Herald UND football mailbag: Bison transfer impact, potential portal targets and crowded backfield

·9 min read

Apr. 6—GRAND FORKS — With the conclusion of the UND football team's spring practices, Herald beat reporter Tom Miller sat down to answer reader questions about the program.

Q. Which transfers make an impact right away?

A. North Dakota State transfer offensive lineman Seth Anderson, Cal Poly graduate transfer linebacker Aaron Cooper and junior college transfer cornerback Devin Hembry probably have the best chance to make an impact right away, based on what I've seen at spring ball.

That final sentence qualifier is important because I've yet to see Northern State transfer offensive lineman Jake Oliphant (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) practice and junior college transfer offensive lineman Brayden Bryant only had a couple of practices under his belt. Both players were sitting out with injuries.

Anderson has the potential to be a nice upgrade at guard for the Fighting Hawks if he continues to progress. As I've stated before, the buzz from Fargo surrounding Anderson's departure seemed to be that Anderson struggled to put on weight but his frame looked fine to me this spring and now he has four months to add to it.

Cooper looked exactly what you had hoped from a grad transfer — seasoned, athletic, smart. But he was banged up in one of the final practices and sat out the Spring Wrap last Saturday. UND has to hope there's good news there. Again, though, that's why you like to have spring ball early in the calendar so players can recover.

Hembry has a tougher adjustment than Cooper because he's coming from the junior college ranks. In terms of athleticism and body type, Hembry is what UND is looking for at corner. He looks a lot like C.J. Siegel, who will start at corner on the other side.

Hembry still has a lot to prove, but he has as good of a shot as anyone to see the field with Siegel in 2022.

Q. Who wins the future QB battle — Moorhead's Trey Feeney or Perham's Colton Hackel?

A. That's a tough question considering I haven't seen Colton Hackel in green yet. I know the staff has felt like Hackel, a walk-on prospect from Perham, is a diamond in the rough and possesses excellent athleticism.

I'm still having a tough time grading Feeney's career path in Grand Forks. He's still really young, but I'm also not sure he's really pushing to start in 2022.

By all accounts, Feeney is a terrific teammate and leader, and I've seen his precision. Feeney is a different type of quarterback than most in UND's system right now in that UND would probably utilize him more in a true pocket, whereas Tommy Schuster, Quincy Vaughn and Simon Romfo might be asked to do more moving around.

Arm strength and mobility are probably the two factors holding me back from claiming Feeney as the no-doubt QB of the Future. However, he's young. There's still lots of time for progress.

Q. Which player on the defense will make the biggest jump this fall?

A. I could be boring and give you a safer answer, but I'll take a darkhorse. I like the progress of inside linebacker Wyatt Pedigo, a sophomore from Hoisington, Kan.

He's a little undersized at 6-foot, 230 pounds, but he and Kason Kelley are showing signs of breaking through.

Pedigo was an absolute beast in high school, rushing for 2,352 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior.

UND's starters at inside linebacker will probably be Devon Krzanowski and Caden White. With Noah Larson out of the picture for the first time in five years, Pedigo and Kelley are next in line to push for playing time.

Q. If you were a coach, what would you be looking for in the transfer portal to bring in immediate impact to the team?

A. I'd look at safety, center and running back.

At safety, UND lost to graduation starters Hayden Galvin and Jordan Canady. To replace those two, UND has Kadon Kauppinen, Sammy Fort, Ethan Ball and Jayson Coley (didn't practice during spring).

Northern State 6-foot-4 transfer defensive back Hunter Hansen is also a curious piece who could fit in the mix at safety.

UND needs someone from that group to emerge at safety. But even with a nice in-house improvement, the Fighting Hawks could go for an older safety with seasoning.

At center, UND lost Babak Ghadaksaz to graduation after his one year coming over from Portland State. With Grand Forks' Peyton Lotysz still injured, UND has been running freshman Danny Carroll at center. UND's staff really likes Carroll, but you'd think he'd be a better fit to start in 2023 or 2024.

A running back transfer is less of a dire need but worth monitoring the options. With Otis Weah out of the picture, UND turns to Luke Skokna, Isaiah Smith and Gaven Ziebarth. Creighton Mitchell could also be coming back from injury.

