Herald UND football mailbag: How the QB room stands, biggest improvements, biggest weakness, etc.

·10 min read

Feb. 15—Q. Has the offensive line improved? If so, in what way?

The offensive line really has the potential to be a strength this year, and I do think they've improved.

I think the biggest improvement is just in continuity and experience. It's Year 2 under new offensive line coach Joe Pawlak, and the group really seems to have gravitated to his approach.

It's also a really experienced core. You have returning starters in Kyle Hergel, Ryan Tobin, Donny Ventrelli and Matt Waletzko.

A healthy Waletzko is a pro-caliber left tackle, and we only were able to see him for half of a season last year. We sometimes think of Hergel and Ventrelli as veterans, but they were playing as redshirt freshmen a year ago.

UND loses Patric Rooney, who started most of the way last year at center. But you can counter that now with Nathan Nguon, who has started many games at all three line spots.

Add to that, UND's backup outside is experienced in Bennett Helgren and there's an option inside with Nebraska transfer Xavier Trevino.

If there's a concern, it's that the depth is still at least a year away from really being standout linemen. UND is really high on true freshmen Easton Kilty at tackle and Andrew Fenton inside.

Q. What is your gut feeling about the QB room?

My gut feeling is that the depth chart is unsettled.

I believe UND likes the progression of redshirt freshman Tommy Schuster and true freshman Quincy Vaughn, but they're freshmen.

There is so much we still don't know about them, and it's to a point where there's probably nothing more to glean from a practice setting.

We need to see game reps to shake it out.

Schuster and Vaughn are quite different. Schuster is 6-foot (according to a roster anyway), 195 pounds, while Vaughn is 6-4, 240. Schuster doesn't have a cannon arm, but he reads defenses well and can make good decisions. Vaughn has the cannon arm but hasn't shown the consistency to hit on all the shorter throws.

Another element we don't know really is Vaughn's level of escapability and feel for the pocket. He's not going to run around and be elusive like a Brock Boltmann, but he has a power element that reminds me of a Jake Landry, where I envision Vaughn to be very difficult to bring down.

Boltmann is clearly the wildcard, and I think UND will ride the hot hand to some extent. If his schtick is working, there are options to see it through. If it isn't, he's a very valuable No. 3 wide receiver.

Q. What's biggest strength and weakness of this team?

I think the biggest strength of this team is going to be the offensive line and secondary.

I noted UND's improvements on the offensive line earlier, and perhaps that leads to whether UND's biggest strength is in the backfield.

The Fighting Hawks lost James Johannesson to graduation but there are some really intriguing options there with a healthy Luke Skokna, an eligible Otis Weah and don't sleep on Dalton Gee.

In the secondary, Jordan Canady, Hayden Galvin, Evan Holm and C.J. Siegel is a great place to start. Add in the emergence of players like Kadon Kauppinen, Caleb Nelson and Sammy Fort and the defensive backfield is in the best place in years.

As for a weakness, you have to look at quarterback and depth at nose guard.

At quarterback, the weakness is mostly in the fact that there's almost no idea what to expect out of the options of Schuster/Vaughn/Boltmann, which I detailed in an earlier answer.

At nose guard, UND has Jalen Morrison but after that, the Hawks need another good body there. Does Elijah Beach emerge? Is Griffin Lickfeldt solid enough? Can Craig Orlando progress at a crazy rate to play as a rookie?

UND has searched for answers for a while now at nose. The Hawks need to find more of those Tank Harris body types.

Q. Biggest improvement from fall to spring camp?

I'll go with an individual player on this one.

Wide receiver Tyler Burian, a Grand Forks Red River product, looks like a new player out there from fall to spring.

He's always had the frame and the speed, but he struggled with confidence and pass catching.

A switch has flipped for Burian, and he's catching all sorts of 50-50 balls and really working well with wide receivers coach Sam King.

Burian's emergence is important as UND has a gap between veterans expected to star (Garett Maag, Jake Richter, Brock Boltmann) and rookie potential future stars (Marcus Preston, Bo Belquist, Jack Wright).

Q. Any talk about the extra year and if UND will be taking advantage? Any current seniors planning on playing again this fall?

That's a great question, and I don't know how much hand-tipping has taken place. Because it's a delicate situation.

In the fall, you've got a nearly full recruiting class coming to campus. Sure, it's a "free" year of eligibility, but the school still has to pay the bill.

So there might be some difficult conversations to take place about whether UND plans to honor the scholarships of super-seniors and so on.

I envision this offseason to be almost like a college hockey offseason, in that we're going to have to hear from guys announcing whether or not they're coming back. There's not going to be room for everyone.

