2021 CSJ FCS Independent Spring Football Preview

CSJ’s Predicted Order of Finish

1. Tarleton State
2. Dixie State

Before Division II move-ups Tarleton State and Dixie State play their first Division I game, the two have endured much before that first D-I snap.

First, the two teams had to endure their first fall not being played.

In addition, both schools did not know which conference their football teams would call home once they met the Division I eligibility. Both schools had accepted bids to join the Western Athletic Conference, but the WAC did not sponsor FCS football.

That is until the WAC this past January of 2021 announced it will again play football at the FCS level starting in the fall of 2021. As a part of this announcement, Dixie State and Tarleton State will join four Texas based schools previously from the Southland Conference in Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State, and Stephen F. Austin, along with one Big Sky team that is near Dixie State in Southern Utah. (SUU will not join the league until 2022.)

The seven schools will make-up the WAC along with non-football playing schools Seattle, California Baptist, Grand Canyon, Utah Valley State, and Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), along with FBS football independent New Mexico State. UTRGV is also exploring adding football and reports it could begin play in 2023 or 2024. (Former non-football playing member Chicago State will leave the league following next season as well.)

Since the two new D-II teams that are playing this spring as Independents will not count as Division I schools , the WAC would need more established D-I schools to get an automatic bid for the fall 2021 season. To do that, there are also reports that the WAC and Atlantic Sun conference (who is also starting FCS football in the fall) are scheming to combine force in order to qualify for a NCAA FCS Division I playoff spot. The teams in question are future Atlantic Sun teams Central Arkansas, Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky.

But enough about the future and back to present of this 2021 spring play. 

Tarleton State will play eight games including the first spring game of the season in hosting the Southland’s McNeese State on Feb. 13. Dixie State will play six games this spring. The two teams will play each other twice, as well as the lone FBS team playing this spring in New Mexico State. TSU will play four D-II teams, while DSU will play two D-II opponents this spring.

Tarleton State seems like the stronger of the two teams as the Texans had an undefeated 11-0 D-II season in 2019 but were upset in the D-II playoffs by former Lone Star Conference rival Texas A&M-Commerce in the first round. Dixie State finished 8-3 and missed out on the D-II playoffs after finishing third in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference behind the two RMAC teams that made the postseason in Colorado School of Mines and Colorado State-Pueblo.

2019 NCAA Division II Playoff Results

First Round

Texas A&M Commerce 23 #2 Tarleton State 16

Top Independent Games of Spring 2021

The two lone independent schools get a chance to meet each other twice this spring and both get a chance to knock off an FBS opponent with both playing at New Mexico State, who will soon be their rival in all other WAC sports.  Those four games are the highlight of this spring. 

  • Feb. 20 – Tarleton State at New Mexico State
  • Feb. 27 – Dixie State at Tarleton State
  • Mar. 6 – Dixie State at New Mexico State
  • Mar. 13 – Tarleton State at Dixie State

Here is the countdown of the two FCS Independent teams:

2. Dixie State Trailblazers

Coach: Paul Peterson (Second Season, 8-3 @ DSU, 26-7 overall)

Offensive Coordinator: Kelly Bills
Defensive Coordinator: Tyler Almond
Stadium: Greater Zion Stadium (10,500 capacity)

Location: St. George, Utah
2019 Record: 8-3 (7-3 DII Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference)

Five best returning players: QB Kody Wilstead, TE Chase Hess, WR Jalen Powell, OL Nathen Aceves, DL Dylan Hendrickson

The Trailblazers in the last D-II season were in the first season under Coach Paul Peterson and actually finished with their best win total of eight in the 14 years of being Division II. Prior to that, Dixie State was a junior college so from 2006 to now this school has moved to Division I.

QB Kody Wilstead

The team this spring brings back seven starters on each side of the ball.  Redshirt junior QB Kody Wilstead will lead the offense after his 2019 debut.  Wilstead threw for just 1,640 yards but had 18 touchdowns.  His main two targets are also back in two seniors in TE Chase Hess and WR Jalen Powell.  Hess hauled in 23 catches for 354 and a team high seven scores, while Powell is leading returning receiever after catching 44 passes for 557 yards and five touchdowns in 2019. 

The offensive line will be headed by senior Nathen Aceves, who was a second team All-RMAC member in 2019.  He and his offensive line teammates helped produce an offense that racked up over 5,000 yards in their 11 games last year, including over 1,600 on the ground. 

The Trailblazer defense will be headed by junior defensive lineman Dylan Henderickson, who was an RMAC-honorable mention performer in 2019.  In that last season, he set the school record for sacks on the season (10), as well as in a game (4.5).   He finished with 38 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss as well in 2019.

