry.
In his freshman season, the 6-1, 200 lb Bighorn, MT Sandry appeared in all 11 games and recorded 30 tackles with 2.5 of those for loss and 1.5 sacks. However, he had a breakout spring this year and an outstanding spring game where he recorded three interceptions with two those returned for touchdowns.
The other Treasure state school in Montana State also had an off year in 2016. The Bobcats finished just 4-7 but MSU did end its season by defeating their rivals to end the season and basically keep Montana out of the postseason.
The Bobcats return last year’s Big Sky freshman of the year in quarterback Chris Murray and will have most of his receivers back. But it might be another treat for Murray that will have a breakout season this year in junior-to-be tight end Conner Sullivan.
In his first two seasons in Bozeman, the 6-4, 240 lb Ennis, MT native Sullivan has just five receptions total so far. However, Sullivan may have had possibly the biggest catch for MSU of the season last year in sealing the Brawl of the Wild win over Montana.
Northern Arizona has seemingly been on the brink of greatness over the past decade but just does not seem to grab it. The Lumberjacks slipped to just 5-6 last year after one of the FCS top quarterbacks in Case Cookus fell down to a shoulder injury to prematurely end his season. NAU lost two of its final four games in Cookus’ absence.
NAU also boosts one of the top receiving threats in Emmanual Butler, who is one of seven other returning starters on the offensive side.
The breakout performer, however, just may be running back junior-to-be Cory Young to try to give the Lumberjacks some balance on the offensive side. Young comes to Flagstaff after transferring from FBS Boise State. He tallied 138 yards in his two seasons at BSU and has put on some weight since coming to NAU and scored an impressive touchdown in this year’s spring game.
North Dakota tied Eastern Washington for the Big Sky crown last year and had undoubtedly the schools top Division I performance in gaining its first FCS playoff bid, which included a perfect BSC 8-0 record. The Fighting Hawks, however, left the playoffs with a sore taste after losing to Richmond in Grand Forks in its second round opening contest.
UND announced it will be playing in its last BSC title eligible season this year before moving to the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020. UND football will continue to play a Big Sky Conference schedule in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but the Fighting Hawks will not be considered a full member. UND will not be eligible for the league’s Big Sky regular-season title but the Fighting Hawks can still be in the mix for the FCS playoffs as an at-large participant.
For the 2017 season, the Fighting Hawks will return 14 starters, including nine on offense, from last year’s conference championship team but the breakout performer just may come from the offensive side. FBS Minnesota transfer James Johannesson, the former Fargo (ND) South standout, will have three seasons of eligibility remaining for the Fighting Hawks. Johannesson rushed for 6,158 yards and 81 touchdowns leading to back-to-back North Dakota Gatorade Player of the Year honors but played sparingly at Minnesota in his redshirt freshman season.
At Northern Colorado, the Bears had a good season after many mediocre campaigns. UNC has finished with back-to-back 6-5 records and look to take the next step towards the top of the BSC standings.
The offense will be a question mark at quarterback with injured starter Jacob Knipp back but was pressed by JUCO transfer Conor Regan in spring ball.
The Bears breakout performer, however, likely will be on the defensive side of the ball. Redshirt sophomore Sherand Boyd Jr. had an outstanding spring including an interception return for a touchdown in the UNC spring game.
The 6-0, 200 lb safety played in all 11 games last year as well in recording 39 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. He also deflected 3 passes at the line and broke up 3 passes and will be looking for an even bigger 2017 season.
Portland State slipped to just 3-8 last year after earning a Top 8 seed in the 2015 playoffs. The Vikings lost 10 starters from last year’s squad including quarterback Alex Kuresa.
Coach Bruce Barnum’s team will need to fill a lot of holes in hopes to rekindle the magic of the 2015 season. A number of possiblies for breakout exist on this team but one recent signing at the quarterback position might just provide the spark the Vikings need.