It's going to be fun to follow.

Q. The run defense the last couple seasons has not been what it usually is. Do you think our defensive line can hold up against the MVFC offensive lines? Who do you see as potential hidden gems across the defensive line this season?

That's a great question. I'm not sure if we can know that yet. Like I mentioned earlier, I think nose guard depth is a concern.

At the same time, UND beat Montana State and nearly beat Weber State last year with the starting defensive line of Jaelen Johnson, Griffin Lickfeldt and Graham DeVore.

So, yes, UND loses Mason Bennett as a starter at defensive end, but there's still some talent there returning.

DeVore, especially, has really gotten bigger and stronger and has the potential to put together a big year.

Just like I pointed out about the offensive line being so young last year, Johnson was a freshman and DeVore was a sophomore. I think it's worth considering the additional value of starting now a sophomore and a junior. To go with that additional year of experience is the physical maturity bodies go through at that age in a Division I weights program.

As for hidden gems on the defensive line, I think that conversation starts with Luke Lennon and Craig Orlando. I think those are two future starters.

Lennon is starting to look the part, which is challenging when you come in out of high school and most guys are playing defensive end around 250 pounds.

Orlando has the tools. He just has a learning curve from transitioning from 9-man high school football, where he was playing all over the field and likely not much with his hand in the ground.

Quintin Seguin is also worth mentioning here. He's had a little experience, but he's probably been the most noticeable linemen at practice. We'll see if that translates to games.

Q. Is UND going to make an announcement soon on the new Memorial Stadium building?

I've reached out to UND a little in the last few weeks on this to see if I can get an update on timelines. They've said they're getting back to me, which I don't doubt. There are lots of moving parts there.

The university has recently coned-off an area of parking spaces around the stadium, but I don't know what that indicates yet exactly.

I'd also like to know how this project marries up with what has previously been thought of as Phase 2.

The Herald was told the plan includes football coaching offices, which is definitely a big part of HPC2.

Hopefully we can all know more soon.

Q. Is Otis Weah comparable to Brady Oliveira? If so, some compare and contrast would be interesting. Also curious to know who you think has the most potential at running back, and if you think Otis could be as good or better as Brady?

That's a good question. Anyone who has listened to my interviews over the last year or so probably knows I've been pumping Otis Weah's tires. I think he has a ton of potential.

In terms of comparisons to Oliveira, they're similar in having a power element to their game. Oliveira has a bigger frame, though, where Weah's really low to the ground and has more of surprising power.

I'm not sure if there's a comparison, although if anyone has seen highlights of UND running backs coach Robbie Rouse, I can see that comparison.

On the spot, the only comparison coming to mind, is maybe a more powerful Jer Garman — both shorter, tougher guys with some scoot.

It's tough to truly say how good Weah can be because I believe his biggest asset is his ability to break through tackles, and that's not really an element you get to see in a non-contact practice setting.

Q. Do you have predictions on freshmen and sophomores that will get extensive playing time?

On offense, anyone following my daily practice recaps has seen how impressed I've been with rookie wide receivers Bo Belquist and Marcus Preston.

UND will play Garett Maag, Jake Richter and Brock Boltmann most of the wide receiver reps, but I can see Preston and Belquist getting plenty of action.

Tight ends Adam Zavalney and Max Gunderson might be in the mix for playing time, too.

On defense, it's going to be tough to crack the regular two-deep if you're a young player — until injuries inevitably strike.

Like mentioned earlier, I anticipate Luke Lennon and Craig Orlando to emerge on the defensive line.

I also think Josh Navratil can earn some playing time at outside linebacker. One other name to watch is rookie Quinton Urwiler at outside backer. He can fly around and is already pretty physically put together.

Q. Is there a kicker that has stood out to you?

Another good question.

You might not like the answer but I think we can at least say there's considerable depth at that position finally.

Brady Leach, Brady Stevens and Adam Stage seem to take turns on standing out on a day-to-day basis.

My guess to start the season? Leach on field goals, Stevens on kickoffs and Stage waiting to pounce on his opportunity.

So to summarize, the group is in a better place, but I'm not ready to stick out my neck yet to say they're ready to excel. We'll see.

Q. Herald Sports receives a $300 gift certificate to Northern Air, but only the LAZER Tag. You are deemed captain but can only pick players from the team. 5 person teams (you+4 players). Who do you pick?

Strangest mailbag question of all time. Congratulations.

You have to pick at least a few guys with great elusiveness, so I'd start with Luke Skokna and C.J. Siegel.

After that, you're going to want guys with an edge so I'm going outside the ESPN Mock Draft and pick Kyle Hergel and Kadon Kaupinnen.