Dixie State should be good in the kicking game with seniors PK James Baird and P Keaton Mott. Baird broke two DSU single season records for made field goals and PATs. He made 11-of-13 field goals and 42-of-45 PATs and was named the first team all-RMAC in 2019. Mott averaged 38.1 yards per punt and also had a big role as the back-up quarterback, where he threw for 1,274 yards and 10 scores.

Dixie State

1. Tarleton State Texans

Coach: Todd Whitten (11th Season, 79-37 @ TSU, 104-65 overall)

Offensive Coordinator: Jonathan Beasley & Scott Carey
Defensive Coordinator: Marcus Patton
Stadium: Memorial Stadium (12,000 capacity)

Location: Stephenville, Texas
2019 Record: 11-1 (8-0 D-II Lone Star Conference)

Five best returning players:  WR J.F. Thomas, OG Kendall Dearth, DL Jordan Wells, LB Ronnell Wilson, CB Devin Hatford

The first year for Tarleton State as a D-I member will be somewhat of a rebuilding season. The Texans are coming off an undefeated regular season but were knocked off in the D-II playoffs last year in the first round of the postseason by now former conference mate Texas A&M-Commerce. That team had five players named to the d2football.com All-American team including RB Daniel McCants, WR Zimari Manning, DB Prince Robinson, DL B.J. Jefferson, and QB Ben Holmes.

But the cupboards are not completely bare despite losing those five talented players.  The offense will need to find a new quarterback but will have two skill players and two strong offensive linemen in front of him. 

RB Kahil Banks

Senior RB Kahlil Banks had 112 rushing attempts and racked up 644 yards and nine touchdowns in a backup role last year and will look to be the lead back this spring. WR J.F. Thomas was also the second-best receiver on the team last year but still was in the top five in the Lone Star Conference for receiving touchdowns (6), receiving yards (737), and yards per reception (20.47). And to top that off, he had his best game for the Texans with 196 yards on just seven catches in the team’s 37-26 upset win over D-I and soon-to-be conference mate Stephen F. Austin in the season opener of 2019.

The offensive line will be headed by Kendall Dearth and Zach Perry.  The two were all-conference linemen for the Texan offense that ranked second in all of Division II in total offense (531.7 ypg) last season. The duo also helped Tarleton to a No. 4 national rank in scoring offense (45.0 ppg), as well as top-25 rankings in tackles for loss allowed and sacks allowed per game. 

The defense for the Texans has a number of key returnees including six players that are spread across all three defensive areas. 

The defensive line will be anchored by Jordan Wells and Chris Radford.  Wells was the Lone Star Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2019, while Radford had an injury plagued 2019 season and will look to be the All-Conference performer he garnered after the 2018 season. 

The linebackers will be headed by a duo of Ronnell Wilson and Erick Willis.  The duo had career years in their junior seasons of 2019.  Wilson is the one returning All-American performer on the team after making 81 stops, while Willis had a breakout season with 10 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. 

CB Devin Hatford

The secondary also has two stars returning in FS Benjie Franklin and CB Devin Hatford. Franklin stepped into the starting role last year at free safety and turned in an All-Lone Star Conference performance with 38 tackles and four interceptions. Hatford had an injury plagued 2019 and cost him the whole season but on the bright side, he will get to play is senior season due to the injury redshirt. He was a 2018 All-American performer and in his career, he has played in 37 games and made 168 tackles, including 119 solo, while forcing six interceptions and defending 39 passes.

Tarleton State

DateEventVenueMatch Day
McNeese State 40, Tarleton State 37 (2OT)
Memorial Stadium (Tarleton State)
Stephenville, TX
Tarleton State 43, New Mexico State 17
Sun Bowl Stadium
El Paso, TX
Dixie State at Tarleton State
Memorial Stadium (Tarleton State)
Stephenville, TX
Mississippi College at Tarleton State
Memorial Stadium (Tarleton State)
Stephenville, TX
Tarleton State at Dixie State
Greater Zion Stadium
St. George, UT
Midwestern State at Tarleton State
Memorial Stadium (Tarleton State)
Stephenville, TX
Northeastern State at Tarleton State
Memorial Stadium (Tarleton State)
Stephenville, TX
East Central at Tarleton State
Memorial Stadium (Tarleton State)
Stephenville, TX

CSJ 2021 Spring Preseason FCS Independents Players of the Year

Offense

J.F. Thomas, WR, Tarleton State, Sr.

Defense

Ronnell Wison, LB, Tarleton State, Sr.

Special Teams

James Baird, PK, Dixie State, Sr.

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