Matt Witwicki

2017 NSIC South Division Preview

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(Pictured: Max Mickey-USF, Kirby Hora-AU, Blake Gimbel-SMSU)
(Images courtesy of Argus Leader, Augustana Athletics, and SMSU Athletics)

South Overview

In my preview yesterday, I spoke to how the North looked like a 3 team race and how there appears to be drop off from there. In the South Division quite a few of the top playmakers from a year ago are now gone and the top programs in the conference are all breaking in a new signal-caller. With teams like USF, Augustana, Winona State, having to reboot their offenses a bit, it opens things up for mid-level squads like SMSU and Wayne State who are returning productive quarterbacks and other weapons.

The NSIC South should see an increase in parity for what’s already one of the more competitive divisions in the D2 landscape. Don’t be surprised to see the top half of the South beat up on each other quite a bit.

MSU Mankato
2016 Record: 8-3
Returning Starters: 6/6 (Offense/Defense)
Offense
With Mankato having used the two-headed-monster at quarterback for the better part of the three seasons, it does appear Head Coach Todd Hoffner is ready to land on just one signal-caller to run the Mavs offensive attack. Expect Ryan Schlichte (SO) to get the keys and for him to hit the ground running. Schlichte has been groomed for this role and after having a storied High School career in Mankato, and his looked very capable in spot duty a year ago. Schlichte will return of host of capable basketball player looking downfield targets, which should also make his transition into the starting lineup all the more smooth. The running game has oddly become a pain point for the Mavs, after being the gold standard for ground-n-pound in the NSIC. The MSU offensive line will need to step up and make space for USD transfer Nate Gunn (SO). Gunn is a 6’1 and 215lb runner that could be a sizeable addition to the Maverick offense. In watching Todd Hoffner squads, it’s easy to see that he likes to establish a power running game and I’d expect MSU to at least attempt to have that identity.
Defense
MSU still had a solid defense a year ago, but they weren’t among the best units in the conference, like with years past. However, Mankato returns two of the best defensive lineman in the conference with DT Zach Dodge (JR) and DE Evan Perrizo (SR). The pair combined for over 20 sacks and leads the top front in the conference. MSU will need to replace production in the middle of the defense, but returns solid starters like CB Larry Moore (SR) in the back half.
Outlook
The reason I’ve landed on Mankato in the top spot in the South is because I think the top 4 squads are similar, but that Mankato is a little more ready-made for offensive success and less likely to see growing pains during the first month of the season. If MSU can start to move in the direction of getting solid production at the running back spot, they could all the sudden become a handful. Defensively I don’t know if Mankato will be the best defense in the conference, but with the strong performers they return, the Mavs should be in the conversation.
Prediction
9-2