FBS Utah State transfer Cade Smith, a 6-0, 205-lb sophomore-to-be, is a former All-State of Oregon quarterback from West Salem High School. He brings the run-pass skill combination that fits the Viking offense. Smith accounted for 3,645 yards of total offense and 50 touchdowns as a senior at West Salem in 2014. PSU sought after him but he decided to sign with Utah State. He redshirting in 2015 and then not seeing game action in 2016.
Sacramento State lost just eight seniors from last year’s 2-9 team so the Hornets should be a very experienced team in 2017. Running back Jordan Robinson will be missed in the backfield, and the transfer of quarterback Nate Ketteringham leaves uncertainty on offense, however.
These two positions will likely provide the position for a breakout performer for the Hornets his fall. The most likely performer to standout is likely at the running back position. One that seems unlikely based on his size is redshirt freshman Isaiah Gable, who stands at just 5-4 and weighs just 140 lb.
Gable, however, was named the Hornets’ offensive scout team player of the year last year. He graduated from Arletta High School in Los Angeles, CA while playing three varsity seasons where he compiled 2,747 rushing yards, 5,014 all-purpose yards and scored 69 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,617 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior to earn all-area and East Valley League MVP honors.
Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding season at Southern Utah after winning the league in 2015. However, the Thunderbirds narrowly missed the postseason again after finishing 6-5 overall. The current Thunderbird roster includes six returning starters on offense, eight on defense, and one on special teams. With 42 returning lettermen, SUU should be able to build on last year’s team.
One of the best Big Sky running backs last year in Malik Brown and notable wide receiver Mike Sharp both graduated, however, but senior-to-be quarterback Patrick Tyler will still be under center to provide the offense stability.
The breakout performer likely will come from the wide receiver position given the loss of Sharp. Snow (UT) Junior College transfer Alex Croyle will provide Tyler a new, explosive target. The junior-to-be was named as a two-time First Team All-Conference wide receiver and led the Western States Football League in receptions (49 for 620 yards and 4 TD).
UC Davis has yet to find Division I success after all sorts of Division II success (18 playoff appearances) before the Aggies moved up in 2003. UC Davis finished just 3-8 overall last year with just one win in league play. Former FBS Boise State and Colorado Coach Dan Hawkins takes over at his alma mater.
While Hawkins is known as being an offensive minded coach, the defensive side just might bring the bright breakout newcomer. Hawkins played fullback for legendary UC Davis head coach Jim Sochor from 1981-82 and played in the Aggies only Division II championship game in his senior season (a Aggie loss to now FBS Texas State (known as West Texas State at the time)).
The Aggies defense seemed to get better after the signing of Terrell Cloud, a two-time Los Angeles Valley (CA) Junior College Defensive Lineman of the Year. The junior-to-be made the All-American Pacific Conference second team as a freshman, then improved to first team as a sophomore. He also played for head coach Robert Tucker, who now is the Aggies’ defensive coordinator while totaling 9 tackles-for-losses, including 5 sacks in 2016.
The fourth and final playoff team in the Big Sky last year was Weber State. WSU lost at Chattanooga in the opening playoff round but still had a great, while mostly unexpected season in 2016 finishing 7-5 overall. This year, WSU has 35 players back that started at least one game last year so expectations are high in Ogden.
With so many starters returning, there may not be a lot of unexpected, breakthrough type performers but one that might stick out was a replacement last year in senior-to-be quarterback Stefan Cantwell, who will take over for graduated Jadrian Clark.
Cantwell played in nine games for the Wildcats last season although he was just 2-of-3 passing for 28 yards and one touchdown in the regular season. He did, however, throw a 21-yard touchdown pass in the playoff loss at Chattanooga. He also had 12 rushing attempts for 34 yards and a touchdown in that game. He does have a history of throwing though as he came to WSU after playing his sophomore campaign at Snow (UT) Junior College where he threw for 2,708 yards in 11 games with 22 touchdowns