That's a pretty good group but if there's a drop-down back looking for more playing time, I'd give it a long look.

Q. Have there been any discussions about when the Fritz Pollard Jr. Athletic Center Phase II will break ground?

A. There has been no official word on Phase II, although UND officials indicated to me when Memorial Stadium was being razed that fundraising efforts were doing well.

In the short term, I'm more curious when ground will break on Memorial Village across the football field from Phase II.

When I asked around during spring football, nobody had a definitive timeline for me. I still expect that project to move forward this spring, though.

Q. The running back room is pretty crowded with Skokna, Smith, Ziebarth and Mitchell. Which back breaks through as the go-to guy?

A. That's a great question. I envision Skokna and Mitchell really utilized in the passing game, assuming Mitchell returns to health. So in terms of the every-down back between the tackles, you could make a strong case for both Smith and Ziebarth.

Smith has some elite cutting ability and burst, but he's also been injured frequently the last few years. Ziebarth might lack the flash, but he seems to be a tough, durable runner.

If you made me bet money today on who leads the team in carries in 2022, I'd say Ziebarth and now that I type that, it almost seems like a bold take.

Q. Will the Bison transfers have an impact?

A. UND now has three North Dakota State transfers in offensive lineman Seth Anderson, running back Grant Romfo and defensive end Bartholomew Ogbu.

Anderson has been running with the UND starters on the offensive line, and I fully expect the Moorhead product to be a difference-maker for UND in 2022.

Romfo is a walk-on after a fantastic prep career at Langdon-Edmore-Munich. He joins his twin brother Simon Romfo, who's at quarterback for the Hawks.

UND has been happy with Simon at quarterback so far. He's not that far behind the scholarship quarterbacks, in fact.

I'm not sure Grant will impact UND at running back or not. It's going to take time if so. I could see Grant making an impact on special teams in a year or two, though.

Ogbu just committed to UND at the conclusion of spring ball. The former Shiloh Christian star in Bismarck has a fantastic build and will look the part on Day 1.

It's tough to say how he'll fit in without seeing him practice yet. I'd say from a recruiting standpoint, though, Ogbu is a nice fit as a regional prospect with a college-ready body who can fill the void of outgoing transfer Quintin Seguin, who has committed to Charleston Southern.

Q. I haven't seen a recent roster, so I'm wondering which players put on the most weight since last fall?

A. Without looking at a roster and comparing weights myself, I'll give you two names off the eye test that are clearly transforming their builds between seasons.

On offense, Mandan's Elijah Klein, finally healthy after two hip surgeries, is practicing consistently and putting on weight.

On defense, Malachi McNeal, a redshirt freshman out of Illinois, is starting to look like a Division I inside linebacker. According to the recruit ranking service 247sports, McNeal is the highest-rated recruit UND has ever landed (ahead of No. 2 Quincy Vaughn and No. 3 Zeke Ott).

Q. What's Quincy Vaughn's role this season? More than QB?

A. That's so tough to say at this point because this would've been a really important spring for Vaughn to showcase why UND should question the starting quarterback job in 2022.

However, Vaughn didn't practice all spring ball due to an illness.

The past two seasons, Vaughn has shown he can provide athleticism and leadership, and if he can prove he can consistently make the medium-to-short throws, UND will seriously consider him as a starter.

Q. What is the likelihood Tommy Schuster is not the starting QB in 2022?

A. The odds are certainly in favor of Schuster maintaining his starting role in 2022.

I'll also add, though, that I don't think it's a slam dunk.

If Trey Feeney, Quincy Vaughn or Simon Romfo (darkhorse but not complete lunacy on my part) pop at fall camp, I think UND would consider a change. I feel more strongly about that for fall camp in 2022 than I did in 2021.

Q. Who's the one player this spring who didn't play much last year that impressed you the most?

A. I've pumped his tires all spring, so why stop now? I have to say Nate DeMontagnac at wide receiver. Quincy Vaughn's prep teammate in Canada is having a breakout spring.

In the fall, DeMontagnac lacked confidence and was prone to drop some balls. This spring, I'm seeing a different player. He's confident and explosive.

This is a key development for the Fighting Hawks, who badly need a third or fourth wide receiver to step in to help Garett Maag and Bo Belquist.