Sioux Falls
2015 Record: 12-1
Returning Starters: 4/5 (Offense/Defense)
Offense
The Cougars had an outstanding ’16 season and ran the ball as good as any team in the D2 landscape. Problem is the Cougars graduate star dual-threat quarterback Luke Papilion, 3 key offensive lineman, and 2 longtime starters at wideout. To add to the challenges offensively for the Cougars, wide receiver and return specialist Kyle Groeneweg transferred a month ago to the University of Iowa (being an Iowa kid), in hopes of finishing out his collegiate football career as a Hawkeye. This puts USF in a pickle, as they don’t return any wideouts that’ve caught more than a handful of passes as a Cougar. At this moment it would seem that the strong armed former San Jose State recruit Ian Fieber (JR) has the slightest of leads for the QB spot, with former Coo signal-caller from the past Matt Young (SR) still in the mix. With the experience that Young has, expect him to see time under-center as well, unless Fieber is simply a runaway success. Of course USF still has emerging superstar running back Max Mickey (SR), who was as good as anyone in the country last year. Mickey will be running behind a much less experienced O-line than a year ago, and without Papilion there as a threat in the running game as well, Max will likely be challenged to repeat the tremendous success of a year ago.
Defense
While the Cougars only return 5 starters on the defensive side of the ball, USF played the better part of 2 defensive groups a season ago, so they return a pretty seasoned bunch. Keep in mind, Sioux Falls was the second best defense in the NSIC a year ago. Michael Mehling came from nowhere in ’16 to became a top linebacker in the conference, and the Cougars are hoping that Michael Atonio (SR) can emerge for USF and help fill the void this fall. Atonio is a 5’9 and 238lb backer who is thumper that’ll help in the running game. Speaking of big hitters, Josh Butler (SR) will flank the back half of the Coo D, a spot that USF likes it’s depth. New arrival Noah St. Pierre (JR) will get a chance to prove himself early at corner, and has a much bigger 6’2 frame than his former Coo older brother.
Outlook
With defensive-minded Head Coach Jon Anderson taking over the reins of the Coo machine, and having a good amount of turnover on the offensive side of the ball, expect USF to be a little more conservative offensively, allowing their defense to help dictate the game. Putting the ball in the hands of their All American running back Max Mickey, while playing strong defense, would make a lot of sense. The Cougars should still be a solid team, but I don’t see them being as explosive offensively as they were the past few seasons with Papilion and the Rose/Angulo combination.
Prediction
8-3

Winona State
2016 Record: 8-3
Returning Starters: 6/7 (Offense/Defense)
Offense
Like many of the other top teams in the NSIC, the Warriors are tasked with replacing a top quarterback, running back, and wideout. The QB spot will be filled by longtime backup Darren Beenken (SR). The Senior signal-caller has a strong arm and should be a plug-and-play guy for Winona. At running back expect local product Eric Birth (JR) to split carries with Jalen Crum (SO), a transfer from St. Joseph’s College in Indiana, who no longer has a football program. Expect to see the continued maturation of Will Claussen (JR), and the emergence of Iowa State transfer Marley Allison (JR), who could be a difference maker in the Northern Sun. While the Warriors will have a fair amount of new players at key positions, they can count on an experienced returning offensive line.
Defense
Winona State fans should be excited about the Warriors returning a good portion of their league-best defense a year ago. Winona State will be led by a host of returning starters playing their final season with for Coach Sawyer. Mike Imperiale (LB), Michael Ferrante (DE), and Andrew Spencer (DB), are three of the better defensive players in the conference, and give the Warriors a very athletic defense.
Outlook
If WSU didn’t have a small level of uncertainty at their key skill positions offensively, I’d probably have them right up there with Mankato as the tops in the league. However, with the way the Winona defense has come on, and the guys they return, they could be a team to watch out if the offense can put it all together. Right now, with all the lost production offensively and the experience that went along with it, I have WSU back a few spots.
Prediction
7-4

Augustana
2016 Record: 7-4
Returning Starters: 7/10 (Offense/Defense)
Offense
Like other top teams in the NSIC South, the Vikings lose a longtime star signal-caller and star wideouts, and are now left to pick up the pieces. The loss of the Heid-Heller-Hayes combination puts Augie in a spot in which a lot of production will need to be made up. To add to this challenge was the departure of heir-apparent quarterback Chase Marso to Harvard Medical School. Enter Grad-transfer Ryan Rubley from the University of Tulsa. That name might ring a bell to some, as his father had a stint in the NFL. Ryan is a former track runner that moves well in the pocket and has a solid throwing arm. Rubley isn’t likely to scamper for big yards like Trey Heid did. He will be tasked with learning the offense in just the Spring and Fall time-frames before facing live bullets. The Vikings do return a host of receivers who’ve caught balls last season, but none with sizeable production. Don’t be surprised if the agile Sophomore wideout Jake Welsheimer steps up and becomes a household name for Augustana. The offensive line loses a few key starters, but returns one of the better lineman in the league with oft-injured Sam Lee (SR). If Lee can make it through his final year healthy, he might be getting looks to play on Sundays. However, the main focus for the Oline will to become more productive in the running game. Last year Trey Heid and his scrambling was the leading rusher for the Vikings. Certainly this isn’t a recipe for success, so expect Augie to try and make this a point of emphasis in ’17, especially with the breaking in of a new guy under center. Coach OJ likes his stable of running backs, and it might take a while for one to emerge, with a handful of guys getting a chance to carry the mail.
Defense
The Augustana D was fifth overall (points allowed) in the conference, but struggled against some of the better offenses in the league. New DC Jordan Malone has to like the fact his Vikings return 10 starters, including a very seasoned secondary. Problem is, the AU Defense produced a league-low 6 picks, which led to a negative turnover margin for the squad. The Vikings will be fairly young upfront, but Kirby Hora (JR) leads one of the top linebacker corps in the conference. Hora led the conference in tackles a season ago and is the heart and soul of the Augie team.
Outlook
Augustana is in a very similar situation to both USF and Winona, as they now live in the year after a program best quarterback graduates. Like with those other squads, I just don’t see how they’ll be as explosive and polished offensively while breaking in a new signal-caller and key skill players. The Vikings have been an offensive-first team for the better part of the last several seasons, but this year the Augie D might need to further assert itself and take advantage of all the returning starters.
Prediction
7-4

Southwest Minnesota State
2016 Record: 5-6
Returning Starters: 8/5 (Offense/Defense)
Offense
Mustang Nation must feel pretty good about the weapons they return offensively in Marshall. Blake Gimbel (SR) completed an eye-popping 69% of his throws, but overall the offense wasn’t as potent as years past due to a rash of injuries to key skill players. This year SMSU will return two very capable running backs in Sophomore Max Simmons (18 scores in ‘16) and Senior Ashanti Payne. The two should offer Southwest one of the best double-barrel rushing attacks in the Northern Sun. The Mustangs bring back Nate Huot who’s been their top receiver for years now. The offensive line will need to replace their tackles, but return veteran lineman in the middle.
Defense
No team in the conference has been more offense-heavy and defensively challenged during this recent period in the NSIC than SMSU. Unfortunately, with the loss of some of the key defensive players from a year ago, this could very well be the case again this fall. The Mustangs will be bigger upfront, but basically lose their secondary. Considering the Mustang D allowed 35ppg a season ago, replacing a secondary won’t help their cause.
Outlook
With all the changes occurring with the top teams in the South, it’ll be interesting to see if SMSU can power their way past teams that’re transitioning. My hunch is they will battle toe-to-toe with the better squads in the conference, but will need to once again win firefights to get the W. Blake Gimbel could have a monster year in this offense and could be one of the best all-time in Marshall when it’s all said and done.
Prediction
6-5

Wayne State
2016 Record: 3-8
Returning Starters: 9/8 (Offense/Defense)
Offense
With the Wildcats retuning 9 starters on offense, including their playmakers and a gun slinging quarterback, WSC should be ready to make a positive move in ’17. However, the Wildcats saw change in the offseason and will start the fall slate with 7 new coaches on the staff. Ben Curran (former UIU OC) is the new OC for the Wildcats and should help them in the way he did the Peacocks. Nate Rodgers (SR) is one of the top returning wideouts in the league and will be paired with longtime starting QB Zach Osborn. Each year there’s promise that Osborn will lead the program back to being an upper half squad. Unfortunately Osborn has taken a beating over his career at Wayne, and has amassed fairly inconsistent performance. If WSC can get the best from their high-ceiling quarterback, they could a far better campaign than recently seen. RB Rashad Trimble and his 6’1, 225lb frame, returns for his final season and will run behind 4 starters on the offensive line from a year ago. With all that the Wildcats bring back, one would think they’d easily eclipse their 25ppg output of a year ago.
Defense
The WSC defense brings back all 3 starting backers, but will need substantial improvement from a unit that allowed 33ppg in ’16.
Outlook
The Wildcats only graduated 5 Seniors a year ago, while returning 17 starters. One would think that means full step better than the previous season. I’ll go with that.
Prediction
5-6

Concordia
2016 Record: 2-9
Returning Starters: 10/7 (Offense/Defense)
Offense
The Golden Bear offense started off hot last year, but fizzled once hard times hit by mid-season. This isn’t surprising considering how young and inexperienced they were at many spots in the offense. QB Ron Johnson (SR) will seemingly get first shot at jumpstarting the offense, with Maxon Hutton (SO) to push Johnson for the lead role. Johnson had his moments a season ago, and can be a dual-threat player with his athleticism, but lacked consistency as the campaign moved along. The running back spot will see competition for carries, with the possibility of freshman getting action as well. The offensive line should be more seasoned than a year ago. Probably the best weapon the Golden Bears return is 6’5 playmaking wideout Marcus Gustaveson. The sophomore wideout has the ability to be a breakout star in the league and showed signs of that a year ago.
Defense
Craig Stern is the new DC for the Golden Bears. Stern will be a familiar face for those that’ve been around the program for a while, as he was Currier’s DC in his first run with Concordia. Since that time Stern was the Head Coach at St. Olaf for a 4 year window. During Stern’s time with CSP in years gone past, they were one of the better units in the conference. Coach Currier is very excited about being reunited with Stern and looks for him to bring an edge to the defense. CSP returns 7 starters, but will be very young in the secondary.
Outlook
Head Coach Shannon Currier has worked diligently at changing the culture at CSP during the last year and a half, including seeing major changeover with his roster. Star playmaker Alquawn Vickers is no longer with Concordia, and over 70% of the players on the current roster have come onboard since Currier took over. While I think Currier is making positive strides in rebuilding Concordia football, I feel that with all the turnover and youth, he’s probably a season away from seeing the Bears return to the middle of the pack.
Prediction
2-9

Upper Iowa
2016 Record: 3-8
Returning Starters: 4/6 (Offense/Defense)
Offense
With the departure of the very underrated QB Dimitri Morales, the Peacocks will give the keys to Brent Lammers. The backup during the past few years has shown solid, but not great production. Upper Iowa’s leading rusher from a year ago was the very quick Derrick Portis, but he’s since transferred to Ferris State. Portis had a big play burst that helped the UIU offense, so his departure creates a void. Ryan Parmely (JR) is more of a brut-back suited for the tough yards, so expect UIU to search for someone to give them speed in their running attack. The offensive line could see the need of freshman helping out, which means their depth could be an issue. New DC Mitchell Kleinschrodt will have his hands full, but he does return WR Jarred Edmonds (SR) who finished ’16 with 592 receiving yards and 7 scores.
Defense
UIU DC Jason Hoskins has left his post for a desk job, while DL Coach Justin Wyatt has been promoted to the Coordinator role. Coach Tom Shea is very high on Wyatt and is excited about the players the Peacocks are returning on defense. DE Jojo Simpson is a high energy player that was a second team all-league player a season ago, and was among leaders in tackles for loss. UIU also returns a few other all-NSIC defenders for what should be an defense that will likely improve on their 33ppg average of a year ago.
Outlook
A year ago I was asked who my “surprise team” was going to be, during a radio broadcast. Frankly, I didn’t see anyone as coming out of nowhere and having a big year, but I replied Upper Iowa. With the Peacocks returning some nice weapons offensively, I liked their chances to be explosive. They responded by going 3-8.
This year I’m kinda down on UIU. With the departure of key playmakers from the past few seasons, I’m just not seeing them having the firepower that drove their good years not all that long ago. Couple that with UIU’s challenges in getting good talent to land on Fayette Iowa, and I now have the Peacocks having another down year and regressing a bit.
Prediction
2-9

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Comments

  1. Andy Davis's Avatar
    Awesome work!